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Deep Ass Questions

A Brief History of the Drum Machine in Rock Music

Does the drum machine represent the decay of Western Civilization, or the irreversible march towards progress? We investigate.

by Peter Holslin
12 October 2014, 1:55pm

The drum machine is one of the most effective musical inventions of our time. It’s affordable, easy to use, and ruthless in its precision, able to do exactly what it’s been told for as long as required (so long as you’ve got an AC adaptor). Of course, not everybody warms to the drum machine’s big plastic buttons and bright LED screen.

A decade ago, a musician in LA even launched a movement against it, printing out bumper stickers bearing the now-iconic slogan “Drum Machines Have No Soul.” But if the Bonham fans of the world resent the drum machine’s cold, totalitarian logic, plenty of punks, metal-heads and rockers have exploited that very soullessness to produce potent music.

Case in point: Godflesh. Twenty-five years ago, the legendary Birmingham duo injected new energy into metal with a gloriously brutal debut album, Streetcleaner, whose poisoned roars and agonized riffs achieved extra force thanks to the drum machine. Their beats were rough and mechanized, snapping like iron bear traps. And though the band eventually swapped the machine for live drums—on 1996’s Songs of Love and Hate and 2001’s Hymns—they revive the power of the machine on their new album, A World Lit Only By Fire. On album opener “New Dark Ages,” the devious drumbox punches along through a simple beat, all snappy snares and gunmetal hi-hats to go with singer/guitarist/programmer Justin Broadrick’s 12-ton guitar riff.

Does the drum machine represent the decay of Western Civilization, or the irreversible march towards progress? You could argue both ways, but what’s clear is that in rock, punk and metal—genres that have been known to look askance at processed drums—electronic drums have helped blur the musical lines between man and machine, and redefine the very notions of “organic” and “authentic.” In honor of the release of A World Lit Only By Fire, Godflesh’s first album in 13 years, here’s a brief history of the drum machine in heavy music.

Luigi Russolo and the Futurists
Like the One Ring forged in Mount Doom, the drum machine gives you the comfort of complete power. A real drummer might get tired, or not be good enough to play a complex part. But a machine lets you push things to a freakishly inhuman level, by cranking up the BPMs, making crazy patterns or adding thick layers of effects. Of course, the machine has practical uses. (It really helps when your band sucks; see: Wheelz of Steel). But the real fun comes from doing the impossible, channeling industrial-strength energy and venturing beyond the usual rhythmic and sonic boundaries.

Even before the drum machine was invented, the Italian painter/composer Luigi Russolo understood this urge. A member of the Futurists—a modernist movement originating in Italy in the early 20th century—he had a strong appreciation for the noises produced by industry and war, hearing in them an entirely new spectrum of musical possibility. “Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men,” he declared in his famous manifesto, The Art of Noises, written in 1913.

To achieve his vision, Russolo developed a series of instruments he called Intonarumori, or “noise makers”—acoustic boxes with giant horns affixed to the ends, which produced groans, rattles and other bizarre sounds by pulling handles. Of course, it would be another 18 years before the creation of the first drum machine—Léon Theremin’s peculiar and complex Rhythmicon. But Russolo was the first to pound out a path for future machine lovers to explore.

Big Black
One of the best things about a drum machine is its simplicity. It has buttons. You push those buttons to make a beat. And then the beat plays until you tell it to stop. As the frontman of Big Black in the early-to-mid 80s, Steve Albini took that simplicity and made brutalist noise-rock. For the entirety of its six-year run, the band relied on a primitive Roland TR-606—or simply “Roland,” as they liked to call it in their liner notes. When Albini punched in patterns to go with the band’s finger-shredding riffs, he usually kept Roland’s instrumentation limited to the snare, kick and hi-hats. And while he didn’t use the popular effects of the day to create that “big” 80s snare sound, he still managed to bring out the testosterone of his Japanese-made timekeeper.

Albini was drawn to his trusty 606 for practical reasons, but he also appreciated Roland’s mechanized endurance. In his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, author Michael Azerrad writes that in Big Black’s early days, Albini liked to stroll around his college campus with the 606 switched on, pumping the same programmed beat into his ears for hours. You can feel that same vigor pumping through Roland’s circuits on “Bad Houses,” a cut off Big Black’s 1986 album, Atomizer. This may not be the band’s most popular song, but it’s certainly one of their most iconic beats—a series of bone-jarring thuds on the snare and kick, cycling through the same two-bar pattern for just over three minutes. A lovely kind of crude, indeed.

