Einsturzende Neubauten’s 77 minute requiem for the first world war is the album of the year for Membranes frontman and LTW boss John Robb.
In depth interview with Blixa Bargeld about the album here
Even the press release is unusual stating, ’The album version of LAMENT should be heard as a studio reconstruction of a work primarily designed to be performed live, rather than an official new Einstürzende Neubauten LP proper.’
The 77 minute release in question is the legendary Berlin band creating a work for the Belgain city of Diksmuide, marking the 100th anniversary of that city’s involvement in the first world war with a series of musically imagainative pieces built around stories and concepts of the conflict discovered by band singer Blixa Bargeld and acouple of researchers seraching through the detritus and the debris of the war to come up with a new way of looking at the defining meltdown.
Well, it was never going to be an obvious release but somehow the band that have operated well beyond the norm have created a stunning and visceral musical work that dares to go to places that no-one else dreams of. They have ended up with. what is arguably, the album of the year in a year of great albums.
I didn’t even know that people still dared to made records like this!
The First World War is one of modern history’s most definite markers.
Looking at it from the perspective of 2014, it splits time and underlines the change into the brutal fast forward of the modern era from the cavalry charge, dandy heroic idea of war of the daydreaming and slumbering Empires of the 19th century to the harsh new reality of the industrial revolution coming of age in all its grim and dark extremities. This was a modern warfare of long range missiles, tanks, poison gas and entrenched positions as a royal family tiff spun out of control and Europe tore itself apart over the rising German Empire.
A sprawling, messy affair that saw the map of Europe ripped apart, some would argue that the war is where the 20th century started and the Empire slumbers of the Great Britain started to come to a bloody end in the trenches and the dirt and the stink of the not so glorious battle fields.
These were satanic places as young men, who didn’t even know where Belgium was on a map, swopped one of industrial revolution of the dark mills of their home towns for another to be blown to bits in the sodden fields of the lowlands.
It was the death knell of the age of old empire as the klank and grind of the industrial revolution reached its logical conclusion as the newly built machines collided in the fire and brimstone of the stinking war. The other old empires could not keep up, arcane and strange constructions like Austria Hungary would collapse whilst the Balkans remained mired in neighbourhood rows and fell apart into a myriad of mini states and intercene fighting. France was humiliated and and the fast rising German empire came to a temporary grinding halt before regrouping in a far more sinister and deadly fashion for the next phase in the modern one hundred year war.
Even if most of the people around at the time have passed on, the fault lines of Europe were reshaped and remain as we still live in the shadows of the brutal conflict and its damning statistics od death and fury.
On the 100th anniversary of the war there have been endless TV documentaries and events wrestling with its legacy and meaning and marking it but none can be as startling and imaginative and just plain stunning at Einsturzende Neubauten’s Lament- designed as a live show and a musical work that will tour Europe this autumn.
Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blix Bargeld feels that the two world wars were the same conflict and that we are still living in its sulphurous shadow a 100 years later. He has a perspective on this from growing up in post war cold war Berlin- himsalf a child of the monumental folly of the world wars as they stumbled into the cold war period.
The first World War was also, arguably, the first conflict where the foot soldiers were documented and their stories were recorded by the new technologies of the time like the wax cylinders or by the newish fangled photography. Of course this could be doctored and many of the photos and recordings were done after the war but there is enough left to make this the conflict that could be told from the perspective of the men on the ground and not the kings and queens and generals braided spin.
It’s this fascinating minutiae of stories that Blixa Bargeld and his researchers trawled through to create the narrative for Lament.
When the civic leaders of Diksmuide in Belgium were looking for a band to construct the ultimate commemorative event for the 100th anniversary of the war they gave the Berlin band the call.
It was the 100th anniversary of the battle of Yser near Diksmuide, a battle staged at the point at which the flooded River Yser held the Germans back from their imperious waltz through north Europe and became a frontline and stalled their rush to the French ports of Calais and Dunkirk.
The city was first attacked on October 16, 1914 and defended by Belgian and French troops, which marked the beginning of the battle. Despite the heavy Belgian losses, the press, politicians, literary figures and the military itself created a propaganda which formed public opinion in making the action look strategic and heroic.
