Combichrist – music review

Combichrist – music review

Combichrist has been making industrial music since Andy LaPlegua started working as a solo electronic artist with the very experimental The Joy of Gunz. The second album, Everybody Hates You, is a landmark for the genre and has some of the most memorable electronic songs ever created. The same can be said of Icon of Coil which also involved him and was an industrial club standard during its time and still sees some amazing reunions in Europe. Some years back, Andy decided to move towards industrial metal and enhance the live shows with other band members. Now industrial metal Combichrist has been going strong for years with Eric 13 on guitar and formerly with Joe Letz on drums for many years. Other collaborators have included second drummer Nick Rossi, former guitarist Abbey Nex, keyboardists Zmarr and Elliott Berlin, and new drummers Will Spod and Dane White. Everyone who has been part of the band has done serious work in gothic and industrial music, and the live sound has become a powerful, drum heavy, ferocious attack on every venue they play.

The recent This Is Where Death Begins finds the band using a balanced mixture of electronics and traditional instruments that combines industrial metal with the earlier sound. After seeing them several times, their show last year at the Oriental in Denver was one the best and has just been following by a mind blowing show at Marquis Theater with the two new drummers supporting the forthcoming One Fire album, which is discussed below. Elliott on keyboards for the show at the Oriental gave the band a return of synthesizers that really elevated the songs, and Nick played second drums against Joey, giving them a ferocious attack. Andy got to use the wider stage at that venue for the running around he likes to do, and Eric headed into the audience with his guitar and was completely in his element. I caught Nick after he stage dived, and Andy’s love for running across the stage worked incredibly well with the wide stage design. This venue has seen lots of industrial and gothic shows and hosted some of Denver’s best shows last year, including Combichrist, The Crüxshadows, ohGr, Killing Joke, Clan of Xymox, and VNV Nation with some of their best ever shows. The wide stage and shallow depth of the floor in front make for a perfect environment for goth performances, and bands like Combichrist that interact well with their audiences benefit from this.

Classic

The classic electronic songs sound especially different live, because Andy gives lots of freedom to his instrumentalists in interpreting them. So evolving lineups sound especially exciting, and the dual drummers with spooky 80s sounding keyboards felt a lot like being both pummeled and elevated by industrial sounds with unexpected changes throughout the show that keep the music alive and new. Andy is one of the best performers in music. He gets totally transformed by the songs during a show and is able to interact with his audience without missing a beat and tends to elevate his performances as the shows get more interactive through the night.

The background for his band is very interesting, because it was originally a pure electronic project that he created entirely himself from Norway. Then he moved to America and got interested in using industrial metal to fill out a more powerful live lineup. The first album like that was for a video game, but the importance of Norwegian black metal obviously filters its way into this. Metal is a haven for dark sounds and similar themes to industrial, and the experiment of fusing this with the early electronic albums has been a good one. It also makes a lot of practical sense, because Combichrist always draws large crowds, and having a top notch live band makes that easier than industrial acts that perform with far less, sometimes only a laptop and a singer in the case of the most underground electronic artists. Andy has managed to grow the Combichrist audience with his excellent live band, and he has also managed to solidify the industrial scene with this. It makes him the best industrial artist to see live along with Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.

with Andy LaPlegua of Combichrist

At first, the shift to industrial metal seemed like an abrupt change, but this quickly turned into a nice balance of electronics with instruments, and the skill of Joe Letz as a drummer upped the band’s rhythm game. He was a fixture with Andy of live Combichrist for many years, and Eric 13 came in with playing that shifts a bit from show to show and is very interactive with the audience to keep the band unique. He’s not the most predictable guitarist and plays with nice classic influences, and Andy seems to love mixing industrial music with rock tradition for industrial metal and having the shows surprise people. With the importance of some great industrial metal bands like Ministry and the prominence of black metal in Norway, it’s great to see electronic and Norwegian themes built into that newer format.

Classic songs like Blut Royale always get heavy attention at performances, and they count as unique recreations in the live format. This frees up the band to play richer shows than a lot of industrial musicians get to perform, because the creative use of electronic production can become limiting for many musicians with their live show. Combichrist is able to recreate their most classic electronic songs into brutal but fun and still danceable chaotic attacks. Their shift to this format actually got me going to more metal shows, and the themes and musicianship in important dark styles of metal create a wonderful dialogue with industrial music. It also leaves the audiences interesting and harder to predict. Combichrist fans are very nice, and I know what to expect with them, but it is hard to know when a show will have more people who want to dance, or more who want to mosh, or more who want to stand focused on every moment of the band.

Audience interaction is a big part of gothic music. It’s more of a community than a place for bands to play to spectators, and this makes it a much more legitimate form of art and a serious home for underground and subversive creativity. Rock managed to implode itself by being too big and too commercial with the best bands ending up in chaos like the last days of The Beatles. Then record companies managed to control everything into highly produced packaging, and it has overall led to recycled and predictable sounds that are very commercially managed. Gothic and industrial have subverted this and remain strange and underground with serious experiments that defy expectations, with Combichrist being a stalwart of that.