Foetus and Ministry
The late 80s and early 90s were like a renaissance for musical machines. Sampling technology was entering a new stage of sophistication, and with some artists it wasn’t clear where technology ended and humanity began. Certainly that was the case with JG Thirlwell. Operating under a variety of aliases (most of them featuring the word Foetus), the Australian-born, New York City-based one-man-band has long specialized in a dense amalgam of styles—from big-band punk jams to avant-garde orchestral compositions to concerts featuring real-live robots—but at the time he had a special knack for precision-cut drums that oozed macho-man energy.

For his albums Hole and Nail, from 1984 and 1985, Thirlwell recorded his beats live, but played each part separately to hone a rigid, machine-like style. Gradually, he built up a collection of drum samples recorded in spaces like stairwells and high-ceilinged rooms. This gave the drums a lot of body, and he brought all of that to bear on his most bruising album, 1988’s Thaw. Its opening track, “Don’t Hide It Provide It,” is the ultimate street-brawler anthem, crossing a low-slung guitar lick with a snare drum that knocks like a baseball bat to the head.

But if Foetus threw down, Ministry perfected the art of machine music. The Chicago outfit started out in the early ’80s with a relatively mild synthpop sound, but by the end of the decade they’d pledged fealty to the Dark Side. Somewhere up in Futurist techno-heaven, Luigi Russolo must be emitting a grunt of pure joy as he listens to the band’s 1992 industrial-metal classic, ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ (aka Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs). Reportedly recorded with the help of a Fairlight digital sampling synth—a state-of-the-art piece of hardware at the time—the record is mercilessly, overwhelmingly mechanized. Forget the drum machine: From the car-flying-off-a-cliff guitars of “TV II” right on down to the psycho screams in “Corrosion,” it sounds like the entire band has been forcibly shoved into a sequencing pattern.

Agoraphobic Nosebleed and “Electrogrind”
In a genre that puts a high premium on speed, brutality and technical prowess, it only makes sense that metal artists would resort to programmed drums. After all, not everyone can play like Gene “Human Drum Machine” Hoglan—and even he was replaced by an actual machine, likely for budget reasons, when Fear Factory recorded an album a couple years ago. However, in their 20-year run, Agoraphobic Nosebleed have truly made the drum machine their own. The celebrated grindcore crew has always relied on synthetic and sampled drums, and programmer/guitarist Scott Hull’s complex, organic style embodies their twisted outlook. The BPMs are cranked, but the grooves and intricacies cut deep. With Nosebleed beats you can almost visualize the chaos: semen splattering, surgery getting botched, the Pope being hanged in front of an unruly mob.

Drum programming is a refined practice in metal, and it has a lot to do with the Drumkit from Hell, a software program geared around live drum samples recorded by Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake. Yet in the seedy underground world of electronically assisted grind, quality is a relative term. Type “cybergrind” or “electrogrind” into Google and you’ll quickly stumble down a rabbit hole of lo-fi projects, each one weirder and more ridiculous than the last. Gigantic Brain has plenty of artful, downright moving moments, but Potato Hate Explosion? Uh, the name pretty much says it all. In the end, it’s still hard to top the 2000 debut by Melbourne freakazoids The Berzerker—epileptic grind and distorted Dutch gabber brought together in hideous matrimony.

“Cyberpunks” and Colleen Green
The drum machine was part of punk from the very beginning. In 1977, it pulsed along to the hellish yelps of Alan Vega in Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” and that same year it sent four the skinny Frenchmen of Métal Urbain fist-pumping through the cosmos on their single “Panik.” In more recent years, the machine has been employed by garage-punks like Nobunny and Jay Reatard (see 2007’s World of Shit, an album by Reatard’s “electropunk” side-project Terror Visions) as well as more underground acts (Digital Leather, Gay Anniversary, Stalins of Sound). If you think about it, there’s something innately punk about the drum machine. It’s like a real-life analog to the cyberpunk tools envisioned by sci-fi authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, letting you rebel against stuffy band conventions while at the same time press ever-forward into the future.

Still, one of the best uses of the drum machine in rock today has nothing to do with ideology or revolution. I’m talking, of course, about the music of Colleen Green—the Wayfarers-wearing, pot-smoking garage-rocker known for infectiously DIY tunes like “I Wanna Be Degraded” and “Heavy Shit.” Green’s drumbox sounds like a cheapo thrift-shop affair; you might think her beats were the original factory presets, but even those are probably more sophisticated. Her music is so low budget it’s audacious, but if she employed live drums or more sophisticated drum samples, that would just kill the vibe. Which helps explain why drum machines are so powerful. It’s capable of inhuman feats, but it also speaks to our primal urges. And sometimes all you need is that simple, straightforward beat to make it through.

Peter Holslin has a PhD in drum machine studies. He's on Twitter - @PeterHolslin.