By the time the fighting ended, the town had been reduced to rubble. It was, however, completely rebuilt in the 1920s and remains a defiant symbol.
I’m not sure who is running Diksmuide but their sheer imagination in booking Neubauten has to be applauded. What they got in return for their daring is this stunning 77 minute work that delivers a mind blowing diversity of musical styles and ideas that easily marks it out for album of the year.
Getting in touch with Einsturzende Neubauten is one of those moments of pure inspiration.The Berlin based band have spent decades on the fringes of music, creating a stunning body of work that was initially built around pieces of metal and bric a brac found in the cold war interzone of Berlin before morphing into a band that creates beautiful, dark and a deeply intellectual music that is intoxicating in its sonic perfume on recent releases.
Built around the charismatic Blixa Bargeld, Neubauten are no normal band and this was no normal musical project. Assigned a couple of researchers the singer dived headfirst into Lament, which has resulted in an album that comes complete with so many ideas and new angles that it helps you reassess the near five disastrous years when Europe was torn apart and never quite got repaired.
The album is laid out in a chronological manner, with the tracks not trying to tell the story of the war but underline certain angles of the conflict, giving the listener several ‘wow’ moment of realisation.
It’s not easy to write a piece of music about something like the First World War and Lament avoids all the cliches. It’s not bombastic and like Blixa told me in the recent interview in LTW ‘it’s a beautiful piece of music about a horrible subject and not the other way round.’
Lament spans all styles of music and ideas from covers of long lost pre jazz songs, choral singing of national anthems, stunning pieces of metal percussion and imaginative use of orchestras to stripped down electronic pulses, to brooding strings to a long lost cabaret play with animal sounds! It’s dark, it’s thrilling and often tragically beautiful and sometimes darkly comical as it tackles the bleakness and futility of war without ever making lazy statements.
Lament presents it as it is with the small stories building up to the shivering climax.
Neubauten themselves have been disobeying musical convention since their inception in 1981. They have never been nailed down in anything as mundane as the conventional. There’s is a gloriously unfettered imagination that has moved beyond even the so called avant garde- a term that Blix himself sneers at preferring to be looking on as a ‘deserter’
They got lumped in with industrial music and if there was no-one else in that genre clogging up the space it would be almost fair to call them that but they are beyond genre and as soon as any other group appears on the horizon they are scampering off with a fist full of opposite ideas and Lament is even beyond the normal parameters of this band.
Not to be left out of this stretching the very fabric that they have traditionally worked in for the long term percussionist Andrew Unruh has built “gigantic” instruments to use in the work. Strange instruments that create a whole new gamut of clanking and scraping sounds- among them a barbed wire harp- turning one of the ultimate symbols of the war into musical instrument- how very Neubauten.
This metallic KO menagerie comes to play in the opening piece on the album, Kriegsmaschinerie or in English -War Machinery, which really sets the tone. A long piece about the imposing build up to the war and the construction of the machinery of battle, it scratches and scrapes in an ominous, clanking reflection of the industrial revolution reaching it ugly conclusion.
Evoking a sense of the dread of the mustering arnaments it creates a sinister tension as we wait for the impending conflict. Brillantly, there are lyrics but no singing- live Blixa holds up cards with the words on- how cool is that for an idea!
The next track, Hymnen is a fantastic piece. The band go barbershop and sing the national anthems of the UK and Germany, which, at the time were using the same melody- underlining the interrelated blood lines that ruled Europe and were prepared to send millions to their death in a family squabble.
In the third verse they switch to satirical lyric from Heinrich Hoffmann- the author of Struwwelpeter or Shock Headed Peter – lyrics that he got put in jail for. The final two lines are from an another satirical take on the anthem, German lines singing about scraping food from paper because of the poverty of the masses whilst the king lived on gourmet dining.
It’s a brilliant moment on the album, unleashing and underling the futility and stupidity of the war- an intercene squabble between the German related royal families of Europe who shared blood and a national anthem and sent millions of to their pointless deaths in the trenches.
