Ministry | Eagles Ballroom | 5/7
Ladies and gentlemen, the Eagles Ballroom Club Stage.
The Eagles Ballroom has long been one of my most-hated places to see music. The last time I’d been in there was to see Primus and Clutch in 2017 (https://milwaukeerecord.com/music/ahead-of-new-album-primus-plays-one-for-the-diehards-at-the-rave/), and besides the music itself being great, every other aspect of the experience was terrible. I don’t know what possessed me to enter the contest on therave.com to win Ministry tickets. Getting tickets to shows at The Rave has never been an issue. It’s everything ELSE.
They emailed me back a week later to inform me that I hadn’t won the contest. However, they were putting me on the guest list anyway. Sooo…I did win? Is this a Mitch Hedberg bit? I sort of feel guilty, because Uncle Al isn’t getting my money even though he’s doing all the work. But who passes up free Ministry tickets (and an excuse to stop by Conway’s Smokin’ Bar & Grill for a smoked meatloaf sandwich)? The passive Rave boycott was going to end in a few weeks anyway (Metal Fest!); might as well see if maybe they’ve made some changes.
It was a side-entrance night, where you snake through a bunch of different rooms and a metal detector and then up the stairs to the box office area. The security people were not dicks, so that was already an unusual beginning to a Rave evening. Then I went into one of the bathrooms. It was like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode. They’ve redone the bathrooms completely. And they were CLEAN. In fact I’d call them…PRISTINE. Millions now living will never know the horror of those old Rave bathrooms.
Then we made our way upstairs to the Ballroom, to discover that they’d moved the whole goddamn stage?? As it turns out, this is a new configuration that they’re calling the Eagles Ballroom Club Stage. I don’t know when they started doing this but it immediately felt like an entirely new experience on Sunday. I really could not complain about the sound; is this lengthwise trajectory less acoustically treacherous than the normal way they set this room up? I’m not sure how much floor space was lost; obviously, some of the balcony was now behind the stage, but who cares about aesthetic symmetry? Let’s never go back to the old setup.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the exorbitant drink prices (aka how they get away with giving away so many free tickets) but I can either complain about this or I can just drink less. At any rate, they’ve clearly been pouring those booze profits into home improvement. The whole place felt refreshed, the Ballroom looked legitimately beautiful, and given the fair amount of puffing going on throughout the show I could swear they’ve even upgraded the ventilation system in there. I’m not saying this is suddenly a first-class joint but I am saying for the first time in over two decades I’m inclined to stop hating it.
We arrived in time for the very end of Front Line Assembly; for future reference, it seems that when the website says the show is at 7, the show actually starts at 7, whoops. The show essentially began for us with Gary Numan, whom I’d never seen before. One of synthpop’s indispensable pioneers, he has nevertheless been relegated in mainstream discourse to “the guy who did ‘Cars’”. Unconcerned with this reputation, however, Numan dropped his big hit casually mid-set and surrounded it with a career-spanning smattering that leaned heavily on his more recent material. Numan has never ceased his steady output of new music, which has trended heavier since the pop-industrial craze of the 1990s revived interest in him. Numan’s performance style has evolved along with his music and he’s far more exuberant at age 65 than he ever was at the height of his early-‘80s popularity. Although he’s become something of a goth icon, there’s always been an element of levity coursing through his songs, and this was an uplifting set of mostly songs I had never heard. Seeing him in the flesh it occurred to me how much Kevin Barnes owes to Numan as a vocalist and performer, and then a whole slew of indie-rock frontmen started coming to mind. Numan was a true oddity when he came on the scene and it’s cool to see he’s still following his muse and making good music. How could he not play “Down In The Park” though???
That last bit was purely rhetorical of course. We’re talking about a legacy artist whose new music gets the crowd almost as amped as the oldies. To my surprise, I have to say the same for Ministry. No matter how heavy the guitars, this is all dance music at its core; keep bodies moving with music that’s not a far cry from what made you a legend and you won’t have to worry too much about breaking the spell. I lost the will to keep tabs on Al Jourgensen’s new output fifteen years ago or so, not because it was bad necessarily but because when it comes to latter-day Ministry, I pretty much get the idea. The entire industrial metal genre coiled up into itself around the turn of the century and it’s barely experienced any blips of innovation since then; Ministry’s just still good at it, and judging by the onslaught of newer stuff that they opened with on Sunday, I’ve ignored them somewhat unfairly.
Gone were the inflatable Trump chickens that Jourgensen brought along the last time I’d seen Ministry (https://milwaukeerecord.com/music/ministry-political-donald-trump-turner-hall/), and the laughably blunt political posturing of that show were not missed, nor were the rather subpar songs that made up 2018’s AMERIKKKANT album. Sunday was a no-frills production; rudimentary video backdrop and unobtrusive lighting rig, and the sound exploded off the stage with the surprisingly invigorating “Alert Level”, off the group’s latest effort, 2021’s MORAL HYGIENE. They opened with five straight from that album and I was surprised at how fresh “Good Trouble” and “Disinformation” sounded especially. Founding Tool bassist Paul D’Amour had joined the band in 2019, and drummer Roy Mayorga (Stone Sour) and guitarist Monte Pittman (Prong, Madonna) both rejoined in 2021; rounding out the six-piece lineup were longtime keyboardist John Bechdel, and guitarist Cesar Soto, who came onboard in 2015.
Following the MORAL HYGIENE tunes, the band did one brand new one, presumably forthcoming in August when Ministry’s sixteenth studio album, HOPIUM FOR THE MASSES, arrives. It was called “Goddamn White Trash” and it was heavy with a distinctive hillbilly flavor to it like Rob Zombie or LOAD-era Metallica. I know that’s not exactly selling it but I enjoyed it anyway. And for the second half of the show, Ministry busted out the classics, including a surprising three offerings from THE LAND OF RAPE AND HONEY (but only one from THE MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO TASTE, sadly). They messed with the arrangements in relatively minor ways; if anything, the songs were more ferocious than their album counterparts.
Again, while I may have been craving “Thieves” or “So What”, it was cooler to see Al and company breathing life into decent new material, and the encore was another treat: welcoming Numan back to the stage, they played a Fad Gadget song called “Ricky’s Hand”, the obscure cover resurrected this year for the first known time since 1986. A handful of folks in the crowd had to be going NUTS over this; I don’t think I’d ever heard the song before and it was a blast all the same. And here I’d been thinking I was walking into a total shithole to see a bunch of has-beens. They’d been plotting this all along, Ministry and The Rave: lower our expectations to the absolute basement and you’re guaranteed to impress us at some point down the road.