Industrial-Strength Mystery: Zach Swagger

As it is generally understood, the aesthetic of early industrial music was the product of a confluence of factors very specific to its era and its most significant locales (namely, New York City and various then-decaying urban centers in the UK and Germany). The world was getting louder and more depersonalized: as people moved to the suburbs, more cars clogged the freeways, and more construction crews and factories worked overtime to fulfill the needs of this burgeoning junk culture. Those suburbanites being served by these increases in volume retreated, in turn, into pharmaceutical comas to cope with the noise (not to mention the dashed dreams of 1960s idealism, in many cases). Meanwhile, popular culture producers consolidated themselves into national (and international) conglomerates, pushing out local competition and tightening their grip on the mass psyche. It was a time of light entertainment as opiate; whereas the Beatles tried to use their massive popularity to turn a mirror on society and expand consciousness, the likes of the Carpenters and even hard rockers like Led Zeppelin retreated into niceties and fantasy. Any strides toward radicalism were not idealistic, but ornamental.

It was in this climate that rejects from the leisure-suit-and-Quaalude society gathered clandestinely to voice their dissent, in small groups comprised of art students, drug addicts, ideologues, and complete sociopaths (often two or more of those things at once). William S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard provided the Holy Texts; David Lynch’s Eraserhead, along with Derek Jarman’s early films, planted the seeds of a visual aesthetic; early starters Suicide provided a basic modus operandi of repetition and confrontation; and for awhile, the voices in the urban wilderness provided the rest, creating a wide variety of pulsing, wrenching sound that set out to either redefine or destroy rock and roll, and maybe, in the case of Throbbing Gristle, even poise its makers as potential “Wreckers of Civilisation”.

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The above is basically the accepted genesis story of industrial music. That’s fine… it’s a good place to start. However, it doesn’t account for the slew of tapes and vinyl hidden in surprising pockets throughout the world, an undulating mass that suggests that, as much as locale is relevant to the work of Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, Suicide, Whitehouse, and the like, the “industrial revolution” was hardly limited to the operational bases of its luminaries, and may have indeed been a hive mind phenomenon for cracked psyches worldwide.

Empty Highways-frontI bring this up as an introduction to my favorite case in point, that of the mysterious Zach Swagger. I’ve yet to find any substantial information on this guy, save that he was based in Arlington, Virginia, a curious place indeed for an industrial music wunderkind. I should watch my hyperbole, though: the fact of the matter is, there are only four 7” sides available to substantiate any of my claims, and one even betrays a wider palette than what is generally accepted as industrial.

Nevertheless, the Empty Highways 7” (released in 1980), which I discovered in the library at WCBN a few years ago and have obsessed over ever since, is a brilliant basement cacophony that could only be called industrial. There are pounding drums, electric drills, distorted vocals, numbing repetitions, and all of the other hallmarks of a proper industrial record. It is as if Swagger challenged himself to evoke the mood of David Lynch’s early work sans image, to make sure that the blind could share in its glorious disorientation. It’s also as funny as Lynch, given that the title track is primarily a repetition of three phrases which quickly move from imposing to nonsensical to giggle-worthy, and back. It lacks the formal challenges of Burroughs’ Breakthrough in the Grey Room, but it’s just as satisfying a listen. The flip, “Going Going Gone”, is even more gnarled and psychedelic, complete with what sounds like either a glockenspiel or a children’s toy xylophone tinkling ominously through the mix, bringing to mind Genesis P-Orridge and Stan Bingo’s What’s History? cassette.

TV True-frontOn the only other recorded evidence I’ve been able to find of Swagger’s inspired dementia, the TV True Tonight/Try To 7”, some of the more extreme industrial elements are left aside in favor of a more song-oriented, high-strung sound akin to the Residents, Space Negros, or Devo’s early Booji Boy experiments. I’m not as excited about this one, but it’s certainly a fine entry in the post-punk catalog, and is more sideways and dystopic than most of its contemporaries. The worst I can say is that the delivery sometimes makes me think of Frank Zappa (or, maybe worse, Zoogz Rift). We’re none of us perfect, I guess…

The relatively middling feelings towards the latter release notwithstanding, these fourteen minutes of music are among the most supremely frustrating in my collection, in that they leave me longing for more. The back cover of Empty Highways claims that the record (or perhaps just the B-Side) are sections from a longer project called Great Breath. Whether this is evidence of an extant longer project shelved due to myriad constraints (i.e. budget, time, lack of interest), a tape that’s actually floating around somewhere, or just the bluster of an ambitious artist, I may never know, but damned if I don’t want to know.

GET YOUR SWAGGER

Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.