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Remember the obscure mid-'80s Burt Reynolds action film Stick? Of course you don't. Bolstered by one of the late Elmore Leonard's better scripts, it contained more coastal Florida scenery and cocaine than just about any film not called Scarface up to that point. It fails at making Candice Bergen sexy (really, not faulting it there) and can be considered the commensurate film parallel to the then-burgeoning Miami Vice. How in the world does this correlate in any substantial way to Ministry's enigmatic debut With Sympathy (alternatively titled Work for Love in most regions)? For starters, it contains a rockin' synthwave-driven soundtrack that dates it immensely, but also through this it has become yet another curiosity piece/snapshot from the period that has found itself basked in a more positive light courtesy of the rose-colored lens of nostalgia.
From pomp rock acts across the pond like Magnum to their more home-grown equivalents in Styx, the early-mid '80s were patently the era of the analog synth. The writing was on the wall as early as the late '70s, with The Grand Illusion and later on Chase the Dragon (just to cite the two outfits mentioned) helping to draw the common methodology further away from the earlier Hammond abuse. The evolution made some logical sense in parallel with the increasingly technologically-driven '80s, and while much of these throes served their purpose, the movement is certainly not one blessed with consistently fond remembrance. This is where Ministry of all bands come into play, as their debut features some of the great, yet most of the deficient associated with the style.
Don't let the '83 release date obfuscate your opinion too much, as resident plunger-pusher Al Jourgensen had been honing his craft for some time beforehand. Through this, Ministry can at least be granted some measure of innovation, but the supposed studio interference that Jourgensen is always quick to cite as one of With Sympathy's grand faults makes a precise appraisal somewhat fleeting in this regard. To recoup and take much of the album in as the curiosity piece that it is, it certainly boasts a consistent and generally endearing sonic template. To say that this has zero value to the metal crowd should be expected, but I am not embarrassed at all to state that With Sympathy is decent when it wants to be.
In typical pop fashion, the more accessible cuts are log-jammed toward the beginning of the procession, and as such "Effigy (I'm Not an)" is quite a pleasant, moody opener. In between nodding and trying to pre-date Bill Paxton's look in The Terminator, Jourgensen is busy here shamelessly bungling a faux-English accent (supposedly on command from the management). Generally endearing most of the time, some of the lyrical patterns seem centered around attempts at accentuating the accent to the point of active irritation. In my eyes this really hurts the hit single "Revenge," which is great opening up, but sounds like it sprouted a square wheel on the refrain courtesy of the vocals.
The album predominantly thrives on the moodier numbers like "Say You're Sorry" and "Should Have Known Better." this bestows upon With Sympathy a memorable second half that contrasts well to the expectedly-strong opening salvo. The problem is that when Ministry fails here, they fall really fucking hard. "I Wanted to Tell Her" is an abhorrent attempt at introducing Shay Jones' distracting caterwauling to the mixing pot. Alternatively, "What He Say" sucks eggs right from the start, and goes absolutely nowhere despite more guest vocal contributions. "Here We Go" sort of falls in between but proves that Ministry could pull off the more upbeat numbers as well if pressured. While there is little variance in tone overall, the rhythm section bolstered by bleeping synths and pluggy bass timbres generally dictate the direction.
And most of the time, Ministry does come out of the ordeal relatively unscathed. "Say You're Sorry" is undoubtedly one of the better examples from the period, boasting spectacular atmosphere and conscientious use of the saxophone. Most people look to the record for the single "Revenge," but there is irrefutably more to bare witness to here. Just like Stick, With Sympathy is an enjoyable little snapshot that comes with all of the appeals and flaws that carry over with the time period, a style that while suddenly enjoying a nostalgic comeback of sorts, has been and always will be irrefutably flawed. Just take what Jourgensen says concerning this record with a punctual grain of salt, as he is far too bitter over the entire ordeal. Draw your own conclusion.
