Concept album? Soundtrack? Companion piece? Supergroup? The Ministry Of Wolves’ new album is all of those things, and a bunch more. The scarily impressive ranks of the Ministry comprise one Antipodean icon, one Teutonic noise terrorist, one American-born Berlin-based artist and one Angeleno multi-instrumentalist.
Mick Harvey, the most recognisable name to mainstream music fans, made his name in the immeasurably influential punk titans The Birthday Party, before going on to aid and abet leader Nick Cave in the Cavemen and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, where he became second in command until his departure in 2009. He also cultivated a sparkling reputation as a producer and collaborator by working with PJ Harvey, Anita Lane, Congo Norvell and the sadly departed Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S Howard.
One time Birthday Party member and semi-permanent Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld made a name for himself in the immeasurably influential industrial iconoclasts Einstürzende Neubauten. In 1983, Neubauten were joined by Alexander Hacke, who is the second most recognisable name in the Ministry, having played on monstrous works like Haus der Lüge, Zeichnungen des Patienten O. T. and Fünf auf der nach oben offenen Richterskala. Hacke’s wife and collaborator Danielle de Picciotto, the third member of the Ministry, is, like Hacke himself, a current member of Aussie Goths Crime & The City Solution. The latter are the springboard for this project – Harvey and Hacke were both members of that band when they recorded classics like Shine and The Bride Ship, whereas Hacke and his wife are in the current incarnation that cut the majestic American Twilight LP last year.
The final member of the Ministry is Paul Wallfisch, once a member of Firewater, who make perculiar indie music, supplemented by obtuse instrumentation and world-wide musical flavours. He rounds out what is by any estimation a flawless lineup – the pedigree of Harvey or Hacke alone is stupefying, simply because they have never received a negative reaction to ANY of their recorded works (and rightly so). The classic records that their names adorn (Junkyard, Halber Mensch, Let Love In, Let England Shake…) is second only to their respective bands’ leaders – Cave and Bargeld have amongst the most impressive CVs in modern music. And so the Ministry must deal not only with the weight of history and expectation, but with the albatross of a ‘concept’.
The pieces are based on the writings of the Brothers Grimm, with particular focus on poet Anne Sexton’s Transformations. The album has been created as a soundtrack to Republik Der Wölfe, a theatre production directed by Claudia Bauer. The music ranges from the ghostly (White Snake Waltz) to the joyfully frantic (Little Peasant) to the aggressively dramatic (The Frog Prince), all the while maintaining a widescreen cinematic vibe. Each track has a musical palette similar to Henry’s Dream or Murder Ballads, where piano and drums are the primary rhythmic instruments.
Opener The Gold Key features Danielle’s poised delivery of the introductory poem amongst a piercing lead guitar line and colourful xylophone strikes, but it’s the space between the instruments that provides a reflective, pensive air. The track is sparsely populated, each word or note is allowed equal share of the sonic space, and no part dominates. It’s a communal, orchestral understanding that allows the track to showcase the aesthetic the Ministry aims for on large parts of the record.
Follower Rumpelstiltskin, which was released as a taster-track, is undoubtedly the highlight here, with its tense, filmic piano notes and bashed chords – the vocals provided here by Hacke evoke both Bargeld and Cave. His eyebrows-raised, wide-eyed delivery and the rolling drum line anchor the track, allowing for detours through Do You Love Me? paranoiac melodrama and spacey, sibilant calm. The lead guitar’s glassy tone is again a tasteful addition – a chiming post-punk feel befits a project like this.
Cinderella opens with an oompah drum-machine beat but becomes another showcase for de Picciotto’s lush vocal delivery – her breathy tones and stern poetic annunciation contrast with Hacke’s Dr Frankenstein ravings. The following number Rapunzel evokes Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen in its sympathetic arrangement, allowing for the narrative to become the prime focus, all the while maintaining the momentum of the album.
Hansel and Gretel brings the music back front and center, where insistent percussion (the drum sound throughout is fantastic), urgent piano and Mick Harvey’s velvet croon tell the grisly tale. His lyrics turn it from bleak melodrama to black comedy: “Come my little fritter, come my blubbing bubbler, come my chicken dinner.” This turn of phrase keeps the narrative interesting, having no doubt been influenced by Sexton’s poesy.
The Little Peasant’s Wild West piano gallop and driving percussion evokes Henry’s Dream, while Little Red Riding Hood is surprisingly similar to Neubauten’s sonic abuse rituals – their ominous, sinister noise-collages are the perfect fit for Wallfisch’s throaty, Thurston Moore-ish, Stephen Malkmus-y speak-singing about latex panties, stale beds, tea bags and blue-haired ladies. White Snake Waltz, which closes the record, has an antique, musty vibe with tinkling percussion and a classical piano line, and de Picciotto’s finest performance on the album.
The sighs of “thank god it’s not terrible” come precisely ten seconds into this album, and this potent (super?)group dispel any notions of schmaltzy theatrics by producing eerie, soothing, tense and euphoric moods throughout. Each track feels necessary, each vocalist seems to fit their particular track perfectly. The music and the narrative are excellently executed by four top-rate professionals who’ve got your respect (and attention) by earning it.
Albums like this, divorced as they are from their source, could easily be ignored and filed away under the ‘side project’ tag. But these pieces merit repeat listens because no matter which name of the four has brought you to the project, each member endeavours to satisfy their fans by leaving their sonic identities intact. In particular, hardcore fans of The Bad Seeds’ fabulous work with Harvey and Bargeld in the ’90s should be in possession of this record at the nearest available opportunity. You’ll find it right up your shadowy strasse.