Houston duo //TENSE// are notable for a number of things. Resurrecting the dark efficiency of EBM. Doing it authentically enough to sound like some lost Wax Trax white label. Being relatively prolific in terms of dance production or at least really effing fast; Introducing and Consume dropped just a few months short of each other. And these are all very, very notable things, but not the notable thing, the real mind boggler: the ways in which //TENSE// are so similar to a specific period of Ministry. The coming of age. Pre-Al Jourgensen Cowboy Hat situation and all that.
Don’t get me wrong: neither Introducing nor Memory, the duo’s self-released debut, are an exact sonic sister to Ministry’s melodic With Sympathy. Introducing especially is straight synth-stabbed EBM, heavy and sequenced, owing as much to Kraftwerk and 90s house as it does the Chicago glory bands that spawned it in the first place. And it’s not unsure of these things; //TENSE// aren’t merely inspired by menacing mid-80s dance here, they’re copying it flat out.
But metaphorically (and pretty much only in retrospect), the EP lives in a similar space to Ministry’s first full-length. When With Sympathy hit in 1983, it was a lockstep approximation of the synth-pop racing up charts, a certain catchy what’s-it-called that the band would reference only in snippets from there on out. Jourgensen has since cast it off as a product of Arista management pressure—“an abortion of an album,” he’s said—but the facts remain: two of the three singles charted, it was danceable to its core and super-easy to like. It may have smiled a bit much, contained just hints of the band Ministry would become, but it almost certainly set the stage for them to become that band.
Now, //TENSE// didn’t create Introducing or Memory under any sort of label pressure. Chances are, they won’t ever disown either, let alone with the bitchy vitriol Jourgensen did With Sympathy. (Though, as a side note here, I’d argue that even if Jourgensen made a conscious decision to hate the album post-facto, he still sang in that faux-British accent at the time and clearly had at least a passing affinity for synth-pop. Most electro producers do, dude; even in his most Everyone Hates Me God Is Dead I’m Tying This Guy To A Grinder And Fucking His Face Off years, Trent Reznor still knew how to play “Sex Dwarf”). But Introducing is just as easy to enjoy in its simplicity—a straightforward genre-expansion of Memory that explodes its bitterness the way Ministry did at first: not what they say, really, but how they say it…and which beat they say it over. The tracks are similarly visceral, stoked to rehash all the stuff so many of us were chomping at the bit to have rehased. “Belle II” and “Cash In” beg for a dance floor; the FM-synthesized melodies wafting over “Boys In Black Leather” wink with the same weird optimism as Ministry’s “Revenge (Did It Again)”. And, like With Sympathy, it’s acquired its fair share of people desperate to call bullshit. Heard it, they say. Why should I care? Trend. Too easy.
But then we get to follow-up EP Consume and the trajectory opens like a forest path: Introducing, however fantastic in its own right, set the stage for this more complicated release—exactly what With Sympathy did (unintentionally) for Ministry’s Every Day Is Halloween 12” and the following Twitch.
If you want to get nitpicky about it, Consume actually starts on the last track of Introducing; “Creature of the Night”, with its Friday the 13th bass, the surging horror of it, foreshadows the next EP’s John Carpenter meets Thrill Kill Kult vibe. It’s pockmarked with possessed samples, panicked breaths, these interstitial mini-songs with nothing but a voice wailing from somewhere distant and, obviously, fucking satanic. Where Introducing had its playful moments, Consume is straight dangerous.
Okay, but wait. Let me cop to this fallacy right now: Every Day Is Halloween? Not the most dangerous of singles. More dissonant than anything on With Sympathy, sure, and with substantially more interesting production, but it’s not like Jourgensen turned into Genesis P-Orridge overnight. That cowboy hat took a few years, you know. Halloween was, above all else, a dance single. Just a scarier one. Sort of.
And Consume is, above all else, a dance record. It may be more dynamic, studded with orchestra swells and synth melodies that stop just shy of Underworld, but it’s still fit for a retro club night. What makes it complicated then is its shock of perception. In the span of only a few songs, //TENSE// went from visceral copycatism (which, by the way, isn’t always a bad thing) to a nuanced version of EBM that yes, takes its cues from everything that’s come before—and sure, follows both Introducing and Memory logistically if not conceptually—but is ultimately a separate world from those first releases. Consume announces //TENSE// as not just a destined-to-fizzle redux group but actual artists with an actual vision and burgeoning identity. Again: precisely what Twitch did for Ministry, even if that identity got to be super annoying ad nauseum.
But here’s the rub: though Jourgensen says he built the bones of Twitch prior to With Sympathy, that 1985 album couldn’t have existed publicly without the simultaneous existence of Alien Sex Fiend and Skinny Puppy. They bolstered each other; Jourgensen didn’t respond to a trend with dollar signs in his eyes—these things happened too closely together, time-wise—but he did react to its energy on a real base, personal level. Likewise, the horror show of Consume would struggle without the simultaneous cushion of Salem, Mater Suspiria Vision, the whole lot. You can’t accuse //TENSE// of milking a trend—they are, after all, at the forefront of creating it and probably made Consume at almost the same time as Introducing—but you can argue that their path is sustained by the similar paths of so much underground culture.
‘Course, you can argue that with anything. Things exist because other things existed first or at the same time. Community happens, inspiration is inspiration, et cetera, et cetera, blah blah blah, et al. The difference with both //TENSE// and Ministry is that they pushed forward their identities out of faith in that very process: the (mostly metaphorical, not totally conscious) idea that even if you decry it later—and only if you’re really lucky and/or really talented—the work you do mimicking the masters will slowly but surely shape the unique story your band eventually tells. After cutting their teeth on With Sympathy and Twitch, Ministry helped publicize the face of 90s industrial. //TENSE// worked their way through pure EBM, then nuanced EBM with a creepy drag cushion and now…who knows? But if they keep the faith alive, continue to operate in the trajectory they seem to be operating, it’ll be loud. It’ll be memorable. And it’ll be nobody but //TENSE//.