There’s plenty of new music to go around — Blixa Bargeld might argue too much, even back in 1991 — and many independent artists are struggling more than usual to get their music picked up due to the perhaps irreversible repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many things in the music industry feel either completely up in the air or at a flat-out standstill leaving artists floating in extreme uncertainty. The global crisis has affected nearly every aspect of the music industry: from the operations of record labels to live shows to public relations to music journalism to booking agencies.
Nonetheless, artists — particularly DIY artists — are finding a way to make it work and we are seeing music released in record numbers. Of Atlanta’s most recent notable releases is CRT’s State X-ray, out on March 20 in digital and vinyl formats via DKA Records. CRT, which is short for CopyrightRegisteredTrademark, is the solo EBM/industrial project of longtime Atlanta musician/punk/noise engineer Michael Keenan.
Around and outside of Atlanta, Keenan is likely most remembered as the frontman for long-running noise rock outfit HAWKS, which gained considerable recognition nationally and internationally. After HAWKS called it a day in 2017 with its final release, the ripping yet refined No Cash Value, Keenan began to work on what would eventually become CRT. Keenan was also in numerous side projects before, during, and after HAWKS’ run time, such as Electrosleep International (ESI), GRUU, and NAARC. CRT is Keenan’s first solo venture and (technically) his first fully immersed step into the forays of EBM/industrial as an artist.
“After HAWKS stopped, I found myself leaning hard back into dance music and EBM,” says Keenan. “[I really wanted to] focus on writing music I wanted to write without having to compromise the songs because of someone else. I bought a few pieces of kit and I started learning the ins and outs of how to work with them and creating a workflow. I played in an electronic duo called Airoes back in the early 2000s with Jeph Burgoon who was also ESI’s drummer. It, coincidentally, was the first time I ever got naked on stage at a show. Writing in a more strict, pattern-based format wasn’t anything new; just the idea of being alone on stage was new, so the idea of CRT was starting to form.”
CRT debuted in April 2018 with CS1 which was followed by CS2 in March 2019, garnering nods from industrial, EBM, noise, and post-punk circuits alike. Compared to its predecessors, State X-ray arrives a bit more complete. Comparatively, it is produced with a greater sense of permanence and cohesion, rather than a compilation of blitzes and bursts strung together. Where CS1 and CS2 felt erratic and scattered, State X-ray glides through while still maintaining every bit of its subversive power. The album encompasses themes of “struggle, social revolt, transformation, and emotional sacrifice.” These are all things industrial has endless space for, but they are also what Keenan so aptly describes as, “Basic ass punk themes.”
“There are certainly things that define a genre both thematically and sonically,” Keenan explains when asked about the move from noise rock/punk to EBM/industrial. “I’ve always wanted the music I create to have a certain level of authenticity in how it feels and sounds. That’s extremely important to me. For example, even if no one else knows that it was written on hardware or that all the samples were created from scratch, I know that it was. That idea holds true no matter what genre we are talking about. And let me put this question to you. Einstürzende Neubauten, Big Black, Nervous Gender, Godflesh, Kraftwerk, Coil, Swans. What genre do they or should they exist in? It has been argued Front 242 created the body music genre, but they were basically a punk band with a drum machine. Or Nitzer Ebb — they have two live drummers and a range of samples. Non?”
Yes. And this crossover of aesthetic and ethos is well exemplified in CRT’s composure and overall execution while falling into the classifications of industrial and EBM genres. Comprised of various field recordings, VHS compressed audio, modular synths, and hardware sequencers, State X-ray is not necessarily an easy listen. This is in the proper way that most industrialized music isn’t, simply because it’s not supposed to be. The entire genre emerged from the premise of using “anti-music,” or noise, to challenge existing systems and their authoritarian, corporate flaws. The genre and its subculture seek to dismantle barriers within the listener using the very sounds of the machinery it’s attempting to destroy.
In State X-ray, CRT challenges listeners in an array of tumultuous downfalls and treacherous upheavals, seemingly driving the chariot in what feels like a steep decline. Six tracks and 36 minutes long, the album is full of chops, screws, and hooks that grab the listener and linger long first listening.
State X-ray is not insidious by any means; it confronts you immediately. Opening track “Skin Beneath Skin” explosively kicks things off with an infectious beat, blaring synths, and rattling drum kits. We’re then dipped into “Strangeways Cafeteria in Dub,” where the machinery is jolty and abrasive, complete with militant rhythm and beats seemingly preparing us for internal battle. “Threshold” features Keenan’s vocals, deadpan and detached in a whirling factory pummeling us into our new dystopia. A bit more supportive of body movement than the rest, this track brings home what “Skin Beneath Skin” left to pick up. “So Normal” follows in another extension of what feels like Twitch-era Ministry of two-step beat-driven EBM and industrialized distortion.
Perhaps the punkiest the album gets is in “Dionysian Velvet,” the shortest song on the album featuring angular tones, pulverizing drum beats, and Keenan’s sinister vocals. The album closes with “Survive by Virus,” a hollow echo chamber winding us down to the album’s end. While it is the most obvious accidental correlation to COVID-19, it’s the album’s first written song. Keenan originally wrote the song in late 2018 following the sudden passing of fellow musician and close friend Josh Fauver, best known for playing bass in Deerhunter. Keenan and Fauver played music together throughout the ‘90s in ESI and Mascara Aesthetic. Here, we are fully embraced by CRT’s juxtaposition of aggression and melancholy, completely bringing us to the edge.
“I was traveling in Eastern Asia for work when I heard the news,” Keenan remembers. “It took me a while to fully process it. It didn’t come as a surprise, but it hit me pretty hard. I mixed all the tracks for CS2 while I was on that trip, and ‘Survive by Virus’ was finished a few days before his service. It’s based around his struggle with addiction and surviving alongside something you have learned to live with. There are no lyrics yet; the themes are invoked through the somber tones and pacing of the track and I used a guitar of his for some of the samples within the track.”
In State X-ray, Keenan leads the way as we come face-to-face with our own malware and internalized capitalistic programming. While CRT is an extension of Keenan’s work that appears on the surface to be a step in a completely different direction, a closer look shows the message remains the same: to challenge everything we thought we knew and come to terms with our collective discontent.
“The current social/political climate is ripe for subversive art,” says Keenan. “Everyone is, and should be, extremely frustrated with the lack of basic human empathy, understanding, and reasoning. I guess at the very least, the planet is getting to have a little break from everything we continue to do to it as a species. We should all probably spend some time listening to more No Trend or Rudimentary Peni.”
Perhaps it is truly, finally time to rip it all up and start again. The question is, will we be prepared to face and accept that truth head-on?