Ministry came a long way in twenty-eight years. The fact that they were originally a new wave synthpop band isn’t exactly a secret, and neither is the fact that Al considers this, in his own words, to be “an abortion” of an album. As a result of his hatred for it, though, it’s never been (officially) released on CD, and vinyl copies can be a bit tricky to track down. It’s a shame, though, because it’s really not that bad of an album. Most of Al’s acid for the debut comes from those pesky Arista managers and their meddling, it seems. Their most obvious influence is the decision to make Al adopt a “British” accent, since new wave groups from the UK were what was popular at the time. If you ever want to hear a Chicago native attempt a British accent, this is the album for you, though I want to emphasize the word attempt.
If it weren’t for that one really stupid decision on the label’s part, maybe we’d see a reissue of this album. The other influences, in terms of the songwriting, appear to be relatively minor. Al hasn’t shied away from his new wave influences, even in recent interviews. Just from the music, I can hear strong influences from New Order, Soft Cell, and just a touch of The Cure. Yeah, there’s no metal here. Grow up, get over it. Not everything has to be METAL TO THE BONE to be good. This is actually fairly complex music, often with two synth riffs playing at the same time while the vocals take a melody unlike either of them. It’s very clear that Al knows what he’s doing with the songwriting. Now, you might notice there was another guy in the band at this time. I don’t even remember his name right now, and I don’t care to look it up, primarily for the fact that he does little more than play drums. No writing credits, maybe he does backup vocals on some songs, but he’s definitely not in any kind of power here. This is entirely Al’s work.
So overall, we’ve got some quality new wave synthpop here. There’s really no reason this album shouldn’t be as well-regarded as many of New Order’s albums, so I can only chalk up the lack of popularity to the availability of the albums. However, it’s only solid, not great. It lacks the quality of songwriting of Depeche Mode’s 80s releases, and just doesn’t have the sheer charisma of Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret album. (As an aside, if you only know Soft Cell for Tainted Love, do yourself a favor and look up songs like Sex Dwarf, Entertain Me, Chip On My Shoulder, or Frustration.) Ministry’s work has a few moments of awesomeness, but also a number of songs that either drag out too long or just aren’t that exciting to begin with, which hurts the flow of the album.
The A side of the album is definitely the winner here. Effigy (I’m not an…) starts off surprisingly low-key, but it’s grown on me with a couple listens. There’s that bass synth riff that permeates the entire song and probably makes it feel a bit more mundane than it is, but if you focus your attention on the other layers that fade in and out, there’s quite a bit of music there. Now, if you ask me, the second song Revenge should have been the opener. Hell, I’m surprised that Al never reworked the song to better fit Ministry’s later direction! This song is probably the high point of the album, but it is quite the high indeed. Revenge pretty much beats New Order at their own game, and then gives them a swirly in the dirtiest public restroom toilet Ministry can find. It’s a mid-paced burner, but if it weren’t for that damn fake accent, Al could put some real venom in his voice. I Wanted To Tell Her is that pseudo-funk piece every new wave band seemed obligated to write, and while it’s not bad, it’s completely passable, and a little overlong. Quite disappointing coming off of Revenge. The guest vocals are a nice touch, at least. Work For Love was the lead single for the album, and an enjoyable, if vacuous little dance number.
After the A side, I have to stop to wonder why they left off one of the most awesome songs Ministry wrote during this period, (Every Day is) Halloween. The 12” version of the single came out only after the album, but I know a shorter version existed beforehand. The synthy nature would fit right in with the rest of the album’s aesthetic. Likewise, Cold Life had been released as a single (or B-side to one) a couple times now, and somehow did not appear on the album. Fuck, it’s even got enough of a funky bassline to fit in the place of I Wanted To Tell Her. That would’ve boosted the album a couple more points. The omission of these two songs is particularly glaring since they would never wind up on an album afterwards, even as remixes (as All Day would show up on Twitch).
