Over the last year or two of the nineties, and then a good few years into the new Millenium, the hybrid of industrial and noise took over the club dancefloor in our scene. It was everywhere. Noise clubs sprung up, existing clubs had noise sets or entire noise floors. Even Huddersfield had a noise night (Implant) for a while, that eventually moved onto Manchester and bigger things, as the main industrial festivals frequently put on acts from the scene.
Two labels dominated things in Europe, at least, as the scene exploded. ant-zen and Hands Productions – both from Germany – were the home of most of the artists for a good period, and for someone new to it, they were the obvious place to start. Intriguingly both labels had striking visual signatures, too, but in very different ways.
Of those artists I first heard, Converter was the artist that got me into industrial, or rhythmic, noise. There, I said it. And I suspect that I’m not the only one who saw in Scott Sturgis’ work an inspiration, a sign that things were a whole lot heavier and more interesting when you looked a bit beyond.
With only three albums proper, although with various other bits and pieces besides, there was brevity in the active phase – just five years – that meant the quality overall was exceptionally high. However, rather than reassessing the most popular album Blast Furnace – an album that somehow manages the feat of sounding ever more extreme with every listen, even well over fifteen years after release, never mind having a bona fide industrial club hit that was eight minutes long and was more punishing than anything else at the time – I’m going back to the debut instead.
Blast Furnace was, of course, the first Converter album I picked up, and I came to this a bit later. So I can only imagine the impact this brutal album had on listeners at first. Everything about it is uncompromising.
The beats sound as if sheared from sheets of metal, the scorching samples the sound of terrified listeners as their souls are ripped out. Even the quieter moments have a nagging dread about them.
There isn’t even a chance to be eased into it, either. Conqueror, the monstrous opening track, starts with screeching, snarling squalls, before an ominous set of rhythms – there are four of them competing for space – set up one short sample (“I Will Become Master of the Universe” apparently from 50s B-Movie The Brain from Planet Arous!) and then the main rhythm blasts away the doors, the house and most of the area around it.
Indeed, Conqueror is almost all of Scott Sturgis’ approach as Converter in one track. Converter always struck me as a musical concept where the whole idea of “industrial” is pushed to the limit. What if those beats and sounds were actually mimicking those of industry? Those of the blast furnaces in industrial cities, those of steel mills, those of iron works. The industry that made and makes our world. The hammering of presses, the screeching of metal being cut and forged. Fashioning material into new shapes.
This industry was never quiet, and broadly, neither was Converter. At points it was close to physically hurting if you played it loud enough, and I have long been on notice to warn my now-wife well in advance if I’m even considering playing any in a DJ set (never mind at home, where I’ll just wait for her to be out of the house!).
Back to the music, though, and what was also interesting was how restless it often was. Sounds would come and go, beat structures and entire rhythms may only last parts of songs. The title track was a case in point, ultra-distorted beat patterns split the track into sections, with a common background rhythm hooking them all together.
Even when things slowed down, such as on Cannibals, it is not remotely an easy listen. Static oozes out of the speakers, covering everything else, and the only clarity on the whole track is one shocking sample (“all obsessed with the taste of flesh“) amid the sonic carnage.
And when it isn’t unsettling, it is downright scary. Spirit Shield is obviously holding something back in the gloaming of the first couple of minutes, as whining synths take the reins, but when the avalanche of hammering beats cut in, it still makes me jump and go “what the fuck?”. And then there is the last minute, where the beats get ever faster, ever louder, there are screams amid the maelstrom, and it is fucking exhilarating…and it just stops again, without warning. Scott is, you realise by this point, fucking with our minds.
As I recall, Coma was actually the lead track on this album – mainly as it had been the title track of an EP that featured some, but not all, of this album, earlier in 1999. And while it had some heavier, metall auf metall moments, it was perhaps logical to think of it as the link between Converter and Scott Sturgis’ previous project Pain Station – especially as Pain Station were still a going concern in 1999 (and the album of that year, Cold is actually very good). The sound here was more fluid, with something at least vaguely recognisable as a synth hook there amidst the hammering breakdowns, and a rhythm that didn’t eat its own tail at any point.
After the searing brutality of the first half, later tracks at least take their feet off the neck. Sure, there is the relentless wheeze of the mechanical production line (Sacrifice), or the ominous synth washes and static storm of Memory-Trace, but for a while it feels as if the album is going to waste the momentum built up, even while Deadman (Perdition) offers scorched earth noise for a few minutes.
But then, Denogginizer hits. Twelve minutes of punishing, layered rhythms, that are built upon each other from a base of hazy static, everything has a grubby, jagged edge, and by the close you’re pretty much bludgeoned into submission – and the searing, treated howl that opens the closing Sadist perhaps sets the listener up for what is to come – three minutes of brutal, aural pain. One last crack of the whip before Scott Sturgis takes a break from his power trip.
That break didn’t last particularly long, mind. Blast Furnace – an album that took his industrial powerhouse sound to even more shocking extremes, and as noted earlier, spawned a massive industrial dancefloor hit in Death Time (it’s success is still surprising even now) – followed in 2000, while the collaborative release Erode (with fellow noise luminaries Asche and Morgenstern dropped in 2001, an extended EP that is most notable for the even more extreme (and relentless) Monster, that has terrorized dancefloors for the past fifteen years.
I remember catching Converter live just the once, at Infest years ago, where he put in a 45 minute masterclass on the Sunday that saw most artists in the UK noise/industrial scene down the front to see how it was done, and he didn’t disappoint. By this time, his last new album (the more introspective, and considerably more restrained, Exit Ritual) had been released, and it was perhaps clear even then that Scott Sturgis had tired of pushing the ante yet further.
But then, where else could he go? Few artists before or since have unleashed such pummelling – and listenable – noise-based industrial, particularly stuff you could dance to, and it is maybe worth noting that Converter was probably the pinnacle of the industrial-noise crossover that was so popular for a decade or so around the millenium.
Like many scenes, however, it wouldn’t last. The popularity of noise waned, at least in the industrial mainstream, and while ant-zen and Hands still are active labels, they’ve diversified somewhat nowadays, and it isn’t all harsh noise. Many other labels released material and fell by the wayside in the meantime.
So, Converter was quietly put to pasture – not before a couple of excellent odds-and-ends compilations tied up the loose ends, and other than a one-off album under the name Lowness about six or seven years ago, I’m not aware that Scott Sturgis has released any other music since.
What’s really remarkable, though, is just how listenable (and enjoyable) Converter’s work is, which is some feat for music that is so extreme, and unlike other artists from around that time, it has lost none of the intensity – or volume – as time has passed.
I’m sure my wife will disagree, mind…