Blaze of Gory
Ministry Bows Out With The Last Sucker

So I promised my friend Mike that when I got around to reviewing Inferno, I’d do it spoiler-free.

Mike is responsible for rekindling my irrational obsession with Doctor Who. He has an admiration for Tom Baker, the fourth and most famous Doctor, but hasn’t seen much before Baker’s run. I’ve been keeping him up to speed on my travels through the early years of Who, and Inferno is one he wants to watch. So I’ll try to keep my promise, but it’ll be tough.

Inferno is Jon Pertwee’s fourth story as the Doctor, and though he got off to a shaky start with Spearhead from Space, this story is proof that the new team found their footing quickly. Pertwee’s first season was dominated by seven-part stories, each lasting nearly three hours, and while you’d think a seven-parter would be intolerably padded, Inferno moves like a bullet. Sure, the cliffhangers are largely manufactured – you have to end each episode with a shock, after all – but this story has a mood of inescapable doom that I’ve never seen on this show before, and it’s marvelously effective.

Of course, I’m grading on a sliding scale – this is Doctor Who, after all. The effects are cheesy, the monster makeup is lousy, the dialogue is nowhere near as good as you’d expect nowadays, and compared to an episode of Lost, the whole thing looks remarkably cheap and staged. If you’re going to be a Doctor Who fan, you just have to deal with all of that. And if you’re able to look past it, Inferno is a splendid, foreboding story, one of the best I’ve seen since I started collecting these DVDs.

What’s it about? Well, scratching the surface, the Doctor is called in as a scientific advisor on a radical project to find new energy sources – a team of scientists is trying to drill past the Earth’s crust and tap into the superheated gases below. The Doc is still trapped on Earth, exiled there by the Time Lords at the end of Patrick Troughton’s run, so our hero is also hoping to use the project’s power source to juice up his time-and-space machine and get the hell out of there.

Things start to go wrong, of course. There’s a green slime that turns people into werewolves, and there’s a madman in charge of the project who ignores safety warnings. All pretty standard stuff for this show, with the Doctor dispensing sage-like advice and the idiot humans refusing to listen until it’s too late. This could have made for a dreadful seven-parter, had it continued down that path.

But then, at the end of the second episode, something happens that sets the story on its ear. And from then on, it’s awesome. I wish I could tell you more. Let’s just say that there’s a sense of palpable danger in the middle four episodes, and the writers take it all the way. It’s a showcase for Nicholas Courtney, as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and for Caroline John, in her final appearance as Liz Shaw.

Inferno is really just a dynamite, crackling story, one of the finest Doctor Who tales I’ve seen. It’s so gripping that I don’t mind how crappy it looks – the original videotapes are gone, and though it exists on black-and-white film, the restoration team rightly decided to go with color videotape recovered from Canada. Unfortunately, after standards conversion and decades of decay, the tapes weren’t in great shape, and the final DVD result is much less sharp than your average Doctor Who release. It’s not a lot better than a VHS tape, frankly, but it’s still clear, and the sound is crisp, and it’s better to have it in this condition than not have it at all.

There are four subsequent Pertwee stories available on DVD in America. (Those lucky Brits already have The Time Warrior too.) I think I may skip the next one, The Claws of Axos, simply because I’m itching to review The Three Doctors, and Axos just isn’t very good. But it is the only appearance on DVD so far of Roger Delgado as the Master, and so it bears a mention, if not a full review.

The Master is a renegade Time Lord introduced in season eight (in every story of season eight, in fact), and he would return to plague the Doctor throughout the series. Roger Delgado played the part first, with a devilish mix of style and cunning, and in Axos, he steals every scene he’s in. Delgado was killed in a car accident in June of 1973, but the Master lived on, later played by Geoffrey Beevers and the late Anthony Ainley. A new Master, played by John Simm, showed up at the end of the third season of the new series as well, continuing the legacy.

The rest of The Claws of Axos is a bit of a mess, sadly, with a poorly-thought-out plot and even poorer effects. But it’s the last bump in the road, as far as the six available Pertwee stories. We’ll get to The Three Doctors next week, but let me just say in advance that it’s a riot, a warm and funny tribute to the show’s first 10 years, with the added bittersweet tinge of William Hartnell’s final performance. It may be my favorite Doctor Who story so far, and I can’t wait to write about it.

* * * * *

I honestly didn’t expect to hear The Last Sucker so soon.

I knew it was coming. Shortly after releasing last year’s incendiary Rio Grande Blood, Ministry mastermind Al Jourgensen announced there would be one more album, and that would be it. The final record would complete Jourgensen’s “George Bush is an insane, dangerous bastard” trilogy, and then, in Big Al’s words, Ministry and Bush would “ride off into the sunset together.”

So it would seem that The Last Sucker is about a year too early to offer any kind of definitive summary of Junior’s time in office. It’s also clearly not designed to influence the 2008 elections – it is, like the previous two albums, fixated on Bush and his administration, and thanks to the merciful gods of term limits, the Texas twit can’t run again. This isn’t an album about 2008, it’s about 2007, and what it feels like to live in King Bush’s America right now.

