For such an avant-garde group with a discography of brutal, even genuinely scary music, Throbbing Gristle were always steeped in irony. From their penile-euphemistic band name to their deadpan release of a “greatest hits” album with a cover that deceptively promised disco diva delights, the industrial quartet always had a humorous streak. That sardonic energy suffuses the band’s third and best studio LP, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, first and foremost with its title, another naked attempt to lure unsuspecting shoppers into buying some pleasant-sounding record only to get home and unleash hell. But its funnier, and far more savage, joke involves the artwork, a seemingly breezy group photo standing on a verdant cliff that turns out to be Beachy Head, a piece of England’s coast renowned for being one of the most popular places in the world to commit suicide.

Bafflingly, the opening title track somewhat makes good on its false promise. Metronomic drum machine clicks and hi-hats are soon joined by a bending guitar line and a trumpet so scattered and humid it makes Miles Davis’s ‘70s work sound like Dizzy Gillespie in comparison. Despite lacking a bassline, there is something both jazzy and funky about this woozy track, if only in the most warped interpretation of both genres. Not even three minutes long, the song balances humor with unpredictability, making it obvious that the record is going to contain anything but easy listening even as it proves a relatively sedate intro. Compare it to the subsequent “Beachy Head,” for example, to hear how quickly and radically the album heads into perilous unknowns. The grandfather of dark ambient, “Beachy Head” consists of a guitar line that roars like a ship’s foghorn over buzzing and droning negative space pockmarked with ominous bass pulses and the occasional field recording of seagulls squawking high above.

The whiplash of this tonally opposite one-two punch is what truly defines the album, which careens through wildly different songs, stressing how ill-fit the sequencing is at every turn. “Still Walking” is little more than various oscillating synthesizer lines played out of sync with each other in intersecting shrieks of noise. Somehow, the track’s grounding motorik shuffle is the most enervating part, giving a mirage-like illusion of structure that only makes the ear focus all the more intently on the more random squelches and howls that make up most of the soundscape. Yet stack such an overwhelming example of maximal minimalism against, say, “Hot on the Heels of Love” and one can hear how easily such an approach can be retooled toward genuine pop. The latter is art disco, a Moroder-esque robo-beat that is attacked with laser-beam synths and whispered sultry lyrics from Cosey Fanni Tutti; it’s the sort of mutant club track that Larry Levan might have spun regularly at Paradise Garage.

Most of the album is instrumental, and vocals, when they appear, tend to be deliberately buried in the mix to use as another sonic element, but as ever, the band’s lyrical content tends toward the garish and taboo. Of particular focus this time around is the ability of people to manipulate and persuade others, of superseding choice and free will with their own desired compliance. “Convincing People” makes this literal, with a call-and-response vocal that undermines the track’s lyrics about the difficulty of controlling others as the stuttering bass sounds like someone’s resistance crumbling. “Persuasion” tackles the same subject with an even more lugubrious composition, a two-note gurgle as Genesis P-Orridge intones about emotionally abusing a woman into undressing with serial killer dispassion. One of the most unnerving songs in a discography filled with chilling numbers, “Persuasion” wrings all the sordid imagery from lines like “I’ve got a little biscuit tin to keep your panties in.”

Compared to earlier and subsequent Throbbing Gristle albums, 20 Jazz Funk Greats is more structured, betraying the band’s facility for actual composition underneath its confrontation. At every turn, however, the group’s love of horror peeks out of even the most innocuous track. “Tanith” starts as twinkling New Age before synths divebomb the percolating shimmer with the crescendoing buzz of Stukas, while “Exotica” constantly oscillates between relaxing and terrifying, mingling atmospheric bells with animalistic roars of noise. Throbbing Gristle is correctly held up as an example of true industrial music compared to the more chart-friendly genre interpretations of a group like Nine Inch Nails, but to hear the melodies and bliss struggling to get free of the rusted metal that encases them here is to remember that this savage and artful quartet were testing the boundaries of how noise could be sculpted into pop well before Trent Reznor and Al Jourgensen got industrial music into the Billboard charts.

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