Somnambule - Writing About Music

Laibach ~ Laibach DVD and Anthems CD Compilation

“What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power.” Jacques Attali’s observation in Noise (1977) would ably serve as an inscription for Laibach’s commemorative statue if one were ever to be erected in their hometown, Trbovlje. Given the group’s near-monomaniacal exploration of political and religious totalitarianism, the prospect may seem unlikely, however the group have seen a number of friends take office in the Slovenian government so the possibility can’t be entirely discounted. For 25 years Laibach have conducted an ongoing campaign against the complacent ideologies of popular culture and the state, focused through the prism of the music industry. Theirs is a deep and silent laughter that resonates with the politico-cultural heritage of Yugoslavia, a state that once prided itself upon its liberal, non-aligned status, but which tragically descended into civil war and attempted genocide after the death of its leader Josip Tito. Laibach’s career has spanned these cataclysmic changes and seen the group’s music move from clanking industrial noise to driving techno/rock hybrids. Some of the highlights of this work are collected on Mute’s handsome 2cd anthology ‘Anthems’. The release is accompanied by an extensive essay, photographs of the group, and images of the paintings and sculptures whose styles variously recall Baselitz, Caspar David Friedrich, Giacomo Balla, Joseph Beuys and occasionally Charlie Chaplin circa The Great Dictator.

Laibach dress in Nazi uniforms, but in a recent video can be seen pushing a shopping trolley around a mall. Although Slovenian, a significant proportion of the group’s lyrics are sung in German, a language chosen for its martial sound. Vocalist Milan Fras looks like a conflation of crazed folk leader/priest/butcher and the group’s concerts deliberately resemble fascist rallies. Even the group’s assertions that “... we were never a dissident group. We did not “hate” Yugoslavia... on the contrary we wanted to make it stronger, better and more effective” and that "We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter" sound somewhat ambiguous. Lyrical statements –Wirtschaft Ist Tot, Now You Will Pay, Anti-Semitism - are as blank as the facial expressions of myriad Stalinist portraits.

“The compositional process is a dictated ready-made.” Laibach are probably best known for their cover versions and in particular 1988’s Let It Be, which was an almost song for song cover of the Beatles album. Alongside a somewhat less successful cd of remixes, Anthems gathers choice items from the group’s back catalogue, versions of Queen’s Geburt Einer Nation and Opus’s Leben Heisst Leben (whose rendering in German is simultaneously unsettling and hilarious), Europe’s The Final Countdown and God Is God from Jesus Christ Superstar. Each is re-engineered with marching rhythms, army choir, pounding timpanis and metal guitars to sublimely ridiculous effect. In a ceaselessly recursive movement, Laibach’s blank transparency is its depthless subtlety. Employing the trappings of political extremism, they question whether style can be equated with political intent. By extension, they imply that if judgement cannot be reliably informed by appearance, moral disclosure, etc. then anything other than action is potentially misleading. As much as the comfortable minority would like to imagine otherwise, Laibach serve as reminder that the world remains in thrall to dangerous ideologies and vested interests. Anthems serves as an excellent primer, the 13 videos and documentary on the separately available, eponymous dvd are similarly mandatory viewing.
Colin Buttimer
January 2005
Published by Signal To Noise magazine