Art

Elements of surrealist and dada art work their way into the industrial genre as does psychedelia and abject themes. These are important influences, because art does best when it deals with different perceptions and things left outside of the norm or otherwise buried. This can provide different perspectives that are very unique, and it can also point to important social elements such as why society chooses to ignore or push aside some ideas. Particularly in the mechanistic workings of industrial music, this can shine a light on how certain social configurations are constructed and can also help to break them apart. Surrealism cuts underneath normality by showing us how dreams and the unconscious shape ourselves and our surroundings. As an outgrowth of Freudian thinking and the linguistic versions of that, surrealism allows for industrial music’s focus on sexual themes in songs to make a lot of sense. It explains how they are able to do something artistically important while also making for fun clubbing. 

Combichrist songs focus on why people think the way they do about many of the most controversial things such as sex, guns, war, and power. While many people shy away from deep controversial topics, Andy probes them and makes them into art that is very much alive. Now that he lives in America, the importance of the rock tradition in dealing with those themes is even more important, and songs about things that sound offensive are more often meant to be ironic or to force people to think differently or simply open them up to fun clubbing by embracing absurdity.

with Joe Letz of Combichrist

Seeing Abbey and Zmarr and eventually Joey leave the band was unfortunate, but the evolving lineup remains amazing, and they both went on to important things in industrial with Abbey founding Abbey Death Band along with Valerie Gentile Abbey, and Zmarr played completely epic shows with PIG for The Gospel tour, which I still think is Raymond Watts’ best album and one of the most important works in industrial music. Joey now plays drums for Daniel Graves in the very important Aesthetic Perfection. Having all of those bands hold ties to Combichrist makes industrial music even more fun as a shared art scene for subversive and intelligent ideas, and the reality is that the band is always really Andy.

He writes the albums by himself. So every bit of every song is his creation, but he assembles evolving lineups of excellent musicians to put their hearts into the band and create beautiful live versions of those songs and completely epic shows. Andy is always the core of the band, and he is able to bring musicians through his band with the vision remaining completely intact. The result is that shows are a bit unpredictable and leave some excitement over the sound of each tour. There is something deeply industrial about being able to play the same songs so many ways. The ideas remain, but the building of sounds mechanistically from elements transmutes from show to show, and the One Fire Tour is a stunning current example of exactly that.

Songs

A lot of his songs focus on love over superficiality and rebellion against corruption. My Life My Rules from This is Where Death Begins brings this out nicely. The song is about owning oneself and being responsible for and in control of the short time of being alive. It is also heavily opposed to oppression and facades. Skullcrusher focuses on corruption and social collapse with the refrain, “You son of a bitch, you must be kidding, serving this pile of crap. I’m not forgiving you. Goddamit, you’re only holding me back.” Don’t Care How You Feel About It sounds like classic Combichrist and has Andy talking over the song with commentary, while Homeward finds him singing with Ariel Levitan. This reminds me of the early MXMS song, The Run, with it’s refrain of, “I’m just a girl, and I want to go home.” Andy sings about going homeward as a result of surrounding things collapsing, but collapse can be constructive, especially with the many breakdowns heard in industrial songs.

Existentialism and deconstruction as European intellectual movements pervade industrial music, filtered through the large varieties of art and ideas that those perspectives have infiltrated. In the case of Combichrist, the idea of owning one’s existence is always central, and it’s often achieved through a breakdown of superficiality and artifice. These fundamental ideas of a focus on existence and its limits and the breaking of constructed artifices are massive cultural themes throughout the arts, and Andy’s work has managed to create some of the compelled perspectives on these things. While I do think IAMX has some of the most probing examinations of existence, they can’t touch Combichrist at examining the frequent theme of breakage that is so important to industrial music, and where Chris Corner finds intelligent doubt and confusion as his songs examine human existence, Andy finds resolution and the need to be fiery about making our own meaning. Instead of wandering around aimlessly and reveling in being lost, Combichrist would have us make ourselves into something profound and forceful and live instead of moping. Both bands are artsy, but Combichrist stands out as a fierce statement about responding to so many existential questions by living, and the very serious embrace of life in many ways sets the project apart from the rest of the gothic scene which tends to be fun and experimental but often also veering on being depressed and withdrawn. 

Of the old era, Today We Are All Demons stands out for me as my longtime favorite. Industrial classics like All Pain Is Gone take aggrotech to an aggressive level that manages to be beautiful and psychological at the same time. Andy’s best songs have a combination of aggression and independence and also an elegiac sense of beauty. He will complain about corruption and having to fight it but also encourage seeking out good things and supporting the most positive parts of the world, other people, and oneself. It seems a bit like being forged by fire into a new freedom that overcomes negativity, and the solution to problems is always to take control and to live well with other people.

