S. Alexander Reed – Assimilate
Let’s start with the disclosures. Alex is a dear friend and colleague – my coauthor on the upcoming book on Flood, in fact. I’ve known him for over a decade; he was in my wedding party. I’m in the acknowledgments of this book. My friendship with him is one of those that is more an ongoing serialized conversation. We see each other a couple times a year and the conversation calmly picks up with litanies of things we’ve each squirreled away in the corners of our brains with mental notes to tell each other.
Alex is appallingly tall and prone to exaggeration. He is one of those people who monopolizes the available talent pool. He’s a ferociously insightful and well-read critic, an adept rock star, a phenomenal conversationalist, and damnably handsome to boot. Working with him on the Flood book consisted of a workflow in which I banged out obscene amounts of verbiage in a short time and he painstakingly worked it over and added to it until it was actually a good book.
Beyond that, my intellectual debt to him is so massive as to be impossible to fully account for. The list of things and ideas he introduced me to is simply massive. He is one of those influences so fundamental that to attempt to encapsulate it in some list of things he introduced me to feels desperately inadequate. And reading Assimilate is thus a terribly strange experience for me – a blur of past conversations where I realize these ideas were being worked out. I hit a passage on Guy Debord and remember vividly the conversation picking him up from the airport where I excitedly told him that he needed to read Society of the Spectacle. I nod along enthusiastically at his descriptions of 1970s England unable to begin to tell what bits are where talking to him influenced me, what bits are the other way around, and what bits are just us conversing into separate Word documents. And there’s nothing like a way to tell.
Which is to say that this is in no way a detached critical book review. This is unapologetic fanboying of the highest order. Because if there is someone I most consider a fellow traveler in terms of critical approach, it is S. Alexander Reed. And with Assimilate there finally exists a proper monument demonstrating what I truly and unhesitatingly believe to be one of the greatest creative and critical minds in the world today.
Oddly, if irrelevantly, the topic is not one I am by any measure passionate about. Like most people, the prospect of epically long songs consisting of little more than grinding machinery and featureless noise is not my idea of fun listening. On the other hand, there exist subjects that are somewhat more fun to read about than to experience, and industrial music, like the Pertwee era, is perhaps a prime example. It is as easy to not want to listen to Throbbing Gristle’s “Very Friendly,” which is eighteen minutes of grinding and narration about the Moors murders. It is also very easy to read excitedly about it and frontman Genesis P-Orridge, an occultist who refers to themself in the plural because of their efforts to become a pandrogyne with their late wife.
But what is perhaps more important is that it is a topic that Alex is profoundly passionate about. The book is frighteningly thorough in the way that only something by a devoted fan can possibly be. This is not to say that it is inaccessible – I know little enough about the topic and remained thoroughly engrossed. But it is detailed and rich – a thorough critical history instead of a spotter’s guide.
This also means that it is expansive in a way other works on the subject are not. Alex does not limit his study of industrial music to the “purist” section of its history, treating everything that came after the genre discovered dance beats as a tragic decline. Indeed, the book is frank about the fact that, iconclastically brilliant as Clock DVA might be, the genre’s prospects of any mainstream impact were muted prior to, say, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, or KMFDM. Far from treating this as a bad thing, Alex is pragmatic about it, recognizing, if you will, that the secret of alchemy is material social progress.
This pragmatism also means that the book hits a satisfying midpoint between fannish (over)enthusiasm and the critical detachment (or, in its more pernicious cases, nihilism) of academic work. It’s the sort of book that includes both a meticulous flaying of the failures of industrial music to adequately tackle race and an autobiographical account of his abjected psychic submission to the sonic assault of a Carter-Tutti concert. One that includes the passage “I am an electrified thing, gnashing in spasm but not self-destructive, because there is in this moment no self to destroy. I am making noise now, resonating with the music, its collateral damage. Sex noises and fuck words” and the passage “Like nearly all western popular styles, industrial music derives its rhythms from African Diaspora music, but notably it also celebrates a political and musical kinship with postwar experimental jazz. However, industrial music more readily appreciates this music’s experimental status than its racial origins.” Which is to say, a sort of book like no other.
At its heart, however, it is a book about the same topic as this blog: the interplay between the margins of the avant garde and mainstream popularity, and the way in which radical thought, whether aesthetic or political, must endlessly traverse that gap in order to make any sort of progress. It’s a book about the heights of magical and conceptual exploration, and how to get from there to a decent 4/4 dance beat. It’s a book about magic, northern England, extremism, and the indifferent line between changing the world and burning it to the ground.
