Review Summary: A surprisingly stalwart offering, the king of shock rock moves into its even more shocking new wave counterpart of industrial metal with a smooth transition, delivering a great, if repetitive, conceptual trip into Hell.
Up until Paranormal, Cooper's 2017 album, coming out six years after Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the gap between The Last Temptation and Brutal Planet was his longest gap in output, and without the baggage of his alcohol problems that he thankfully left behind just in time for his comeback period in the mid-80s, it's hard to imagine why he waited so long to create another album. With The Last Temptation, he'd moved gracefully from the glam rock era back into his own style of theatrical/conceptual rock, with some gritter 90s edge thrown in that, in my opinion at least, demonstrated he could still hang in there with his peers even if the experience was still glossier than the Soundgardens and Stone Temple Pilots of the day.
With that thought in mind, it's both unsurprising and very surprising he would make his next big stylistic change for Brutal Planet, as around the mid-90s, industrial metal was really starting to hit its stride. Nine Inch Nails was arguably the first band of its ilk to hit the mainstream, paving the way for cats like Rammstein, KMFDM and even Skinny Puppy to have their time in the spotlight. This, alongside with the seeds of post-grunge, would eventually morph into the titanic force of rock that would be called nu-metal, which would come to dominate the start of the new millenium. And it's right in that window between The Fragile and Hybrid Theory that Alice Cooper would launch his twenty first studio album.
Not that all of the sounds of the day necessarily influenced all of Brutal Planet, but right from the start of the title track, with the solo drum fill launching into a brittle yet heavy riff, it's imminently obvious how well the sound of the record slots into the then contemporary climate. Alice Cooper mixes the repetitive yet groovy, occasionally electronica and sample driven sound of industrial metal with the thick, molasses-paced aura of sludge metal, with lyrical content a darker variation on his parables about the evils of man and the temptations that drive us. Which is why it's both not a shock and a total shock that it works so well. It's surprising how much Cooper leaned into honest, real metal, but in a way, he was a huge influence on the styles and mindsets that so much nihilistic 90s rock and metal were borne from, especially Marilyn Manson. Even if the aesthetic is markedly different, you can tell this is still right in the man's wheelhouse.
All throughout, the album features crawling, yet crushing, riffs backed up by a bass heavy sound, serving as the sonic backdrops for these stories about fallible figures and misdeeds of society, loosely tied together by the titular setting, which is likely a veiled reference to Hell (Cooper's born again Christian tendencies are buried in the subtext). The opening track describes setpieces of humankind's greatest displays of cruelty, like the Holocaust and the dead Garden of Eden, and the very next track, Wicked Young Man, is a first-person character portrait of a Nazi school shooter. Other songs deal with wider societal issues without downplaying the sadism on display, such as the wasteful slovenly nature of the selfish tycoons in Eat Some More, the dreadful grind of corporate slavery in Sanctuary, and a similar loss of agency and identity in Cold Machines.
Altogether, the album is surprisingly harrowing, running from one dreadful subject to the next but sparing no expense on literate detail for the full picture of depravity. Most songs are slow but built on driving riffs all the same, so it has an edge of still being captivating and occasionally quite catchy, and there's enough little moments in each song to keep the overall experience fresh; little solos, the rare electronic inclusion such as on Eat Some More, or the build-ups on songs like Pick Up The Bones and Gimme, even if it's always easy to look at the album in hindsight and realise how much of it sounds similar in tone and melody. But even this isn't too big of a flaw in context, as plenty of industrial albums were built on even more repetitive frameworks and still managed to make for decent listens. Brutal Planet isn't as full-on and relentless as, say, Herzeleid, so the little digressions still add up to make for a dynamic enough listen within the context of the genre it was written around.
And in fact, if anything, the songwriting is what keeps it toe to toe with the albums of its time. While it doesn't sound as daring in aesthetic, or even subject matter, as Manson's Holy Wood trilogy, it's made up for by arguably eclipsing those albums in raw songwriting and playing ability by the session musicians on hand for the most part. A worry I initially had was Cooper going too pastiche on this album, filling it with wry corniness, the kind that lets people know his 70s stage shows were just acts, but Cooper plays his lyrics pretty straight. A highlight in this regard is Pick Up The Bones, maybe his best "haunted house" song that is stacked with depictions of death and destruction and the lingering image of hopelessness. It's not "trying to shock" so much as it's just plain despondent. Cold Machines also stands out; it's the album's most Manson-esque track, with a very Beautiful People-esque swing groove going on, but it cuts to the heart of everyday drudgery and phony socialisation between modern day people in a way that Manson arguably obfuscated more often than not.
Even the songs where Cooper's humour pops up still mostly work, with Sanctuary's matter-of-fact sarcastic spoken word passages clashing with the more poetic and ambiguous sung choruses in a way that enhances the experience rather than detracts from it. It's The Little Things is definitely the jokiest song on the record, with Alice stating that you can do all sorts of grisly things to his character as long as you don't slight him by talking in the cinemas or asking how he got his name. It, along with Gimme, also invokes previous songs from his discography, and truthfully it's cornier than I would have liked, but the song works on its own and it makes a nice counterpoint to the rest of the album, not to mention the instrumentation is still running on full force by this point, having lost none of its power.
The one song where none of the album's qualities really come through is, of course, the obligatory ballad. Take It Like A Woman mines the power of his past hit Only Women Bleed, right down to the subject matter and judicious symphonic elements. It has very little place on the album, even just lyrically. You'd think putting domestic abusers next to corrupt businessmen and gay bashers would make sense, but the delivery is just too pretty, sympathising with the victim rather than damning the perpetrator, which is really what this album is all about. It's the one song I tend to skip whenever I throw this album on, alongside Pessi-Mystic occasionally, which is in line with the rest of the album sonically, but lyrically is just too general and broad to really have the same punch.
The album is honestly quite problematic, and I always battle with the rating I give it. At a distance, there's not enough going on, but every time I listen to it, I am impressed with how well Alice Cooper's shock rock antics and conceptual flair translate to this "new" sound. It's a rare album where my contextual impression of it outweighs the pure entertainment I derive from it, and yet I still enjoy it on its own merits a lot too. The sludgier take on industrial metal does a lot to keep the aesthetic fresh in a genre designed to be repetitive and crushing, not to mention Cooper's lyricism is still as literate as ever, which does give him an edge his more politically and emotionally charged peers of the time, like Manson and Reznor, didn't always exercise.
Not that this exceeds the merit of an album like The Downward Spiral either, whose progression really showcased the artistic potential of industrial music. But I occasionally find The Downward Spiral to be a bit too heady for my mood, whereas Brutal Planet is more instantly gratifying without really losing any of the power of the genre, and with the songs themselves purely being as captivating as they are, it makes the album more than the sum of its parts. While it might be too repetitive for some, those that want to dig into the heavier side of Cooper's discography, or the intersection between industrial and nu-metal at the turn of the century, ought to give it a shot.