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A recent nostalgic conversation about Skinny Puppy led to the following dialogue:
“Industrial is so dead, man. Industrial is so fucking dead it makes Sex Pistols punk look alive and well.”
If that’s the case, Firewerk is doing one hell of a job administering CPR. The shit-kicking, Detroit-based band is reviving a blend of industrial-tinged metal that faded out a decade ago.
As punk did in the ’70s, industrial reached its apex during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The sound of the time, labeled “coldwave,” entailed snarling guitar riffs ladled over sampled electronic beats — and it pissed off the Kraftwerk industrial purists something fierce. The scene branched out; guitar-driven music on one hand — glorified by such bands as KMFDM and Sister Machine Gun — and a purely electronic sound on the other.
Somewhere along the line, the guitar-driven industrial song sputtered to a halt. These days, synthpop is all the rage — or “gothic disco” as it’s derisively labeled by bitter old-schoolers. Synthpop is bouncy, poppy, brightly staccato electronica, and the accompanying fashion trends employ color — lots of it. Walk into City Club, Detroit’s venerable goth bar, and you’ll be confronted with a tidal wave of neon-green boots, screaming orange transparent tops, mounds of plastic pink hair extensions — you’ve never seen so much color in a goth club.
With their highly aggressive, gloriously pissed-off, boot-stompin’ old-school coldwave sound, Firewerk doesn’t quite fit in with the industrial trend du jour. But perhaps Firewerk will smack some sense into the kids just yet; the group’s debut CD has already received considerable play by industrial-minded DJs throughout metro Detroit.
On stage, lead singer John Cross is shirtless, drenched in sweat, clutching his microphone with a white-knuckled grip as he emits guttural, possessed howls.
On a Thursday night over a Jack and Coke at the Majestic Cafe, Cross is the antithesis, a clean-cut, soft-spoken guy, dressed smartly in black. Guitarist Al Bongiorno sits next to him, chain-smoking and quipping sardonically.
“We never set out with a mission statement,” says Cross. “We didn’t need to follow a specific agenda. It just all sort of fell together for us.”
“We’re just all very… .” Cross pauses. “Skeptical,” he and Bongiorno finish in unison with a laugh.
“And maybe it’s that skepticism that draws people to us,” says Cross. “We’ve had a lot of people who’ve written us to say they really enjoy that aggressive sound. I think it’s an outlet of sorts.”
Firewerk is producing lyrically intelligent music that you can dance (or stomp) to.
“A lot of our practices start out or end up with a 40-minute discussion on politics, or the state of current events,” says Cross. “I really enjoy those conversations you have with yourself, and I want to include that inner voice somehow in the music. I’m very intrigued with inner struggle.”
On the album Amplified Fragments one of the standout tracks, “Kingdom,” carries a heavy Sept. 11 influence. Lines such as, “We, the subjects of the private adoration, that hoist the crown when the kingdom came down,” are interspersed with a pulsating chorus of “goddamn it, what the fuck is going on here?”
It’s doubtful the Grammys will ever create a category for industrial. Being in a niche band means you’ll probably never find much commercial success. And Firewerk doesn’t want that. By the second round of drinks, the conversation turns to broad speculations on the state of the music industry, on commercially fabricated crap like Avril Lavigne, on the unfortunate reality that being a poor struggling artist isn’t as romantic as it sounds.
“If you can create music and pay the bills with it, more power to you,” says Bongiorno. “That’s the dream. But no one wants to be perceived as doing [music] for the wrong reasons. At some point you have to ask yourself, are we doing this to sustain a living or are we doing this for creative purposes?”
“If you’re talking about music being a product, then I live in my own jail,” says Cross. “I could never do a specific style of music just to sustain myself.”
Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.