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 This comes as the band prepare to release a new book, Total State Machine, “a unique historical document and visual representation of Test Dept, one of the UK’s truly investigative agitators, authentic industrialists, utilisers and recyclers of society’s debris,”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.

Such events work to expose the way sound and temporality both involve the “complex interweaving” of “rhythmic cycles” always implicated in “movement” through what Ingold calls the “taskscape” (Ingold, 1993:161). The shared sound and rhythm of work, travel, and political struggle — coal-trains, protest marches, and picket lines all acting as points of coalescence — here providing the sonic, material, and social flows in which the past is always implicated. The repeated thud of a sledge-hammer or the brief sung verse of “Amazing Grace” amplified across the river Tyne create an industrial sonic refrain that (however briefly) “congeals the collective” audience with a “centripetal” (Goodman, 2009:28) force of volume, vibration, and emotive memory in an “essentially rhythmic rather than metronomic” experience of time (Ingold, 1993:160). This was an explicit form of “memorial” that went beyond Nora’s cleansed and buffered “Lieux de Mémoire” (1989) by explicitly focusing on the material excessiveness of the ruined environment and the temporality of the past itself, not fixed but shifting and collapsing. The messiness of the sounds, deliberately arranged in the landscape of a long-abandoned coal bridge, served to momentarily foreground what Scrimshaw terms as “unsound” (that ocean of waves and vibrations at work just beyond the reach of our ears) and the material excess of an industry that, however eventually quiet in the face of Thatcherite decimation, was still very much implicated in the local environment and in many people’s lives.

The fact that the affective capacity of the piece left many “eyes watering” at what one reviewer called “one of the most emotionally draining and inspiring pieces of political art or music I’ve ever witnessed” (Turner, 2014) should attest to the ways in which the very excessiveness of the sonic-material involved allowed for the cultivation of some particularly potent emotions. As Graham and Paul from Test Dept put it to me in an interview shortly after their installation, “We tried to do that in a strong way, not a nostalgic way, but a way that looks at it in a raw way… at what is left. We were not surprised by the emotion of the result because we felt that as well.” The past is here a particularly affective and productive force precisely because its materials are explored in their raw, ambiguous, and excessive sense, rather than authoratively delineated by “experts” as in Nora’s descriptions of “heritage.”

Crumbling Structures

While speaking to Test Dept after the installation, I tried to get a sense of their own experiences of engaging with sounds so closely associated with “work” and, particularly now, “the past.” Key to understanding their approach is an awareness of how the social and material surroundings that supported their early experimentations have changed. As Graham explained, “we came from the squatting culture, which was very big and widespread then, all across New Cross. Half of it was squats at that point, there was a big alternative community there. At the same time all around us was desolation, because all the manufacturing base of South London with the docks and the factories and everything was being decimated, and it was just a waste land. The main industry was actually moving scrap metal from all those decimated industries out, loading them onto ships and taking them out to South America or somewhere where they were re-processed… the environment was perfect for the… well, the music we created was perfect for the environment.”

I ask if they feel like it would still be possible to find the time and materials to undertake such an operation today. Paul replies, “one of the things that came up recently was the fact that actually these scrap raw materials are probably far more valuable and expensive these days than the high end technology that we pay hundreds of pounds an hour to some studio to use. So it’s a kind of odd inverse of the situation.” Graham chips in, “And the aesthetic of living an alternative lifestyle in some sort of way, partly outside the system, it’s more difficult now; it’s harder to squat. You don’t get those big communities together where you get such a pool of creative people in one place; people have much less time. I guess the community has kind of moved online in a way, so it’s more of a digital community.” It’s an argument echoed in more recent work by the aforementioned Mark Fisher: “The decline of social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy available for cultural production has massively diminished.”

Obviously this is not to say that the world of early Thatcherite rule in Britain was a rosy time for musicians — much of Test Dept’s project was about channeling the anger, fear, and frustration of the era — but the structures that supported such musical exercises seem to have changed. In a contemporary world of work that is increasingly dominated by zero-hour contracts, hot-desks, spiraling costs of living, declining state-funded support frameworks, and an arrhythmic, unrelentingly “plugged in” work cycle, there seems to be a generalized form of what Fisher (again!) calls “a craving for familiar cultural forms” (2009:99), for sounds that fit a more rigid idea of “leisure” and “the past.” This is a world where a Labour council like the one in Newcastle (home of the AV festival, where Test Dept performed) can cut Arts Funding by 50% (only stepping down from cutting it by 100% after an intervention from party leaders in Westminster) and bosses like Nev use music as just one more tool to be hewn for the sake of productive capacity, while simultaneously demanding “creative” labor from those they manage.

