You know how it goes, they say if you’ve heard one martial industrial album than you’ve heard them all, and that’s more or less true.
—Wounds of the Earth
[…] every band in the last 5 years sounds exactly the same.
—rotorschnee on Reddit
As for pop, well… it takes real talent to write a good pop song certainly more then it does a bog-standard martial-industrial nazi-shite-fest anyway.
There’s a view that I encounter every so often: that all music made in the martial industrial genre sounds the same. This carries with it the implications that all the musicians are imitators and that the scene is devoid of new ideas. When I first heard it said, I didn’t really agree with it. And given that the Wounds of the Earth quote above is from a review of my own Empire and Dust, perhaps I have an interest in rebutting this view. But really, it just doesn’t reflect my experience.
But I don’t like relying just on personal experience. I know enough about science to know how unreliable that is. I want to put it to the test.
I figured that if I could go through a sufficiently large and unbiased sample of martial industrial music and classify whether each piece was derivative or not, I could get a sense of just how derivative the genre is, and therefore get a sense of whether it was an accurate accusation.
So I went through all the reviews tagged martial industrial on Heathen Harvest, which yields 68 reviews in total. (The archive stretches back to July 2011 — not quite rotorschnee’s five years, but close.) To make it a little more relevant and manageable, I decided to strip out the ones that just seemed to have martial elements but really belong to another genre, and I removed compilations. This made 46 reviews of 38 bands. The full list is at the bottom of the post.
So then I went through and noted down, for each band, whether they seemed to be same-y or not. Admittedly, “same-y” is a pretty subjective evaluation, and furthermore, what are they all the same as? According to Wikipedia, “Nowadays, the Wagnerian style of Triarii serves as point of reference for most martial industrial acts.” That fits with my own impression, so I used that as my standard.
Ninety percent of everything is crap.
But then the other question is: what is the test? Ideally, we would have an index of the “sameyness” of each genre. Then we would know where martial industrial fit into that. But in the absence of that, I’m happy to take Sturgeon’s Law as a baseline. Admittedly, ninety percent of everything is crap is not the same as ninety percent of everything is unoriginal, but I’ll be satisfied if I can pick out more than ten percent that I think are original.
A fair number of these bands were already familiar to me, but by no means all. So I had some serious listening to do… And it was a slightly more disappointing process than I had anticipated. It turns out that a lot of them really do sound the same. Nonetheless, there are some good bands in there, so let’s take a look at them:
Dead Man’s Hill
My introduction to martial industrial was In Slaughter Natives and other bands from the Cold Meat Industry label, which instead of the current obsession with the wars of the twentieth century, seemed more focused on the macabre and on rebelling against Christianity. It seems to me that Dead Man’s Hill continue this somewhat neglected tradition, mixing in elements of black metal and noise as well. And the review is of a split with Hrossharsgrani, an ambient/noise/metal band, so that adds to the diversity.
Epoch combine martial industrial with the harsh electronic sounds and rhythms of EBM. And far from being a “nazi-shite-fest”, their politics comes from a left-wing American viewpoint.
I.R.O.N. is a side-project of the musician behind Legionarii, and while I’ll admit that the latter is martial-by-numbers, I.R.O.N. introduces a more mechanical and electronic sound.
L’Effet C’est Moi
L’Effet C’est Moi are superb musicians. Their melodies are complex, exciting and beautiful, and their palette of sounds is diverse while still fitting together coherently.
Order of Victory
I can’t claim to be a big fan, but I have to admit that Order of Victory’s strangely processed vocals give them their own sound.
Again, it’s the quality of the music (and the unique voice of Dimitrij Bablevskij) that raise this band above the rest of the genre. Though it wasn’t the subject of the review, I was recently blown away by Casta, which they made in collaboration with group of Indian Sikh folk musicians, and which has an exotic sound that I haven’t heard in this genre before.
Rose Croix have a heavily mystical feel, perhaps a little reminiscent of some aspects of Dead Can Dance but certainly not out of the regular martial mould.
Rukkanor brings middle-eastern influences to martial industrial. While there might be a precedent for this sort of thing with Dead Can Dance and Arcana, Rukkanor’s approach is very much his own.
Sala Delle Colonne
I was only able to find one track online, but from that and Heathen Harvest’s review I gather that, rather than making modern martial industrial, Sala Delle Colonne makes music that sounds as if it were genuinely recorded 50 years ago.
Svalbard make surprisingly catchy military pop.
Tethrippon are a Greek martial and neofolk band. The vocals are full of drama.
So out of 46 reviews and 38 bands, I’ve picked out 11 bands that I think can’t be called derivative. This is roughly a quarter — well above the 10% that would be predicted by Sturgeon’s Law. I’ll concede that there was more bog-standard martial industrial in there than I’d anticipated. Still, I consider the accusation refuted.
I think when making the argument that all martial industrial sounds the same there are a few things that one should remember: Firstly, this is a genre of music. Music made within a genre has to sound similar at least to some degree, otherwise it’s not a genre. Secondly, when compared to other genres, is martial industrial more homogeneous? When I think of the other genres I’m familiar with, the answer is a clear no. Most EBM sounds like most other EBM, most dark ambient sounds like most other dark ambient. For every boundary-pushing mind.in.a.box or Desiderii Marginis there are numerous uninspiring imitators. And thirdly, I wonder why martial industrial is singled out? Perhaps because it tends towards being instrumental music, while surrounded by genres such as neofolk that are led by songs. I think that — at least for non-musicians — discerning the differences between vocalists is easier than discerning the different sounds and techniques of instrumental music.
There’s perhaps also a different attitude towards similarity and difference at work among fans of martial industrial music than among fans of other genres. Whenever I dip my toes into any genre of dance music, I don’t hear any complaints about all artists sounding the same, despite what seem to my ears to be far stronger similarities. In those genres it seems much more acceptable to sound similar. After all, the goal of the DJ is often to create a seamless experience.
What do you think? Is my method flawed? Am I just biased towards my own genre?
Here is the list of reviews considered: