Ebb at Their Peak
The real statement of intent came in 1987 with the album That Total Age – the first Nitzer Ebb album to get a full release. The two lead-in singles were both stand-out tracks here – the fast. DAF-inspired basslines now taken up to industrial strength, the layers of percussion bringing metal-bashing ferocity to the overall sound, whilst Doug McCarthy now barks out the lyrics like a drill sergeant from, erm, Barking?
As for the lyrics – well, they haven’t resorted to the whole verse-chorus thing – a few key phrases repeated over and over is all that’s needed here. In the case of Let Your Body Learn, it’s one of EBMs many examples of an obsession with physiology, whilst Muderous is a proper “rally the youth” anthem. Reminders if any were needed that it wasn’t just the punk rockers who tried to start an uprising through music back then.
The third single Join In The Chant that show the other aspect of the Ebb sound. A mid-tempo bass stab, crashing junkyard percussion, and lyrics essentially boiled down to repetition of single words – “Lies!”, “Gold!”, “Burn”, “FIRE!”. I first came across this in the late 90s, having come from a diet of elaborate production technique and endlessly layered sounds – hearing this song was the moment I discovered that music could do incredible things with such minimal source material.
And the great thing about being minimal is people have all sorts of ideas about what they can add to it. The direct influence this song had is clear in every EBM revival act that’s appeared since, but incredibly, it also became an influence on acid house and even became a Balearic Beat anthem! So if you’ve ever criticised a scene DJ for playing ‘Ibiza music’ – be warned – this quintessential EBM call to arms is more Ibiza than anything the futurepop crowd ever came up with!
These three tracks remain the standouts, but the album has plenty more to offer. The opener Fitness To Purpose takes the stripped-down sound to it’s extreme, a couple of bass notes away from being all percussion and shouting, and it doesn’t suffer a bit for the lack of a recognisable tune. Violent Playground is also worth examination at given the increasingly political landscape surrounding our scene in recent times. It’s an ironic statement about the rise of the far-right, far-white fascist movement – they didn’t have terms like ‘edgelord’ back in 1987, so there’s a danger some will take these lyrics literally. But have no fear – Nitzer Ebb have confirmed when asked their left-learning stance, though not quite to the level suggested by the stark, Soviet-style imagery on the cover.
Singles and Versions: The CD version add three extra tracks, most notably “Join In The Chant (Metal Mix)”, which sounds like the title says it does – all glorious crashing, bashing and smashing. The original LP and cassette versions don’t have these, but add “Warsaw Ghetto” from the earlier single instead – however the recent 2LP reissue on Pylon mirrors the CD tracklist.
The three singles described above were released in various forms, both before and after the album. The 12” of “Let Your Body Learn” is the real rarity – it has some addition synth and vocal lines, but seems never to have received a digital release. More easily obtained are the alternate versions of “Join In The Chant” – the “Burn!” and “Gold!” mixes both rearrange the key elements of the original into a more DJ-friendly form – did I mention it was something of a club hit?
The big time was here – Mute label-mates and Essex country-mates Depeche Mode invited them to be the opening band on the European leg of the Music For The Masses tour. Indeed, Nitzer Ebb would have followed them to the USA in 1988 if it wasn’t for some awkward Visa issue relating to “Artistic Merit” (yeah, right). As for the music, ties were cut with both David Gooday (amicably) and producer Phil Harding (less-than-amicably), with Julian Beeston taking over on drums and Mark Ellis (aka ‘Flood’) handling production.
The result of all this was the 1989 album Belief. Gone was the sheet-metal percussion, replaced with a more mechanical beat style, more akin to the emerging techno sound coming out of Detroit. The other key change was that incredible innovation of having-more-than-one-synth-playing-at-once. Hearts and Minds opened the album and was a good an introduction to the updated Ebb sound as any, fat synth bursts competing with the lusty vocals. However, the lasting hit from this album was Control I’m Here – offering occasion bursts of metallic clangs and all-dominating basslines whilst simultaneously integrating them with the more layered sound practised now.
