Rough Guide to Electronic Body Music
Kai Daniel Malloy
Back to the present, and I have since inquired as to what all the racket was – a host of music genres that jarred yet enticed, of which Electronic Body Music particularly stood out for me. But what is it exactly? Developing in the early 1980s, EBM is a music genre that fuses elements of dance and industrial, identifiable by its pummelling basslines, sequenced synths and ‘factory ambience’ created by samples ranging from clanging metal and blaring sirens to guttural
An overcast evening in the mid-noughties: muffled industrial noise seeps through a crack in the door, filling my room with a spill of mechanical sounds. Metallic clanging, the judder of a pneumatic drill, hoarse shouts in an aggressive tongue. It smacks of the clangour of the construction site that our flat overlooks. Mum was playing her music again…
screams and shouts. Through its use of symbolism, EBM often appropriated radical communistand totalitarian imagery to comment on themes such as the plight of the working class, the imminence of transhumanism, and general machismo attitudes. It’s not all gloom and doom, however. Despite its severe first impressions, EBM is also an incredibly lively and danceable genre. In this article, I have outlined ten of the style’s more accessible tracks that will hopefully demonstrate its often fun and frolicsome quality, and inspire you, as Nitzer Ebb aptly put it, to ‘Join the Chant’!
Hot on Heels of Love - Throbbing Gristle (1979)
Precursors to the EBM movement, Throbbing Gristle spearheaded the industrial genre, and influenced countless other experimental styles with their caustic electronic sounds. The English quartet are best known for their drolly titled LP, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, and from it, this track – ‘Hot on Heels of Love’. Warping, jittery synths, twinkling bells and abrupt thwacking percussion wraps around sultry vocals reciting the track’s title in this trippy number.
Attack Ships on Fire - Revolting Cocks (1986)
Something of a side project for American industrial group Ministry, Revolting Cocks are known for,
as their name suggests, an air of seediness within their turbulent sound. ‘Attack Ships on Fire’ from their debut Big Sexy Land embodies this to the utmost – from the sleazy, thrumming bassline to the distorted wails and grumbles spat over clattering drums.
Sensoria - 7” Version - Cabaret Voltaire (1984)
Initially inspired by the distorted, cockeyed ethos of the English DIY scene, pioneering experimental outfit Cabaret Voltaire steadily evolved into a group who produced streamlined, danceable electronic tracks. Club mainstay ‘Sensoria’, in its meld of raucous percussion, perky synth breakdowns and jangly guitar riffs, strikes a balance between lively and leftfield.
Everyday Is Like Halloween - Ministry (1987)
Whilst Ministry later became associated with the harsh guitar noise of industrial metal, the outfit were adherents to the synth during their early years, establishing a grooving, melodic brand of EBM. ‘Everyday Is Like Halloween’ is driven by a traipsing synth refrain and persistent thumping percussion, over which moody murmurs meander to create a downcast yet danceable track.
Glass Houses - Skinny Puppy (1984)
Dark and gothic Canadian group Skinny Puppy’s mastery of sampling and synthlines culminate in a brand of industrial music that is equal parts dismal and dancey – a brand noted for thrumming rhythms overlaid with gnarled, growling vocals. Early release ‘Glass Houses’
embraces this murky quality in its use of sparse, thudding drumbeats, tinny synths and hoarsely croaked lyrics.
Sado-Masodub - Einstürzende Neubauten (1981)
As innovators of industrial, German collective Einstürzende Neubauten perhaps embrace the genre’s ethos in its purest form, using found objects - ranging from construction hardware to sheets of metal, rusty pipework and shattered glass - to produce their mechanical racket driven by crashing percussion, fuzzy noise and tinny screeches. ‘Sado-Masodub’ from their early album Kollaps is the most abrasive track on this list, comprising pure machine-driven noise akin to clanging steel and whirring engines.
The Gun - D.A.F. (1987)
Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (or D.A.F.) started off as a discordant industrial noise project and slowly morphed into a paired-back yet brooding two-piece, who made heavy use of repeated synth sequences, persistent drum machine and dour murmurings to entrance queer German dancefloors. Coining the term ‘Electronic Body Music’ to refer to their brand of sound, later releases such as ‘The Gun’ still echo this original, innovative style. In this track, robust bass synths and brooding vocals are driven by the beat of an unrelenting drum machine.
All Saints Day - Severed Heads (1988)
Australian experimental outfit Severed Heads took inspiration from not only a myriad of electronic styles, but also a range of media forms, from found sound and looped samples to
feedback and white sound. These coalesce in a groove-heavy, otherworldly brand of glitching EBM. ‘All Saints Day’ offers a more commercial take on the genre, with grooving basslines, hazy synths and wistful vocals at the fore.
U-Men - Front 242 (1982)
Fusing industrial abrasion with electronic danceability, Belgian group Front 242’s brand of off-kilter synth pop, whilst growing increasingly terse and bullish towards the nineties, started out as a project defined by spacey, scattering hooks. Perhaps the most revered producers of EBM, even these earlier tracks, such as ‘U-Men’, embody the genre fully in their machine-like danceability. This track in particular makes striking use of buoyant synth refrains, clashing percussion and electronic screeches to achieve its mechanised sound.
Murderous - Nitzer Ebb (1987)
Arguably EBM’s most influential exponent, Nitzer Ebb produced a brand of caustic yet catchy English electronic, heavily influenced by the anarchic ethos of the new-wave and punk scenes of Western Europe. Noted for their appropriation of authoritarian iconography, Ebb’s music comprised cutting synth refrains and machinery samples overlaid with dictatorial chants and growls. No more is this evident than in their 1988 album That Total Age, from which ‘Murderous’ is lifted – a track propelled by jittery sequencers, clamouring drums and rousing, chant-like vocals.
If you're a music fan and would like to put together your own rough guide to a genre, city, country or artist, please get in touch to contribute to this series: firstname.lastname@example.org. The collection will be put together and published as a print zine by the end of the academic year.