We expect a lot from the bands we love; we ask them to continually change and evolve -- but if we don't approve of that evolution's path, we're quick with the criticism and scorn. It's even worse for the bands from whom we don't
expect innovation. You know the ones -- they're usually acts that have five or six albums under their belts. They've become a sort of musical comfort food, more brand than band, their livelihood and creative direction determined by a group of über-fans who've evolved into the equivalent of shareholders.
I don't know what, if anything, you expect from KMFDM, but they've been one of my guilty (and not-so-guilty) pleasures for something like fifteen years. One of my favorite things about them is their defiant adherence to a relatively rigid set of criteria: their albums generally have one-word, five-letter titles, their album artwork is almost always done by Brute!, and they're big on self-referential sloganeering and the general bandying-about of catch phrases (i.e. "Ultra-heavy beat", "rip the system"). Most importantly, until recently, every KMFDM album has yielded two or three riff-chugging, beat-gargling classics; the fact that it's sometimes hard to tell those "classics" apart is part of their charm, as is the band's knowing acknowledgement of their cheesiness.
Sadly, 2002's Attak, the band's much-ballyhooed return from oblivion (and from being MDFMK), was a largely joyless departure from (or failure of) the group's successful formula; Sascha Konietzko, Ray Watts and their cohorts seemed to be going through the motions in a particularly uninspired fashion, suggesting that future KMFDM outings would be far from essential (which assumes, of course, that you found past KMFDM albums essential -- opinion is divided on the subject.).
So why is WWIII such a decisive return to form (and to KMFDM's much-loved formula)? A great deal of credit goes to George W. Bush and America's post-9/11 foreign policy. Remember how industrial music in the eighties made extensive use of sampled/looped sound-bites from Reagan, Bush the elder and their fellow politicos, incorporating their out-of-context statements into clumsy, one-dimensional political commentary? Such naive practices fell out of favor during the Clinton years, but now they're back with a vengeance and perfectly suited to 2003, when everyone has an opinion and a weblog on which to post it. KMFDM's opinion is fairly common among bands: Bush is evil, the American government is evil, the Iraqi war was motivated by something other than altruism, Americans have been brainwashed by the media, and so forth. It's a familiar song and dance, heavy on vitriol and light on specifics -- but for KMFDM, long notorious for shallow slogan-toting, it's practically concept album stuff.
The title track is one of WWIII's best moments, blossoming from an incongruous (but delightful) slide-guitar/banjo flare-up into a punishing barrage of chugging metal riffage reminiscent of the group's classic "A Drug Against War". With Dubya samples as his foundation, frontman Sascha Konietzko reels off a list of entities and ideas on whom he'd like to make war; these include everything from the war against drugs, corporate dot-com imperialism and the "axis of morons" to, in a particularly pleasing couplet, "McDonalds, Walt Disney and Bethlehem / Christina, Britney and Eminem." A sampled Dubya rambles on in the background. As political commentary goes, it's scattershot -- more finger-pointing than problem-solving -- but offers plenty of satisfying focal points for your own anger. The less-satisfying "Last Things" presents a broad anti-war caricature ("Religious left and right / power hungry heads of state / melancholy death fall of our nemesis / strong will survive or so say our Presidents"), while "Stars and Stripes" points the finger in a blatant indictment of the President. Bush is never mentioned by name, but lyrics like "Never mind they call you a liar and a thief / by now you're undisputed commander-in-chief" don't leave much room for conjecture. The combination of buzz-saw riffs, thunderous beats and Lucia Cifarelli's slightly crazed backing vocals insures that "Stars and Stripes" would be a winner regardless of its lyrical content; as it stands, it's a rare moment of righteous political anger for a band that usually avoids politics. "Bullets, Bombs & Bigotry", which follows, is far less specifically targeted... but since when has a song named "Bullets, Bombs & Bigotry" not been about the United States?
KMFDM fans who don't care about the political content will enjoy "WWIII" and "Stars and Stripes" for their music alone, and will also gravitate to the appropriately anthemic, cliché-spewing "Moron". "Revenge", a treat for Ray Watts fans, takes its lyrical clichés a little too far -- surely no song written in 2003 should depend on a tired saw like "Revenge is a dish that's best served cold." Fortunately, "Intro" ends the album on a high note; it not only devotes a verse (often legitimately humorous) to each current band member, but includes musical and lyrical references to past KMFDM songs, not to mention numerous opportunities to chant/scream the band's name. Other than working in an immortal couplet like "I'm a man who's sick but I've got class / 'cos you only get respect when you're kicking ass," it presses all the essential KMFDM buttons.
Even the best KMFDM albums have duds, and WWIII is no exception; "From Here On Out" and "Last Things", for example, aren't quite up to par, perhaps because Lucia Cifarelli sounds more like Gwen Stefani or a female skate-punker than the haughty KMFDM divas of old -- a curious sonic incongruity that annoys like an unreachable itch. In general, though, there are as many "keeper" songs here as there were on the group's last few pre-breakup albums, and that's a solid measure of quality. Admittedly, if you own more than three KMFDM albums, you've technically heard these songs before (with a few notes transposed, or with different lyrics), but that's the point of comfort music, right? After last year's lapse, KMFDM are back on their game, ready to tackle the world's ills with their own inimitable brand of lyrical leaflet-bombing.