He has one of the best aggressive voices in music, because his vocals have an electric sounding edge to them that blends incredibly well with industrial production, and he is able to transition fluidly between powerful screams and real singing. This fits the band’s overall message of seeking beauty and love while being aggressive and not accepting oppression or falsity. Many of the songs are breakdowns of society, technology, corruption, and facades. Some of those facades are common negative tendencies in people, and some are socially produced problems, like oppressive and corrupt governments and industries.

With the song All Pain Is Gone, there is clear adversity in the lyrics which is then overcome by a new awareness, lack of pain, and refusal to accept oppression. Sent to Destroy is a masterwork with one of the most astounding cacophonies of electronic beats that industrial music has created. It’s a play on the apocalyptic end of the world, but like most of the best Combichrist songs it runs in two different directions. The song can be read as an absurd complaint about the apocalyptic society that it is describing, suggesting the need to replace a decrepit society that is leading itself to nuclear war rather than merely being about a nuclear apocalypse. The ironic calm keyboard at the end of the song serves to emphasize this.

The song Scarred reaches beauty with its chant of, “The rain will wash me away. All structures collapse. Nothing covers my grave. Only destruction remains.” Destruction is twisted into cleansing and positivity found in the transience of the world, and the album subverts destructiveness into being so pointless that nothing will be left. This is made clear on The Kill V2 as the next song on the album. It then transitions into mental liberation with Get Out of My Head, where the real challenge is to overcome destructiveness by fighting corruption and oppression within oneself to become positive with other people. Today We Are All Demons then expresses damage to the soul from superficial nonsense, showing a need to improve ourselves as an elegy for broken humanity, a call for fighting to fix it and to improve oneself through the struggle.

Combichrist is very foundational for industrial music. Like Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, VNV Nation, KMFDM, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and a small number of foundational threads of music, Andy has shaped industrial sounds, themes, and techniques to a considerable degree. His songs have been clubs hits for the industrial scene for 15 years, and the early versions of this were dance heavy electronic compositions with remarkable aggression. Now the sound has shifted towards industrial metal for some years with a variety of excellent musicians coming through. A lot of this seems driven by building a connection between electro-industrial music and rock traditions, and the experiment is a thrill.

One Fire

2019 brings a new album and a new U.S. and world tour from Combichrist. The three new released songs from One Fire are epic tracks and present some of Andy’s best work. Joe Letz is out of the band for now and performing with Aesthetic Perfection, but that change to the live lineup doesn’t change how the album was made. Live Combichrist now has excellent dual drummers with Dane White and Will Spod, but for the album Andy’s process has been the same since the beginning. He works by himself writing the songs, and where he used to use his own electronics on the early albums, now he sends his ideas to session musicians. So the later industrial metal albums are still composed like the earlier ones but with live instruments played in the studio to make it easier to translate the songs for the live band.

Hate Like Me is a very direct song about being angry about obstacles and maintaining a fire. It describes people declining and giving up on fighting and having dreams. Andy yells for us to learn to hate what stands in our way and to fight to be the best instead of watching ourselves fall apart. Guns at Last Dawn is about standing up for our rights as a group. As liberty is encroached upon, the song says we won’t lie down or surrender and that freedom is worth the last fight. Understand is a more personal song about our own perspectives and barriers from within. The songs show an album with a challenging vision and a combination of sonic fury and beauty that is formidable even for Andy. As Understand in particular shows though, the songs have great depth.

The live tour for One Fire is amazing and has Combichrist in their best form. I missed Joe Letz who is now in Aesthetic Perfection, but the two new drummers sound terrific, and Eric 13 was on fire with Andy for a great show at the Marquis Theater in Denver. Andy experimented with two drummers before by having Nick Rossi play with Joey sometimes, but it was an on and off thing. Now, both drummers rehearsed to play together as the normal live version of the band, and it sounds tight and powerful with raw driving drumming that sounds like an epic industrial creation. Eric and Andy brought me backstage to photograph the band and then invited me to photograph the whole show, and it was a great experience.

This will become a longer article after the whole album is released, and I plan to also go back and examine the great Making Monsters before long, but for now let me conclude by making the case for Combichrist as the best industrial band since Nine Inch Nails. This project started in the very early 21st century when there were questions about whether the scene was reaching exhaustion. Nine Inch Nails remained an important classic act, and there was still a proliferation of small bands making good experimental work, but Marilyn Manson had been wounded by what were proven to be unfair attacks, and the gothic scene had dwindled quite a bit. Industrial music needed to be revived at the start of the millennium, and Andy did it.

The sounds from the early electronic albums are some of the most sophisticated electronic sounds ever created. They are also some of the most varied and subtle, among the most danceable, and manage a fiery aggression that maintains irony, humor, and friendliness in a way no one else has come close to managing. The industrial scene got a new life when Everybody Hates You came out, and industrial was able to claim a great club status as an experimental, underground, fun, and safe scene with ferocious power and commentary on many of the most important facets of ourselves. Since then, Combichrist has grown into a compelling and powerful live band with industrial metal albums that are as great as the best releases from Ministry and songwriting that maintains the same heart and ideas as the way the band started.

Originally published 1/7/19; updated 5/17/19

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