They, robots: Ministry sets the tone for 'A.I.'


June 29, 2001



Steven Spielberg's ''A.I.: Artificial Intelligence'' is a film about the love-hate relationship between human beings and machines.

Could there possibly be a better band for the soundtrack than Ministry, the group that pioneered industrial rock by merging electric guitars and drum machines in the mid-'80s?

The formerly Chicago-based band is featured prominently in the film, performing a new track called ''What About Us?'' during a techno-psychedelic robot demolition rally called a ''Flesh Fair.'' A video that's been pitched at MTV intercuts scenes from the movie--including a conversation between Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law--with footage of the band's futuristic stage show.

It's a typical Ministry irony that bandleaders Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker look much more like robots in the clip than the film's outrageously cute stars, who are actually portraying all-too-human androids.

It's also ironic that the band makes no pretense of being Spielberg fans. In an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Barker called the blockbuster director's movies ''not necessarily that titillating.''

''I have no idea [why we were asked to contribute],'' Barker added. ''Maybe there were people who could persuade the producers that this was a hip and groovy thing to do, and they grew up with Ministry.''

A generation of rock fans did come of age with the band's abrasive mix of metallic noise and churning dance grooves. Without its pioneering efforts for Chicago's Wax Trax! label and later recordings such as ''The Land of Rape and Honey'' for Sire Records, the music of groups such as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and Tool would be unthinkable today.

Ministry left Chicago and relocated to a former brothel outside Austin, Texas, in 1993, but the band's best music will always be associated with this city and Chicago Trax studio; Jourgensen and Barker still regularly commute to record here; ''What About Us?'' was recorded at Chicago Trax. But Ministry has been in a bit of a slump since its commercial peak in the mid-'90s, when it scored a major hit with ''Jesus Built My Hot-Rod'' and performed as part of the Lollapalooza festival.

The group's last album, 1999's ''Dark Side of the Spoon,'' was a typically inventive and uncompromising effort, but shows in support of the disc were lackluster and left many fans feeling disappointed.

Now the veteran art-rockers are attempting to resuscitate their career, taking maximum advantage of their exposure in ''A.I.'' (opening today) and reminding listeners of nearly two decades' worth of musical highlights.

The new single appears as the lead track and only previously unreleased recording on ''Greatest Fits,'' a best-of collection that arrived in stores Tuesday. Unfortunately, ''What About Us?'' is an unremarkable, hookless bit of grinding mechanical noise, and it doesn't really deserve to share space with earlier creative peaks such as ''Stigmata,'' ''N.W.O.'' and the group's killer cover of Black Sabbath's ''Supernaut.''

Sire Records has no word as yet of the band's plans to tour this fall of ''Greatest Fits.''