It is always problematic to rate Ministry albums of late. To be more precise, let's just say every album since the release of 2003's Animositisomina. The underrated long player that was the last involving Al Jourgensen's partner in crime, Paul Barker, before he reached his limit with Uncle Al and left. Barker joined Jourgensen in the mid 80's and was integral in co-creating the band's best and most defining work including The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste and the vastly influential, Psalm 69 from 1992. Guitarists Mike Scaccia and Tommy Victor remain the only consistent members alongside Al since the split with the void filled by a handful of session and tour musicians that varies from almost album to album. Four long players have been put out without Barker and in his contributing absence, the first three ranged from average (The Last Sucker) to good (Houses of the Mole), but essentially inconsistent and certainly don't reach the heights of the legacy that Jourgensen and Barker shaped and are now forever judged against by long-time fans. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, Relapse is no different.
All these albums - including Relapse - have redeeming features and some great songs, and Houses of the Mole even had fans handing the band "return to form" status, but primarily, without Barker's input, there is no denying the change in Ministry's sound and while Al has successfully reeled in a new core fan base with these releases (namely young metal fans), he's alienated his older ones to a degree by moving away from what made the band unique. Long-time fans (myself since 1994), will always be very critical, but then you generally are towards things you love. I understand Al is older now, sober and change is inevitable but to not acknowledge that since Barker left, Ministry became a much more `metal' orientated band as opposed to an `industrial' band with metal elements is naivety. The news is that while Relapse is not any better than the previous three discs, there are moments, just as in The Last Sucker, that suggest Al is shifting back and allowing some more industrial elements back into his songs. But let's not go too overboard either; nothing Al has done in the last ten years or in the future will ever match the band's heyday.
Opening tracks have tended to become somewhat of an instant classic in the past for the band; think `Stigmata', `Thieves', `N.W.O' or even `Reload'. First off the bat here however, is the intriguing, `Ghouldiggers', an obvious attack on ex-management as Al humorously inserts a spoken word diatribe and telephone exchange into the seven minute juggernaut. The chorus reminding everyone that, "I'm not dead, yet!" It's a chugging, catchy opener that may overstay its welcome a bit, but things start positively and it gives us some idea of what to expect. Or does it? `Double Tap', a clear companion to Rio Grande Blood's `Fear is Big Business' in style explodes with punishing drum work and a `TV Song' type stab chorus easily making it the heaviest tune on the disc. The unrelenting drum programming is one thing that is fairly constant all the way through Relapse with the guitars sounding slightly lower in the mix than other albums. The riffs are there though, and no matter what there is no mistaking that distinctive Ministry sound embodying each new release - even if they are starting to all blur into one singular vibe.
Jourgensen's humour is definitely on show for the first time in a while here at least and after a brief intro by him introducing us to new designer drug, "croak", `Freefall' bolts out of the gate like a runaway train, drawing comparisons to `Hero' with it's breakneck structure (no, really). Unfortunately, `Kleptocrypsy' follows and is the first indicator that maybe Relapse is more of an inspired flop than something special. A song that could have worked but the execution that includes an extremely flat melodic chorus doesn't deliver. A cover of Stormtroopers of Death's `United Forces' perks things back up and is one of the album highlights easily - which says a lot when one of your top three tracks is a cover. But I digress, and moving on, "99% Percenters" suffers a similar fate with its chorus, but does contain one of the more inspired verses and riffs of the album. By the mid section is when the record starts to feel a bit lazy. I had high hopes for the title track but it is actually just a bit of an oddity; and feels like half of it was left in the mixing desk. Even a decent toe tapping riff can't rightly save this minimal experiment as Al wails about "While I relapse...you laaaaugh". The shabby lyrics are possibly the most disappointing aspect of the record, especially when you consider what tracks like `Land of Rape and Honey' or `Burning Inside' consisted of. It is refreshing to hear Al get so personal like never before as he does here, but it also feels just so uncreative lyrically too often. Perhaps sobriety does that too you.
The remainder of the songs are decent pieces of filler but that is not really the issue. Long-time fans will probably not get much out of Relapse after the first few tracks/listens, but there will be many others where this is enough Ministry for their buck. It's only slightly more unsatisfying as it was the first record after Al hung up his spurs four years ago. Coming out of "retirement", I thought he might have something a little more memorable up his sleeve. But just like the "final" Ministry album, The Last Sucker, the key thing about Relapse is consistency, in that both albums don't really have it. The former to me was the better record, but when it comes down to it nowadays with this band, you just have to accept what you get. That Ministry "sound" I referred to is retained here of course, but they still remain a band with two discographies; pre and post Paul Barker. If you enjoyed the last three albums, Relapse should be worth picking up, and for everyone else, you can cling onto the tad bit of hope it offers in terms of Uncle Al's direction, but he's still a long shot off producing another classic befitting the legacy.