Of course, the idea that Bush is an insane, dangerous bastard has become much more accepted since Jourgensen began his trilogy with Houses of the Mole in 2004. So this time, Jourgensen has focused on the Iraq war, painting Bush as a bloodthirsty religious nut, determined to bring about Armageddon. The Last Sucker is an angry, violent, nearly relentless album, but given this is supposed to be the final Ministry disc, what else would you expect? Jourgensen unloads with both barrels, offering no analysis, only unfiltered rage at the state of the world.

In some ways, it’s the perfect last Ministry album. The front cover is a masterpiece, a shifting hologram that superimposes a slithering reptile over the face of King Bush II. Open up the sleeve, and you’ll find a pop-up parody of DaVinci’s The Last Supper, with Jourgensen as Jesus and half the members of Bush’s cabinet as the apostles. (I didn’t get the title pun until I saw the pop-up artwork. I’m slow.) The lyrics are vengeful, yet at times surprisingly powerful: the tale of a haunted soldier destroyed by Iraq in “Life is Good” is, at least for Ministry, somewhat deep.

Of course, one song later, he’s calling Dick Cheney the son of Satan, and meaning it. So take all previous claims of lyrical depth with a grain of salt.

But perhaps it’s just me – I was expecting the final album from a band known for high-speed industrial metal noise to be, well… faster and noisier. The first five tracks are all mid-tempo crushers, and while the words are apocalyptically angry, the music just kind of chugs along without matching their fury. It’s good stuff, and certainly leagues better than the last time Jourgensen tried to slow things down (Filth Pig and Dark Side of the Spoon, two of the worst Ministry albums), but it’s not the venomous explosion I was hoping for.

Thankfully, things pick up with “No Glory,” the sixth track. It starts off all sleaze-metal, but before too long it’s rocketing forward, drum machine set on “liquefy.” The mechanical-sounding guitars are amazing here, as always – it’s incredibly difficult to play organic instruments along with a computer, since the machine will never screw up. The furious tempo thankfully doesn’t come back down – “Death and Destruction” is a whirlwind of shrapnel, framing one of Bush’s arrogant giggles as the most satanic sound on Earth, and even a cover of “Roadhouse Blues” doesn’t derail the proceedings, as it’s almost entirely unrecognizable.

The record ends with a two-part, 15-minute powerhouse called “End of Days,” bringing to a close Ministry’s 25-year career. (Or so Jourgensen says…) How do you close out your life’s work? Jourgensen does it by stepping aside, and letting the final words on the final Ministry album come from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The second part of “End of Days” includes a lengthy sample from Eisenhower’s last speech as president, delivered on January 17, 1961, in which he warned against the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” – basically, the machines and money of war.

For three albums now, Al’s been trying to make this point, connecting Cheney and Halliburton to the war in Iraq and charging Bush with profiteering and empire-building. But in the end, Eisenhower’s speech drives the point home better than anything Jourgensen could have written. The former president explains the uneasy relationship of war and profit, uses his famous phrase, and then says this:

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

If there’s a better note for Ministry to go out on, I can’t think of it. We have not been an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, and the military-industrial complex has trampled all over our peaceful methods and goals. Security and liberty have not prospered together. For at least the last five years, Ministry has been all about telling us this. And I hope, in 2008 and beyond, that we finally listen.

Now, of course, I don’t believe that The Last Sucker will be the final Ministry album. This shitty world will no doubt piss off Al Jourgensen again before too long, and we’ll get another righteous blast of intense, precise, explosive rage. And thank God for that, because we need artists like Jourgensen to spit bile all over us every once in a while. But if he’s true to his word, and The Last Sucker is the finale, then it does the job well. It gets off to a slow start, but by the end, it’s a perfect way to bow out, and a strong capper to a quarter-century of venom.

So thanks, Al. Take a bow.

* * * * *

And now it’s time for the third quarter report on my top 10 list.

It’s changed significantly from the second quarter, with new entries in half the slots, and a few stalwarts dropping off entirely after some reconsideration. And you’ll notice that the top two slots have flipped – Silverchair’s still-dazzling Young Modern hasn’t held up as well as I’d have liked on repeat play, while the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away recaptured my heart recently.

I still feel like I haven’t heard the number one album of the year yet, but if I were to finalize the list right now, here’s how it would look:

#10. Suzanne Vega, Beauty and Crime.
#9. Minus the Bear, Planet of Ice.
#8. The Swirling Eddies, The Midget, the Speck and the Molecule.
#7. Over the Rhine, The Trumpet Child.
#6. Bright Eyes, Cassadaga.
#5. Okkervil River, The Stage Names.
#4. Aqualung, Memory Man.
#3. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible.
#2. Silverchair, Young Modern.
#1. The Shins, Wincing the Night Away.

There are still a few terrific-looking weeks coming up, and I still haven’t heard a number of new albums from September yet – I just can’t seem to find the time to stay ahead. So I hope this list changes, and I hope that, like last year, a fourth-quarter surprise will leap out at me and proclaim itself my number one choice. As it is, though, this list isn’t bad at all.

Next week, probably a long one with a bunch of September records I haven’t reviewed yet. And of course, a look at The Three Doctors.

See you in line Tuesday morning.