While no two projects have 1:1 overlap in their audiences, I have trouble imagining how anybody who enjoys this blog would not enjoy this book. Your world will be a stranger and more wonderful place once you’ve read it.
May 21, 2013 @ 1:34 am
Well, bizzarely it seems I might just be the target audience for this. I loved TG in the Seventies and Eighties and had a number of encounters and correspondences with Gen P. both through performance and socially (He lived in my home town, Brighton, for a while). I also made industrial/experimental music with my band EJK454F and my flatmate still does in various guises. I now teach Drama and Performance and am still obsessed with 'the interplay between the margins of the avant garde and mainstream popularity, and the way in which radical thought, whether aesthetic or political, must endlessly traverse that gap in order to make any sort of progress.' 'checkI' ll check this book out. Thanks.
May 21, 2013 @ 2:49 am
Hm, my brother-in-law might be interested. I'm not very up on the musical boundaries: does it cover electro-industrial like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly? If so I can see a potential birthday present.
I've never understood what he sees in it, myself, but I don't judge him for that. As almost the only person I know who loves Hawkwind (other than Internet acquaintances) – and certainly the only one who is also into Tangerine Dream, Fairport Convention, Judas Priest, and P.D.Q. Bach – I have decided that personal taste is just that. Personal.
May 21, 2013 @ 3:23 am
It does, in fact, cover both thoroughly.
May 21, 2013 @ 3:41 am
Having amassed a sizable collection of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, I feel it is highly necessary to acquire this book on one of my favorite genres of music. Hopefully there are some more obscure artists covered. I’m always looking for more music to fill up space.
And for the guy who likes Tangerine Dream and P.D.Q. Bach, you're not alone.
May 21, 2013 @ 4:46 am
May 21, 2013 @ 5:34 am
Thanks – I shall suggest it to my wife…
May 21, 2013 @ 6:14 am
Normally when you tell me to go read something Doctor S I go out and find a copy right away (still working on finding a good copy of Christmas on a Rational Planet). You have never steered me wrong.
But to be honest, I HATE industrial music. I like some NIN but that's mostly Year Zero and mostly because I found the ARG surrounding it fascinating.
On the other other hand the world could always be a stranger and more fascinating place. WISHLISTED!
May 21, 2013 @ 6:17 am
I freely admit that part of the appeal of the book is that you get all the intellectual pleasures of industrial music without any of the unfortunate business of listening to it.
S. Alexander Reed
May 21, 2013 @ 6:33 am
Why didn't I think of THAT as my main marketing angle?
May 21, 2013 @ 7:33 am
I'm afraid I can't help but imagine a Dalek shouting that title… 😀
May 21, 2013 @ 8:30 am
In general I feel at least a small obligation to be familiar with the source material when reading criticism. Reading Medieval texts on classics from people who had never actually read the original was the most eerie part of my Undergrad.
I have the Amazon page open right now and I fighting the urge not to spend the last of this month's entertainment budget on it. I do so love the phrase "All the intellectual pleasures of industrial music without any of the unfortunate business of listening to it."
May 21, 2013 @ 10:30 am
Presumably the title is a reference to the classic Skinny Puppy track "Assimilate", in which case the vocals do indeed sound like a Dalek shouting the title. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtnTjvvT_ig
This track is not that difficult to listen to either, it's almost synthpop/dance club music, just the vocals take a little getting used to. (They would indulge in much more difficult/noisy fare later on in their career.)
May 21, 2013 @ 10:09 pm
Wow, sounds great. I love Industrial music. Great background music for reading the Virgin New Adventure novels!
May 29, 2013 @ 2:05 pm
Would it surprise you, elvwood, to know that Hawkwind were included on the first collection of industrial music I bought?
Anyway, thanks for the recommendation Phil. I'm a fan of all the music mentioned in this thread (well, except Judas Priest, but there had to be an exception) and love critical analysis of music so this is going straight on my purchase list (along with the book on Flood).
Justin Patrick Moore
June 6, 2013 @ 9:23 am
I know… a bit late for a comment… but here goes anyways.
I'm a big Doctor Who fan, so it was with delight when I was sent a link to this particular review, I discovered the main thrust of your page.
What do you think about Delia Derbyshire as a proto-industrial musician? I think the incidental music from Doctor Who, especially Hartnell-Pertwee era, subliminally affected me, and that is why I love experimental, industrial, musique concrete and noise. Just a thought.
March 11, 2020 @ 9:57 pm