“Sixty-nine, 69, 69”
For those of you that bought Ministry’s 1992 album ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ, or better known as Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs, you probably recognized that instantly.
For the rest of you, it may be unfamiliar, so I’m going to make the case why you should go out and buy this album that was released 25 years ago.
A hungry ear
Like most of my favorite albums, I bought this one as a teenager. It was during an election year and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was taking on then-President George H.W. Bush. Being from Arkansas, it’s probably easy to tell who I wanted to see get in … then again, when it comes to Arkansas, maybe not.
Sure, I wasn’t old enough to vote, I was only 15 at the time of the election, but I was sure interested in it.
Apparently there was this band called Ministry was too.
Now, I had heard of Ministry. About a year before this album was released, I was a ninth grader who had just discovered heavy metal. As my interest and love for the genre grew, I got a lot of disapproval. The disapproval came from my mother, of course, because she didn’t understand the genre and was only familiar with it through what she saw on the news, which of course was mostly associated the genre sex, drugs and Satanism. I also heard the disapproval from my older and younger brothers.
I don’t think I first heard of Ministry through my younger brother, but it was something that he said that made me want to check them out.
“Don’t listen to Ministry, I think they’re ‘devil worshippers,’” he said.
When I asked why, he said it was the lead singer’s vocals that made him think that. That singer was Al Jourgensen, a man of many talents who seemed to have a different band for every different mood he was in.
So, of course, I had to check them out.
Growing up in rural Arkansas though, made that a difficult task. Luckily, the timing worked out pretty well because not too long after he said that to me, “N.W.O.” debuted on Headbangers Ball.
With its scenes of destruction, the gyrating Bush mascot and the aggressiveness of the song, I resolved to buy the album. Which, I managed to do within a couple of weeks. It’s topped off by a bystander’s filming of police beating Lady Liberty, ala Rodney King, which was still fresh on everyone’s minds.
This video summed up what politics felt like in the early 1990s. There was uncertainty. There was violence. Cities burned.
It felt like the U.S. was on the edge of chaos. Maybe more so than it does now.
But, then again, I was 15. Things always seem big at that age, particularly when you notice them for the first time.
I’m not exactly sure where I got it. It could’ve been Walmart or Hastings, possibly Colombia House or BMG. But what matters is I got my hands on it and I listened to it a lot. It was probably my most-listened to album between the time that I bought Angel Dust by Faith No More in summer of 1992 and The Ethereal Mirror by Cathedral in spring of 1993.
Anyway, I spent hours listening to this album on my cheap CD player and talking about it with my other metally-inclined friend, who happens to be a salty seaman now.
Soundtrack for a riot
The album kicked off with “N.W.O.,” an aggressive song that could be called more metal than industrial. It’s frantic guitars, distorted vocals and bludgeoning beats marked a turning point for Ministry, who until that point were more 120 Minutes than Headbangers Ball. By putting this song first, they basically said “this is Ministry and we’re here to shred.”
It’s an interesting song as it doesn’t actually have a chorus per se. Instead of a chorus, there’s a sample of Bush saying “A New World Order” several times. The guitar solo, which I’m not sure was played by Jourgensen or Mike” Scaccia, kind of acts as the glue that holds the song together at its finale.
There were two other singles off this album: “Just One Fix” and “Jesus Built My Hotrod.”
“Just One Fix” may sound kind of familiar to people, even those hearing the song for the first time. The main riff for “Just One Fix” sounds a lot like the main riff from Rammstein’s “Du Hast” which came out almost five years later.
Anyway, “Just One Fix” is in the same vein as “N.W.O.,” except it is dominated by a haunting guitar melody throughout. It’s definitely an aggressive song, but whereas N.W.O. feels angry, “Just One Fix” feels desperate. It’s lyrics are pretty self explanatory, much like the song title, and it is essentially about someone going about trying to find their “fix” which I assume is a drug of some sort.
The other single, “Jesus Built My Hotrod” is kind of out of place in a way. Whereas most of the songs are metal-industrial tunes with a serious bent, “Jesus Built My Hotrod” is essentially a hedonistic rocker. “Jesus Built My Hotrod” is not sung by Jourgensen, but Butthole Surfers vocalist Gibby Haynes instead. There are not really any lyrics aside from the occasional sentence dropped in by Haynes, instead it’s a lot vocalizations that sound like “(“Ding a ding dang my dang a long ling long.” Not that it matters, the music and vocalizations work together as an awesome whole. The story behind the song, not too surprisingly, is that there was a lot of alcohol involved in its recording process.
While the singles were all strong tracks and, honestly, they alone do an excellent job of persuading you to buy the album more than any review could, I would like to mention a couple of other songs that stood out to me, personally.
My personal favorite track, and longest one on the album, is called “Scarecrow.”
I guess you can say that this big, heavy song was sort of a sign that I would be into doom metal before I knew what doom metal was.
“Scarecrow” is the slowest paced of the songs on the album. It makes excellent use of its samples, adding to the rather hopeless atmosphere of the song instead of distracting from it. The lyrics are up for interpretation, some say it’s about being a pariah and some say it’s about Christianity, but whatever you may think, the music shapes how you see it, as how things should be.
The other standout track for me was the title track “Psalm 69.” I’m not sure how to describe this song. Like “Scarecrow” it sounds huge. Parts of it are like “N.W.O.” and really aggressive. You could also say it’s somewhat like “Just One Fix” in its use of samples becoming a dominant element in the song.
But whatever, unlike the others, “Psalm 69” is schizophrenic in its tempo changes and altogether crazy, but it’s great. I’d say it’s one of those songs you’d have to hear for yourself to appreciate.
Four more tracks round out the album.
“Hero” is frenetic song which kind of makes me think of the first part of Full Metal Jacket in lyric form. It’s lyrics obviously (at least to me) refer to the military’s process of creating soldiers, by destroying a person and recreating them as killing machines.
“TV II” is frenetic as well, but is a lot more like an industrial punk song, with the drum beats blasting as fast as possible between Jourgensen’s screaming of commercial lines and accusations of lies.
The last two songs, “Corrosion” and “Grace” are probably the least accessible.
“Corrosion” is probably the closest you’ll get to a pure industrial song in the album while “Grace” takes the user into a final descent of madness through noise and samples before finishing the album.
While these four tracks may not be my favorites on the album, they can in no way be described as “filler,” or crappy songs that are just there to fill space. They’re very good song, they just didn’t speak to me like the others did.
To buy or not to buy?
So why should you buy this album 25 years later?
First, it’s an important piece of history as far as heavy music. While, it may not be the first industrial-metal album, it does represent the first of that mixed genre to breakthrough to a larger audience. It put that genre on the map and probably (I won’t say “definitely”) opened the door for bands like Godflesh and Pitchshifter to make their own marks in the U.S.
Another reason is that it is, overall, an example of a solid album. It’s lack of filler and Ministry’s willingness to experiment with their own sound should serve as an example of how to make a decent album for all aspiring metal bands. As many who are familiar with the genre know, a lot of albums are full of generic songs that sound like they were lazily written to fill out the time to make an LP.
Finally, it’s Ministry.
Ministry is one of the of the most relevant bands for people who like lyrics that make them think. Ministry makes music for people who like music that challenges them. This album represents a major turning point in the band’s now more-than three decades of existence and not checking it out is missing out on an important piece of the puzzle.
Psalm 69 wasn’t only a turning point for Ministry, but it also lifted the bar for a whole industrail genre.