There are other highlights – Blood Money is the closest we get to the throbbing synth pulse and solid underbeat that launched them to fame in the first place, but now embellished with breaks and samples. Shame was picked as the third single but they could have picked almost any of the others, with the possible exception of the never-gets-going For Fun (title probably indicates the reason they put it on the album as I can’t think of any other) and the disjointed slog Drive.
It’s these two tracks that lead me to view this album as the slight inferior of it’s predecessor. The furious pace of the previous album was enough to drive it through the lesser tunes. The highly-technical production here makes the flawed tracks more apparent than they were before. There are schools of music writer – generally those with studio producer backgrounds or ultra-critical ears – that consider the production elements front-and-centre on any electronic music release and they rate this one as the Ebb pinnacle. But I don’t. Not quite.
Singles and Versions: Three singles were released. “Control I’m Here” gets both the usual extended and instrumental version plus a more bass-heavy “Hardcore” mix, well worth acquiring if you found the original a little too minimal. In addition, you also get ‘K.I.A.’, possibly the greatest non-album song by the band – upbeat, ever-evolving bassline and Doug barking away at his best – what more could you want?
The “Hearts and Minds” single is all about the “Mix Hypersonic”, a deeper darker sound and extended to a DJ-friendly six minutes. DJs will also want the “Shame” single in order to get their hands on William Orbit mixes of “Captivate” and “Backlash”, the latter ascending from a nothing filler to a seething slammer. And if you don’t fancy hunting all these tracks down, some CD issues of this album feature a selection of the above, with the forthcoming 2CD version offering the best selection of all, including a just-as-good-as-the-original remix of the critical “K.I.A.”, but those looking for the real shortcut should read to the bottom…
A year later, and the same line-up reunited to deliver Showtime. Opening up like some gigantic production line is Getting Closer, the most prominent example of Doug-and-Bon double act on vocals and a big an anthem as they’d produce at this point of their career. At the other end of the album is Fun To Be Had, another slower opener leading into an unsubtle in-your-face slam. And I point these bookends out first because the middle part of the album offers something quite different. The vocals step down to a sleazy croon, and the musical style, whilst still essentially electronic in origin, has shifted in the direction of blues and funk.
This isn’t as surprising as you may expect – Cabaret Voltaire has already put a funky twist on hard electronics back in the mid-80s, but these boys have also found the dark’n’dirty synth-groove sweet spot. It’s best exemplified by Lightning Man, snarly bassline and spoken vocals taken to the next level by (of all things) an oboe solo! As with the previous album, there’s a few songs that simply don’t work – My Heart is probably the weakest, uncertain as to which era of the bands sound to which it belongs. But as a whole, this album proved to be highly influential, but not in the manner you may expect.
Because whilst this album was being recorded, Depeche Mode were next door finishing off their ‘101’ live album. One thing led to another and next thing we know, Flood was producing ‘Violator’ – if you’ve made it this far, you either own it or at least know all the important songs. And Nitzer Ebb were once again invited to join the Mode on tour. And this time they were actually allowed into North America.
Because Essex bands rule, don’t they?
Singles and Versions: The two obvious anthems – Fun To Be Had and Getting Closer – were issued as a double A-side. Various mixes are on offer. “Getting Closer” has both a “Trance Mix”, which should have worked but tends to drag when listened to as a standalone piece, and a “Kitchen Mix”, a rougher mix for those pining for the aggressive stance of their early material. “Fun To Be Had” is mixed by no one less than George Clinton (this one is sometimes simply referred to as “Long Mix”). Proof if any were needed of validation from the electro-funk establishment.
“Lightning Man” also got a slew of remixes. Barry Adamson’s version is a straightforward extension of the original with a few extra motifs, Renegade Soundwave lose too many good parts of the tune by grafting on their tech beat, so the version you want is “The Industry vs The Ebb”, created by long-time allies Daniel Miller and Paul Kendall. Adding a dance beat and extending to six-and-a-half minutes without losing any of the original groove, it’s a lesson in how to do a ‘dance remix’ without creating an entirely new song along the way. If you’re not up for hunting down ancient CD singles, a 2CD version with most of what you’re after is out in April 2021, plus a 2LP for you analog purists.