‘Industrial Soundtrack for the Urban Decay’: Film Review

Lives of noisy desperation

This fan-friendly music documentary charts the rise of ear-bashing industrial rock from underground cult to influential global subculture

Born in the mid 1970s, the first wave of industrial rock bands combined abrasive metal-bashing noise with confrontational attitude and punk sensibility. This was outsider art steeped in taboo themes, from transgressive sexuality to politically extreme imagery. Made by two fans, the young French director Amélie Ravalec and Australian first-time filmmaker Travis Collins, Industrial Soundtrack for the Urbay Decay is an austere but commendably serious attempt to document an underground genre that went on to leave a deep dent in the rock mainstream.

Showing at the ICA in London this week, the film is booked for a string of one-off screenings across North American and Europe over the summer months. It will doubtless also appeal to music-themed film festivals and specialist events targeted at underground rock connoisseurs. But given its niche subject and compact 52-minute length, Industrial Soundtrack feels more naturally suited to home entertainment formats. Ravalec and Collins may also have limited their potential audience by missing some heavyweight names out of their selective history.

Set to a steady background throb of mechanized beats and drones, the film splices archive performance clips into contemporary interviews with key players in industrial rock’s origin story including Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Test Department, In The Nursery, Clock DVA and Non. These mostly British, mostly male scene veterans have largely remained fringe figures, although Throbbing Gristle co-founder Genesis P-Orridge is a renowned underground icon who has starred in previous documentaries, while Graeme Revell graduated from Australian band SPK to become a Hollywood score composer with credits including Daredevil, Sin City and Pineapple Express. Revell argues that industrial music has now been absorbed into contemporary pop and soundtracks, thus proving that “aggressive noise elements can become part of popular culture.”

The film-makers traces the fascinating origins of industrial music right back to the Dadaist art movement of the early 20th century, through the cut-up methods of William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, to the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and proto-noise bands like Can and The Velvet Underground, with digressions into French cultural theory and cult author JG Ballard’s dystopian sci-fi futurism. In the 1970s, in parallel with the embryonic punk rock scene, early industrial artists formed their own semi-anarchist network of independent record labels and DIY fanzines, exchanging audio cassettes and “mail art” via the postal system.

Industrial Soundtrack features most of the scene’s key originators, but there are some baffling absences too, notably second and third-wave bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, Swans, Front 242, Ministry, Laibach and The Young Gods. A more glaring omission is the current crop of superstar artists who have taken industrial rock to million-selling, arena-filling level, from Nine Inch Nails to Marilyn Manson to Rammstein. A handful of these bands are fleetingly referenced in the film, in a rushed montage of still photos. Most are simply overlooked.

While Ravalec and Collins clearly had a slender budget, industrial music’s reigning champions still merit a chapter in this story. More resourceful film-makers would have found a way to paint a broader and deeper picture, even without first-hand interview access. Industrial Soundtrack is a fan-friendly affair, endearingly passionate in tone, with a DIY look and feel that suits its semi-underground subject. But the film’s narrow focus also seems arbitrary and self-limiting, like an old-fashioned vinyl album that ends after side one.

Production company: Les Films du Garage

Cast: Genesis P-Orridge, Stephen Mallinder, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter, Graeme Revell, Boyd Rice

Directors: Amélie Ravalec, Travis Collins

Cinematographer, editor: Amélie Ravalec

Producer: Vincent Ravalec

Sales company: Les Films du Garage

Unrated, 52 minutes