In a sense the enxt piece, The Willy- Nicky Telegrams continues this theme with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany sending telegrams to his cousin, Nicholas the Tzar of Russia. It’s a series of touchy feely telegrams talking about their build up to war against each other with the nonchalance of relatives discussing their summer holidays. They are read out over one of those great, later day Neubauten backings of stripped down pulsing beats with occasional clanks of metal as Blixa and bassman Alexander Hacke take on the voices of the leaders. The Willy-Nicky Telegrams juxtaposes these messages through an auto tuner that hints at the timeless duplicity of world leaders- the modern pop style of the vocals is maybe a hint to potential the Angie and Vlad emails perhaps?
In De Loopgraaf or in English- In The Trenches is Andrew Unruh playing a stripped down percussion from the band’s engine room that evokes the atmosphere and the trauma of battle.
The songs ties up all the loose ends around Diksmuide, firstly by using a text by Paul van den Broeck- a Flemish writer with possible links to other dada and expressionist writers and artists across early 20th century Europe. The title might also allude to one of the first major battles of the war fought over Lament’s host city Diksmuide, which the Belgian forces held through October 1914 before capitulating to the Germans early the following month.
There are so many striking moments on the album that it is unfair to call any of them the centre piece but the closest Lament gets to one is with Der 1. Weltkrieg which is a mathematically worked out piece that steps out of the trad musical composition and into a realm of its own.
Each day of the war has its own separate beat ina piece of throbbing, building, foreboding minimal percusion that twiches and pulses like electronica as Blixa calmly starts to announce announces each new country entering the war before other vocalists add to this list in an avalanche of crumbling empires and snappy whippersnapper young countries all pile driving into the so called ‘great war’. The nature of the track underlines the cold and calculating nature of war itself as unseen hands move the chess pieces around and people die. The track also stands up as a powerful musical piece and is utterly hypnotic.
A switch in mood come from the first of the Harleem Hellfighters covers, On Patrol In No Mans Land which Blixa and the researchers found in the archives.
They became fascinated with the all black American Army unit- the Harlem Hellfighters- who had to fight under French command because of the controversy that the racially fragile America of the time felt about them.
Hellfighter band leader James Reese Europe was a proto jazzman who fought in the trenches with the African-American 369th Infantry – the so called Harlem Hellfighters who built up a hell of reputation for being fearsome fighters but were also musicians and even tap danced in the trenches. On Patrol In No Mans land is full of cocky bravado and a cynical fatalism and world weary sadness and Neubauten execute their version of the song perfectly evoking the cockiness and yet a certain fear within the displaced unit who had fought with distinction in the war before returning to the USA and recording some of the first tracks in the upcoming jazz age.
Achterland is one of those moments when Neubauten make real use of a certain kind of silence. They have been doing versions of this since Silence Is Sexy a couple of decades ago. When everyone expected a wall of clanking metal percussion sound they made full use of the space and stillness of silence itself and have continued this theme in a piece that feels like the mist and murk of the frontline in a spooky death rattle.
Achterland which translates as Hinterland features words by a little-known modernist writer, Paul Van Der Broeck. The words were written on a break from the frontline and detail the small things that mean so much in the context as they describe the act of delousing and wander around blood sucking and how everyone lives off blood.
Written in three parts, Lament is the album’s proper centrepiece- a tightly disciplined and imaginative counterpoint of sound that hangs together like a death suite. The first part is Lament itself which enters with eerie vocal drones that evoke the desolation and eerie beauty of the battlefield.
One of the great things about Neubauten from day one is their sense of space- the way they can create an emptiness and the way they can create so many differing moods with sound. The song reduces everything down to this pulsing sense of lament in a piece of choral beauty with the lyrics also reduced down to two words- Macht Krieg which mean: Power. War.
The second part of Lament is Abwartsspirale which translates as the Winding Down Spiral and does exactly what it says, tumbling through a downwards spiral based on a percussive pattern taken from the four numbers making up the final year of the war: 1-9-1-8 as it clanks its way through a count of one and nine and one and eight and sounds like the eerie, destructive, cordite explosiveness of the war terror machine itself.
