Pailhead – Trait (1988)

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I first heard Pailhead on the classic skate flick Streets on Fire back when I was thirteen. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I only found out this year it’s Ian Mackaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi) singing on the tracks. Streets on Fire got me into the Descendents, Black Flag and Sonic Youth. I liked the whole soundtrack, it was just the kind of music I was looking for at the time. I sought out the bands mentioned immediately. Around this time I got into Minor Threat probably my favourite band and I love everything Ian’s done, so I should have made the connection. Trait released on Wax Trax! Records is the sole CD release from Pailhead a collaboration with Ian Mackaye and Al Jourgensen of Ministry. The release also contains other members of Ministry and Naked Raygun drummer Eric Spicer so this could definitely be regarded as a super-group. It’s unfortunately out of print although second hand copies are quite affordable and easy to find otherwise it’s up on Spotify.

Trait along with Ministry’s The Land of Rape and Honey recorded and released around the same time, shows Al Jourgensen’s shift to a more aggressive industrial sound. Trait creates an intense almost post-apocalyptic industrial atmosphere, with hypnotic deep bass drum sounds, and drone guitar tones. The straight forward bass lines are in the middle of the mix on ‘Don’t Stand in Line,’ giving the song a unique groove that works with the reverb on the drums (that are prominently up front) to create an atmospheric soundscape. Moments on the album like ‘Man Should Surrender’ and ‘Don’t Stand in Line’ are perfect examples of the success of this hardcore meets industrial exploration.

Al Jourgensen and Ian Mackaye prior to recording Trait had separately explored moody territory on their Twitch and Embrace Self-titled releases respectively. The two collaborators came from vastly different backgrounds although on this release they meet somewhere in the middle. It’s their willingness to embrace each other styles whether that’s hardcore punk or industrial that makes this such an enjoyable listen. On the topic of Pailhead, Al Jourgensen told Pitchfork in 2008 that “We both decided that even though we had very different lifestyles, we had the same mentality– politically, and in a lot of other different ways. His (Ian’s) statement was, ‘We’re going to the same place, except you’re taking a taxi, and I’m driving my own car’.”[1] It’s not so much a mash up of style, as the two melding together their and moody and aggressive similarities into something cohesive.

Ian Mackaye brings a hard edge punk approach to the heavy industrial sound, while Jourgensen abandons his synth dance style on Trait in favour of the aforementioned aggression. ‘I will Refuse’ perfectly melds Jourgensen’s vast soundscape of soundbites and industrial percussion with  Mackaye’s explosive vocal performance, he is all rage here like something straight off a Minor Threat 7”. There are mellow moments like ‘Anthem’ and ‘No Bunny’ which blend subtle dub reggae elements with  Jourgensen’s industrial soundscapes, these tracks have a sort of Fugazi or Sonic Youth feel.

Recorded during a low point in hardcore the album evolves the sound to bring new energy to heavy punk music. It’s such a unique record for a time when established punks were moving towards more mainstream rock, new wave or to the other extreme with crossover thrash. Pailhead was a revelation, something fresh and new when many of the original punk bands were floundering. If it were to be compared with something it would be Bl’ast! with their heavy dark punk sound, but even that’s a lazy comparison.

Trait is such an overlooked release that is well worth a listen. It features two legendary artists meeting at a volatile point in their respective careers. Both were well established in 1988 although they would go on to become huge in subsequent years taking vastly different musical directions. Trait features sonically the darkest and heaviest music Ian Mackaye would make while Al Jourgensen would push this sound to new extremes with Ministry.


Reference List

[1] Jourgensen, A. (2008). Ministry: Interview .Retrieved from http://pitchfork.com/features/interview/6874-interview-ministry/.

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