The B side of the album is also a step down, which definitely does not help things. Here We Go starts off promising enough, being the fastest and most driving song on the album. Once again, it would have made a stronger opening than Effigy, especially with Al’s decree of “This one’s for the trendy set, this one’s for the fads! This one’s for the people, baby, who tried to ruin my plans!” It’s quite fitting, given the circumstances of this album’s release. Again, another song that somehow never showed up in Ministry’s later sets that would have been awesome reworked. Say You’re Sorry and Should Have Known Better are completely forgettable throw-aways that, once more, COULD have been used for the better singles. But again, they’re not all that bad on their own. She’s Got A Cause is probably the most blatantly commercial piece on here, which makes its placement entirely baffling. Perhaps it’s the result of Al and Arista fighting over the piece and the resulting compromise, but it’s a strange decision either way.
And that leaves What He Say. This song always makes me laugh, no joke. It’s completely absurd, and I have no idea whether it’s great or complete shit. It’s got some ridiculous racial tokenism and exploitation with obnoxious trumpet blasts and a bass guitar that occasionally decides to pop up like the shark from Jaws and rape you in the face… but it’s catchy and fun as all hell. And it’s hard to deny the perfection of that dance break around 1:50 in. Oh, and in case anyone reading gives a damn, this song was renamed to “Do the Etawa” for the European release with the scrambled track list. I’m not sure why it was renamed, but the name references the first word in that sample of the guy from Swaziland.
For an “abortion” of an album, I’d actually say this turned out fairly well. Yes, the “British” accent is a bit ridiculous and unnecessary, and yeah, there are a few singles that could have improved things were they included, but I’ve had the displeasure of listening to much worse music in this vein. It’s basically Quasimodo, the titular Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s definitely not bad, but rejected by its parent for being incredibly ugly. I can’t deny that Al has a reason to hate everything about this label-mutilated debut, but it’d still be nice to see it get a bit more love.
As I understand it, Ministry play industrial rock/metal these days. I say "As I understand it", because I have listened to nothing they have put out but this. I'm dead serious. And I can promise you, this is pretty strongly removed from any metal/rock/industrial influences, with only the band's electronica influence really showing up. After all, this is synth-pop. Being a child born in the 90s (late in the year 1990, specifically), I have no fond memories of hearing such music over the radio or during outings commonly during my more innocent and joyful days, so there goes any sentimental/nostalgic value this work would have had for me. But I still sort of like this assortment of songs, since I'm not completely unfamiliar with it (Thanks can be given to the soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City).
I'm told that the direction of With Sympathy was largely one pushed upon Mr. Jourgensen by his record label, but one can only wonder. After all, I don't note the typical pop folly of "one passable, catchy song and then a miasma of filler", as every song is in one way or another given a specific flavoring and touch, and overall, it's easy to see that there was more thought put into this work than perhaps the modern-day Jourgensen would like to admit.
As for the sound, it's fairly standard synth-pop with some elements I recall being sagely described as "White man's funk". If you want a better idea of what I'm talking about, look at the track "I Wanted To Tell Her". I can't tell how much of the instrumentation was done by a keyboard, since I hear bass, guitars, and stereotypical key sounds, but I'm fully unaware of how good a job synthesizers could do at replicating such instruments back then (Or even now, for that matter). However, I do know there was a drummer used, which strikes me as odd since I had first felt suspicious of the drums authenticity. The production values are pretty good as well, with all the instruments (Or replicated sounds of instruments) cleanly and clearly heard. Jourgensen's vocal job is, while not unusual or innovative in any way for this genre, very good. He goes from several different moods and pitches during any given song (Not to say he's Freddie Mercury and has an unbelievable range, but still), and while he's faking the British accent, I don't think anyone but a Brit would notice.
I'm sure Ministry fans would be blown out of the water hearing this juxtaposed with the later output, in fact, I'm sure had they released this at almost any other period in their career, it would have been a situation not unlike that whole "Cold Lake" fiasco. Except, unlike Cold Lake, this album actually is pretty solid for what it is (Can't judge it as a metal album, after all), and if you find yourself rushing to the synth-pop channel in GTA the second you enter the car, or you feel hopelessly stuck in the nostalgia this sound brings out, then you might like this.