When Wax Trax! filed for bankruptcy in 1992, cofounder Jim Nash offered an accompanying statement. "We have been credited with being the primary label behind the development of what has become known as 'industrial' music," Nash wrote, detailing how the label had gone bankrupt in explanatory sections with titles such as "Ministry, Al Jourgensen and Crazed Management."
Nash died in 1995; his business and life partner Dannie Flesher died in 2010. Their legendary Chicago record store has been gone for over two decades (the original store, in Denver, has continued under different ownership since the late 1970s), as has the label it spawned. But the latter has been resurrected by Jim's daughter Julia Nash, who started making the Wax Trax! documentary Industrial Accident after driving to Arkansas to retrieve store and label relics from Flesher's garage.
As a business, Wax Trax! suffered from shaky business practices, but as a label, it developed as cohesive a label identity as any U.S. indie. Flagship artists include their most famous U.S. alums Ministry and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, German industrial stalwarts KMFDM and Belgian electronic body music pioneers Front 242. The label's acts tended towards an over-the-top visual presentation and intense musical physicality, creating a catalog that unified pummeling beats with riffs and hooks.
Musical genres are like leftist politics; as soon as a sect is named, the argument about inclusion begins. Industrial Accident is lucky enough to have the genre arbitrated by Chris Carter of industrial icons Throbbing Gristle, whose members all released later work through Wax Trax! In one of the documentary's funnier moments, Carter dubs some of the label's releases "industrial, I guess. Ish."
The soundtrack for Industrial Accident is more than industrial-ish; the only outlier is Revolting Cock Chris Connelly's Scott Walker-influenced solo track "Shipwreck." Opener "A Daisy Chain 4 Satan," by Chicago's My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, epitomizes both the band's early output and the signatures of the first industrial hits: oddly sourced vocal samples, a single unvarying bass riff, and processed shout-sung vocals. TKK were also viciously campy, like the label founders, and thus went endearingly all-in on parent-alarming imagery: sex, drugs, the devil.
The inherent camp of Chicago industrial makes complete sense considering the label's second official release was a single by Divine, John Water's transgressive drag performer muse. After Divine came Ministry's "Cold Life." Al Jourgensen's musical evolution has been well documented-Industrial Accident includes footage of Big Black and an appearance by Steve Albini, who inspired or was ripped off by Jourgensen, depending on who you ask-but the actual missing link between Ministry's various musical phases seems to be this previously unreleased version of "Tonight We Murder," a song written with and sung by TKK's Frankie Nardiello (aka Groovie Mann). Here, the clubby bass and bubbly synths disappear and menacing drum loops and guitar riffs take their place.
Wax Trax! never met an Al Jourgensen side project it didn't like, from his Pailhead work with Ian Mackaye to the prolific, often sophomoric Revolting Cocks. "Animal Nation" sounds like the product of the time Jourgensen spent with young TVT recording artist Trent Reznor; it is slinkier than most RevCo output, with the kind of strong vocal melody and funk-inflected groove that would soon make Reznor the more famous of the two.
Everything else here is a mixed bag of welcome surprises and curios: KMFDM's "Vogue (Apart Version)" and Front 242's 2017 live recording of "Headhunter" are fine, if slightly less satisfying, variations of the originals, both of which were charting dance hits. There's always been a market for dance music you can bang your head to, and "Headhunter" met that need so well that it made Front by Front the label's biggest seller.
In the ensuing years, the Wax Trax! brand hasn't exactly claimed a place in the American indie canon. Even at its peak, it struggled for respect; in a 1992 Maximum Rocknroll interview, Albini derided it as "based on campy, dress-up humor, taking drugs and disco." The focus on societal horrors was largely juvenile, and the questionable flirtation with fascist imagery is best left in the past.
But the beats, they were hard, and the influence of Wax Trax! artists has been widespread and diffuse. The artists influenced by its output today are three or four generations removed-Kanye West's best album, Yeezus, wouldn't have existed without Wax Trax! And just as with the label's original output, that could be a statement of credit or blame.