For Test Dept, this shift can be clearly anchored at the point of Thatcher’s battle with the miners, which Graham argues “was the beginning of surveillance, in terms of ‘the enemy within’, of roadblocks, stopping people from moving, police occupation of villages — they surrounded Easlington and didn’t let anyone out for days. There’s an amazing amount of stuff that needs to be said about the extent of the methods that were used to change society from manufacturing into a neoliberal, unregulated, banking and service industry society.” The sense of anger is still very potent, and it was an anger that was conveyed through their sound: “The rhythms and material of labour were cathartic for us. And they still have relevance. We grew to understand them, to understand the rhythms and play together, and we come out after eight-hour practices in abandoned cellars with these ringing ears and heads, but actually with a feeling of release because it was a very oppressive time then as now, and I think maybe that’s a thing we don’t get now — that release.”

Tying together these notions of past, sonic matter, and collective release, we can perhaps start to move toward an understanding of how industrial memorials like Test Dept’s not only offer a point of solidarity and consideration for those who experienced the events of the miner’s strike, but also expose some of the shifting ways in which the workplace has since been manipulated in favor of managers and bosses. There is a “release” in such moments of collective memory that should not simply be refuted as nostalgia or escapism, but could hold some of the seeds for new forms of organizing and dissent. If anything, it is a constant nostalgia for the future, which should be seen as escapist.

As TMT’s Parker and Croggon have already made abundantly clear, Reynolds’s (and Fisher’s) experience of the “anachronism and inertia” of “21st Century culture,” where a “waning historicity” creates bland, timeless soundtrack of “a-temporality” is as much a problem of the modernism they turn to — to repudiate the “dyscronia” (time ‘out of joint’) of post-modern life as that of “dyscronia” itself (Fisher, 2013). Yet Fisher’s worry about the “slow cancellation of the future,” where the past infects the present to such a degree that it feels as if “time itself as stopped” (ibid), is not necessarily refuted by the theory of material sonic-affect sketched above. Instead, in the proliferation of devices that can be used to disseminate and consume the past, we can see how “in conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost” (ibid) and the “past” can become exhausting, rather than exhausted.

Time for Some Prospective

The profitable familiarity of historical musical moments is seized by an imploding record industry, bolstered by the so-called newness imparted onto certain eras by journalists like Reynolds and turned into revivals, reunions, re-releases, “rediscovered,” and “remastered” records. The problem here is not a potential exhaustion of material sounds — which, however they are recorded, collected, or discarded, will continue to have an affective surplus beyond representational delineation — but that the capacities for imagining and enacting such “pasts” are potentially limitless. The past is not a seam we all mine, but an often subjective, always changing, and potentially boundless entity. The contemporary experience of post-Fordist labor and leisure, in which culture works to “overload the human nervous system with unmanageable quantities of stimuli” (Fisher & Beradi, 2013), attempts to seal this unpredictable messiness into categories that move so rapidly between a comforting, reliable “past” and “a superficial frenzy” of exhilarating “future” that they result in a sensory “stasis” (Fisher, 2013). The challenge to radical opponents of this trend is not to bemoan a lack of newness and potential exhaustion of past by reasserting supersessionist histories of musical “progress,” but to create contexts in which “the past and future virtually coexist with the present so that memory and anticipated potentials resonate with each other in unpredictable ways” (Goodman, 2009:150) — or, in Fisher’s terms, “recovering a prospective time.”

Test Dept’s installation is an example of how we shouldnt assume the past is incapable of contributing to this task, nor exhaustible like some great seam of coal. Prospective time means listening to the sounds of the factory workers and silenced materials that permeate the gadgets we label as post-industrial and letting them question the hyphenated primacy of that very term. For all the changes that Test Dept attend us to, “industry” persists; we just need to listen harder for the sounds it now makes. As they state, “these rhythms still have relevance,” and finding a prospective time to challenge the drift of neoliberal work ethics means not just setting the ground for newly imminent “futures,” but also re-examining that which has been deemed “past.” In the strange emotive power of a crumbling ruin or the collective sigh before an enforced workplace singalong, we might just hear the signs of a future that current regimes of work and music seek to deny.

Test Dept release “Total State Machine” this coming March via PC Press.
Nev’s charity Christmas single “SWSWSWN” is available now.

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