Classic Album: Pailhead – Trait
D’you hear the one about the sober guy and the recovering junkie?
1987 saw many changes occurring in the worlds of alternative music. As the world above it got staler and began to choke harder on its excesses, the independent music community reeled as Husker Du had signed with Warners, opening the floodgates for the major labels to peer in on. Indeed, this was the choice that Al Jourgensen of Ministry found himself with – a deal with Warners laid on his table waiting to be signed. Would Warner try and wrestle their increasingly furious din back into the dance-pop territory from whence they came?
In a break from these questions and from Ministry, Jourgensen, along with Paul Barker (Ministry) and Eric Spicer (Naked Raygun), got together with an unlikely ally to fuse the industrial disquiet of their main project with the forthrightness of hardcore punk: Ian MacKaye. He of Minor Threat and Fugazi fame, and the accidental progenitor of hardcore’s straight-edge abstinence movement, MacKaye and Jourgensen had met on tour. Though quite how a collaboration between the unwilling poster-boy for sobriety and the very willing avatar for a life of excess would fare was anyone’s guess…
Don’t Stand in Line rattles authoritatively, an opening gambit that not only sees the musicians involve click instantly, but is purely joyful simply for hearing MacKaye’s vitriol circa Minor Threat restored in thrilling fashion. Ballad is an anomalous wonder of a track, taking driving industrial beats and building a weird, new-wavey pop tune around it, before lacing the whole thing with samples from a sex-chat line and more MacKaye railing, this time against the impersonal nature of modern communication, a sure portent of things to come.
Man Should Surrender marries the speed of hardcore to a lolloping industrial clang, like uneven footsteps on concrete, MacKaye coming from the pulpit of existential rage while Anthem shifts the pace, MacKaye‘s monotone laying the perfect robotic layer above methodical percussion and functional, almost detached riffing.
In later reissues of the E.P., both sides of the band’s initial 12″ outing were included as bonus tracks. I Will Refuse would go on to be the project’s calling card, a slowly building behemoth, with an insistent, defiant bassline that implodes in a glorious hail of hardcore punk serration and d-beat blitz. And though covers by Soulfly and Spinnerette may trivialise the song in many people’s eyes, they do little to dull the hellacious edge it still has. No Bunny meanwhile, retains a certain Fugazi-esque reggae influence, bass-led and bouncy, a complement to MacKaye’s musical shouting and a downright knuckle-whitening sample that lands in a huff and serves to further point out the futility of machismo.
Short and sour was its existence, but Pailhead set the tone for a lot that succeeded it, injecting the abrasion and structure of punk and hardcore into industrial’s discordant wall of synth, paving the way for everyone from Nine Inch Nails to The Prodigy. The ugly, ugly beats and shards of distortion sit naturally next to McKaye’s directness and focus on composition & precision. And while perhaps the brevity of the band’s existence precludes them from a place among the greats, their influence and importance to those lucky enough to have experienced them cannot be second-guessed.