These Rhythms Still Have Relevance Revisiting the relationship between music and labor through sonic materialism, prospective time, and industrial group Test Dept

Below are two musical moments, 30 years apart yet geographically proximate. In one, a striking choir of South Wales miners joins in song with the experimental wallopings of “industrial” ensemble Test Dept, a surprisingly rare meeting between what some might term “L’artiste” and “l’industriel,” a particularly grounded avant-garde. In the more recent, a passive-aggressive bull terrier of a boss leers over his workers in a Swansea call center, invoking them to stand and “sing, Mr Brightside, The Killers, C#” as “miserable bastards don’t sell, happy people sell, and happy people sing.”

Some would argue that these two vignettes simply express a general decline in industrial organizing and musical radicalism, just another example of the loudly bemoaned death of “protest music” (usually narrowly defined as anything a bit like Billy Bragg). Yet, as we come to the end of this 30th anniversary year of the UK miner’s strike, these examples can be seen more productively as a lead-in to two important questions: How has the relationship between work and labor changed in the last 30 years, and can looking back to a more industrialized past help us imagine a brighter future?

In this piece, I will use the story of the reunited Test Dept to look at links between music and labor, to question models of history that see the past as a finite “resource,” and to instead see how projects like Test Dept’s create a leaky, unfixed idea of the past, one that hopefully helps us to move beyond linear notions of industrial or musical “progress.” This comes as the band prepare to release a new book, Total State Machine, “a unique historical document and visual representation of Test Dept, one of the UK’s truly investigative agitators, authentic industrialists, utilisers and recyclers of society’s debris,” while members of the group continue to work within struggles both old and new.

Neither Solid nor Air

I take issue with a current thrust in music criticism, typified by Simon Reynolds in the introduction to his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011) with the questions: “What happens when we run out of past? Are we heading towards a sort of cultural-ecological catastrophe, when the seam of pop history is exhausted?” (2011:14). Disputing this vision of the past as resource, emotively felt yet expressed in material metaphors, “the feeling of belatedness, of living after the gold rush” (Fisher, 2013), means moving beyond narrow ideas of the “past” and “sound.”

Many approaches to these notions have failed to see how, in Delanda’s words, “Matter has morphogenetic capacities of its own and does not need to be commanded into generating form” with “subjective experience not as organized conceptually by categories [of a brain] but as literally composed of intensities (of color, sound, aroma, flavor, texture) that are given structure by habitual action.” Taking broad inspiration from that notorious Mumford & Sons fan, Gilles Deleuze, I’d like to build a conception of the past informed by the expanded sense of the “material” we get from being attentive to sound, not as limited resource but as an excessive, generative force that evades and leaks out of the conceptual categories we attempt to fix to it. This also has implications for our understanding of the relationship between music and labor, as much of the music we love has played on these blurs, toying with ideas of past and future, but also pushing sounds and rhythms associated with “work” away from their prescribed contexts. The sound environment of a workplace has long been manipulated by bosses and managers for higher profits; perhaps it’s time we started transforming and reclaiming the sounds of labor for ourselves again, as many have done before.

In order to do this, we’re going to need to do three things: think through some broader ideas of what sound or sonic matter might be, try to move toward a philosophy of the past that neither reduces it to a fixed material form nor imagines it as always socially constructed in the present, and to consider the implications of these ideas in terms of the ways in which our workplace has changed over the last 30 years.


Sound is material. It moves, contorts, shapes, and helps construct the space around us, often in ways beneath audible immediacy. As Steve Goodman (a.k.a. Kode 9) persuasively demonstrates in his book Sonic Warfare (2009), this can have extreme and often destructive manifestations. From the building-shaking “sonic boom” engines deployed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip and the Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) used to disperse striking Walmart workers and protesting crowds alike, to teenager-deterring “mosquito” (ibid:41) sound emitters and other lower-level vibrational forces, the “politics of frequency” (ibid:19) that permeates our lives involves a constant deployment of sound as material, “sound as force” (Goodman, 2009:37). Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2007) is one of the few academics in his field trying to push beyond the primacy of observation to look at this realm of felt and heard experience. He articulates a sense of the vibrational, transformative, and material capacities of sound, an active waveform in “an ocean of materials,” attending to the interactions of “things” — including our precious human beings — in a flux rather than their wrongly assumed solidity (Ingold, 2007:7).

This is a philosophy that sees humans not as “blobs of solid matter with an added whiff of mentality or agency to liven them up” (2007:12), but as “organisms” that “are born and grow in the current of materials” (Ingold, 2007:12). Sound’s currents, waves, and affectivity contribute to this flux, transforming and emanating from the “human body” in ways that are acutely exposed in moments of “involuntary remembering” (Anderson, 2004:9). Apparently absent or lost experiences and perceptions are exposed by aural and vibrational triggers, often transporting people to specific moments or places in a messy reassertion of non-linear past, as the composite materials we normally delineate as “sound,” “memory,” or “emotion” are briefly unsettled and illuminated. This is the “material” we see in Ingold and the “sonic materialism” of Goodman (2009:10), wherein the productive assignation of sound-affects is not an essentialist or determinist materiality, but a domain that invades, informs, and exceeds human constructions of the “past.”

Test Dept and Industrial Temporality

A notion of “past” that is informed by the structural equivalences of sound, affect, and the excessive “surplus” of materiality can begin to move beyond the “scientific study of an atemporalized nature, and the ‘humanistic’ study of a dematerialized history” (Ingold, 1993:172), not simply dreamed up in our minds or buried in the ground, but somewhere at the point of interaction between each. Here we can look to the specific example of experimental “Industrial” music group Test Dept, who in “engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past” (ibid:153) illuminate how sonic materialism may be applied to our understandings of temporality.

Test Dept came to prominence in the 1980s industrial scene, rhythmically using a range of raw materials including salvaged scrap metal, machinery, and sledgehammers from abandoned factories. Often compared to Einstürzende Neubauten and probably slightly pissed off by the massive success of Stomp, Test Dept were the most forthrightly political of all the industrial bands and who included spoken and sung left-wing sloganeering alongside their clattering noise. After a long hiatus, Test Dept reformed earlier this year for a huge installation work at Dunston Staiths, a collapsing ex-shipment point for the Durham coal industry on the River Tyne. Their performance featured spoken and sung fragments from striking minors, rhythmic industrial noises, and sounds from the bridge itself, mixing “archival” and “contemporary” sources. “Past” and “present” were thus collapsed in a soundscape that, through a loud collision of material sounds from varying temporal moments, questioned the linearity and determinism of most historical depictions of an “inevitable” collapse in UK coal mining between 1980-1990. The “past” was noisily unleashed on a “present” that already had its material forms folded into its very fabric, as supposedly buried affective and vibrational forces were briefly revealed in all their excess.

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