Pater Peccavi is the third part of Lament which translates as Father I Have Sinned. The musical basis of the third part is a drastically slowed down version of a motet composed by the 16th century renaissance composer Jacobus Clemens non Papa who lived most of his life in Diksmuide about the Prodigal Son called Pater Peccavi which gives the song a dark serenity and tearful beauty.
Over the resulting melancholic drone, Neubauten members each ‘play’ the voices of prisoners of war, recorded during their incarceration in Germany on wax cylinders by German linguists. The linguists had asked them to recite the Biblical parable of The Prodigal Son in their own tongue. As the voices fade in and out of the murk like the voices in the smoke and fog filled trenches like glimmering ghost like readings of long lost people trapped in a strange and dark situation.
The long lost voices echo like an aural equivalent of sepia tone photographs as they read out the passages from the bible- it’s an echo of a long lost time and space- even some of the languages are now extinct and it’s the most profound and moving moment on the album. Somehow these voices reaching out across the fog of battlefield and through the decades touch you deeply, pulling you back into time and space and making the war seem more real than ever.
After Lament’s taut imagaination, How Did I Die? sounds almost lush and melodic in its stark simplicity. Based on a song written by Kurt Tucholsky called Die Rote Melodie, it’s dedicated to the German leader in the war, Ludendorff and is a simple and dark piano motif and cello part as Blixa Bargeld intones a soldier’s experience listing different ways of dying directed at the German commander in the war Ludendorff and putting the blame firmly on his shoulders.
The strings build and build into a mesmerising and haunting climax as the ghost of a dead soldier comes back to haunt the general and is a side of the war rarely told, the foot solder trapped in the trenches facing death on a daily basis.
The evocative cover of Pete Seeger’s Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind Where AHve All The Flowers Gone) transplants the folk hero’s song into a new context and brings a trail of historical context of its own. made famous in a cover by Marlene Deitrich it’s a dedication to her spirited anti nazi stance that saw her branded as a traitor in her home country after the war rather than as a woman acting out of principle. Recorded the day before Seeger himslef died, the song’s appearance on Lament bears out Bargeld’s assertion that the First World War continued into the Second.
Der Beginn Des Weltkrieges 1914 (Dargestellt Unter Zuhilfenahme Eines Tierstimmenimitators)
or in English- the beginning of the world war in 1914 (presented by an animal voice imitator)- is a fantastic piece- a music hall cabaret dialogue from a performance text by Joseph Plaut, a German actor, orator and regional poet from Lippe. Plaut, after the First World War, performed in cabaret shows with his wife Maria Schneider and the piece has animal noises as part of it which add to its macabre theatricality. Bargeld is in his element as he winds his way around its eccentric naturr. The punch line is at the end of the piece with Plaut in 1920 being the first person in popular culture to reference Adolf Hitler who was a minor figure at the tie and as the peacock voice leaps out it spits, ‘Hitler! Hitler!’ It’s 1920 and the first time Hitler had appeared in public at all.
All Of No Man’s Land Is Ours is the second song on the album from the Harlem Hellfighters. This is a darker, more poignant meditative work that sees the triumphant return of the regiment back home where they were greeted by street parades in Brooklyn in the nation that still had not fully come to terms with its black population- the no mans land could well be the USA as much as the stretch of dirt between the trenches where they had made their reputation. Within months it had all gone wrong with band leader, Europe, murdered by the drummer but they managed to record 8 songs including this one and helped laid down the framework for the upcoming jazz age. This version of the song is stripped down and evocative and has a smokey music hall cabaret feel to it.
The album ends here- an exhaustingly poignant, staggering and musically imaginative work that is the perfect piece on the war that we are still coming to terms with. The centenary is a reminder of the madness of conflict and lament and by avoiding the well worn narrative, underlines the stark sadness and grinding melancholia of the war machine and its affects on people’s lives and it’s less than clear cut black and white story that is so often presented in the telling of the conflict.
It’s also a brilliant piece of music that sees even Einstuerzende Neubauten stretch themselves.