Ministry – ‘Sphinctour’ A DVD-Audio review by Jeremy Frost

Ministry is the creation of guitarist/vocalist and all around nutcase Al Jourgensen, he and bassist Paul Barker form the core of this revolving mob of musicians. Ministry has put together a tumultuous blend of unclassifiable music that has been evolving with the band for the past twenty years. The Ministry web site proclaims, “Over the course of eight albums and over a dozen tours, Jourgensen and partner Paul Barker have left scars on musical genres ranging from dance to alternative rock to industrial to metal.” Even if you are not familiar with Ministry, you may have seen and heard them in the movie ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ where they provide the appropriate aural backdrop for the Flesh Fair, a celebration of the destruction of robots.

Each of the 11 tracks on ‘Sphinctour’ is taken from a different performance in a different city along the 1996 tour and this fact is advertised clearly on the back of the case. Presumably these are the best performances of each of the respective songs. All but one of the tracks comes from either ‘Psalm 69’ or ‘Filth Pig’, the two newest Ministry albums at the time of the tour. Jourgensen counts the latter among his favorites, but notably absent from ‘Sphinctour’ is the single ‘Jesus Built My Hot Rod’, the best-selling single for Warner Music in 1991.

The first track on the disc, ‘Psalm 69’, is slow getting started, playing creepy samples over some plodding guitar chords and snare hits, but a little over a minute into the song it explodes, doubling the tempo and adding a truly thunderous kick drum. It is a wonderful contrast to the opening, and is repeated for the second verse. ‘Crumbs’ is more methodical and a little anticlimactic by comparison although the lyrics are entertaining and I felt that there is a missed opportunity in the form of some cackling, maniacal laughter that could have benefited from a more liberal surround treatment. ‘Reload’ is memorable only for its brevity and the fact that Jourgensen plays mandolin in it. Yes, mandolin.

My vote for best track on the disc goes to ‘Just 1 Fix’, it begins with a warning, “never trust a junkie,” which is a little ironic considering Al Jourgensen’s history of drug problems. He is sober now but ‘Just 1 Fix’ is a harsh and hard-hitting reminder of a time when he wasn’t. The lyrics and their subject matter don’t get in the way of a great song and truly help it impart a little more impact than it would otherwise have.

N.W.O.’ is a little repetitive but does have some interesting samples to keep the mind busy while the body convulses. ‘Hero’ is short. That is probably because the band could not keep the insane tempo and energy level going for very long – I feel sorry for drummer Reynolds Washam on this song as even I am fighting for breath after just listening – I cannot imagine what it feels like to play the song. ‘Thieves’ from the 1989 album ‘The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste’, blends well with the rest of the tracks here. It also sounds like it was way ahead of its time, after listening to ‘Thieves’ it is obvious that many of the current popular heavy bands draw on Ministry’s style and technique.

With the exception of ‘The Fall’, which ends our journey through everything that is dark and angry, the rest of the tracks are unremarkable. ‘The Fall’ is slow and deliberate and the piano solo makes this one a little lighter than the rest of the songs here. It is a good way to come down from the frenzied head banging high you are sure to have after listening to the rest of the disc.

Give Ministry credit for their fearlessness when it comes to introducing non-standard sounds into their mixture of metal mayhem; keyboard and the aforementioned mandolin are not the usual tools of bands in this genre. But if they’re not quirky enough for you, ‘Filth Pig’ has a harmonica part and ‘Thieves’ ends with samples of the ultimate drill sergeant as played by R. Lee Ermey, from director Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’!

Along with the 96kHz 24-bit 5.1 MLP track there is a 448kb/s 5.1 Dolby Digital track for those without DVD-Audio players. The side dishes here include a biography, Sphinctour dates, photos, and a video. The best extra here is the video, a performance of ‘So What’. Sadly, it has to make do with Dolby Digital 2.0 while the band shows an Ozzy-esque fascination with soaking everything and everyone on and around the stage with water. While it’s nice to have an extra track and bearing mind there is a DVD-Video video version available with footage of all the songs, I like what some other DVD-Audio releases have done by including a video for at least one of the tracks available in 5.1 on the disc. This allows for watching the video while listening to multi-channel audio.

The liner notes for ‘Sphinctour’ are meager. One page out of the two is devoted entirely to the crews on the U.S. and European tours. Small blue print on a bright red background makes what little information there is difficult to read, but under bright lights and aided by a magnifying glass the liner notes do reveal that the recordings are from the front of house mixing board. That probably explains the almost complete lack of crowd noise. It is only apparent for a few seconds at the beginning and end of a track. For this type of concert I would like to hear the crowd a little more because it makes for a heightened, immersing experience.

The liner notes also make it known that all of the recordings began life as two-track DATs. “No multi-track nothing. This is what you heard.” Because this is in 5.1, what you are presented with on this disc is not exactly what was on the DATs, but if you want to hear that and in the absence of a dedicated stereo mix there is a CD release of ‘Sphinctour’ available.

The multi-channel mix of ‘Sphinctour’ is front heavy, primarily using the surround channels for fill and ambience. There is nothing offensive about the usage of the surrounds but there is nothing interesting or controversial either. No swirly surround effects here – in fact, there is absolutely nothing in the surround channels that is not in the front channels. Just a big wall of sound up front and enough going on in the surrounds to make sure you know that they are on. Normally I would be disappointed by this lack of spatial cues but in this case, it is not as big a tragedy as it could be.

The fidelity of the recording is better than you might think, although some of the samples used are unintentionally distorted. ‘Sphinctour’ is not what I would call dynamic but it is not as severely compressed as many of the ‘heavier’ releases during the past few years. When considered as a whole against other live recordings in this genre it is among the best.

Somehow, even as a follower of the heavy metal genre, I had managed to completely miss out on Ministry until now. ‘Sphinctour’ has turned me into a fan. It is the kind of recording that makes you want to crank up the volume and do a little head banging and I applaud Silverline and the DVD-Audio camp for putting out recordings like this. While it may not win any awards for the finest standards of sound quality or surround mixing it is a solid release and it widens the assortment of musical styles available on a recording medium that is nearing adolescence.