by Phil Freeman
The only surprising thing about the new Laibach album, Also Sprach Zarathustra (get it from Amazon), is that it took them this long to get around to literally setting the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche to music. From the time they emerged into the broader popular consciousness with their third album, 1987’s Opus Dei, their artistic MO has been both obvious and ambiguous. They satirize a broad range of targets, including militarism, materialism, religion, and mainstream pop culture by dressing as—and sounding like—some sort of fascist musical theater troupe. They wear militaristic uniforms onstage, stand stiffly, and vocalist Milan Fras intones their lyrics in a basso monotone, with a thick Eastern European accent. Their music has evolved significantly over the years, sometimes incorporating metallic guitars, other times driving techno keyboards, but pounding rhythms and a general intensity have been constants.
They achieved their highest public profile in 1987-1992, embraced by the industrial scene; tracks from albums like Opus Dei, Let It Be (a reworking of the Beatles album of the same name, minus the title track), and Kapital found favor in dance clubs, and their amazing videos could frequently be seen at rock clubs, projected on giant screens between bands. They took a sharp left turn on Kapital, though, moving from the mock-fascist/totalitarian imagery of their early work to an Art Deco-meets-Metropolis look (including silver face paint and giant turbine-like machines). It wasn’t well received, by critics or the public, and they quickly reversed course, playing to their perceived strengths on 1994’s NATO, an album of cover songs revolving around themes of war—it included versions of Edwin Starr‘s “War,” Europe‘s “Final Countdown,” Pink Floyd‘s “Dogs of War,” and more. On 1996’s Jesus Christ Superstars, they moved toward industrial metal, and tackled religion, covering “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Prince‘s “The Cross” and recruiting Wire writer Chris Bohn to write lyrics for their own songs. They had another minor hit with “Tanz Mit Laibach,” from 2003’s WAT, but in recent years have mostly existed under the radar; 2006’s Volk (on which they Laibach-ized the national anthems of a number of countries) and 2014’s Spectre came and went with little fanfare. In 2015, they found their way back into the public eye, creating a sensation by traveling to North Korea to play two government-sponsored concerts and filming a documentary, Liberation Day, about the trip.
Their latest album is one of their occasional journeys into the world of scoring. They’ve previously written music for the play Krst pod Triglavom, in 1986, and a Deutsches Schauspielhaus stage production of Macbeth in 1987. They also scored the 2012 movie Iron Sky, which is about a group of Nazis who fled to the moon in 1945 and return to invade Earth in 2018. Also Sprach Zarathustra is a slightly altered version of the music Laibach created for a 2016 play, directed by Matjaž Berger for the Anton Podbevšek Theatre in Novo Mesto, Slovenia.
Musically, it’s one of Laibach‘s most beautiful efforts. Most tracks feature a mix of orchestral swells and digital booms, with synths emitting tones like light reflecting off a glacier. Samples of knives being sharpened add an ominous note. On “Von Gipfel Zu Gipfel,” Fras’s voice is chopped into individual phonemes, which are filtered and spat out through sampling as the music—metallic ticking rhythms, washes of keyboard—slowly becomes a stark but still somehow lush swirl. On “Das Nachtlied II,” the sound of snoring can be heard in the middle of the music, which otherwise owes a little bit to Burial and other artists working in the creepier dubstep zones. The bulk of the vocals on the album come from Fras, reciting passages of Nietzsche in his gruff growl, but some, like “Vor Sonnen-Aufgang,” are sung by Mina Špiler, whose voice has the clarity of ice water.
Watch the video for “Vor Sonnen-Aufgang”:
The problem Laibach have, in 2017, is that they have long since been absorbed by self-referentiality. When they first appeared in the 1980s, their militaristic appearance and demeanor, and the way their pounding, brutalist musical style satirized pop norms, played on fears of European fascism (and Communism). But over time, as totalitarian states have become rare exceptions rather than existential threats to the West, their references have become less and less relevant. Their “look” is no longer symbolic of fascism or the Cold War; they’re just those “hilarious” guys from Laibach. They represent only themselves, and have effectively meme-ified themselves, in the process evolving (or devolving) from a genuinely subversive pop presence to art music, heard and appreciated by the small group who still remember them, but having no significance to anyone else. Cultural atomization comes for us all in the end.
If they wanted to, Laibach might be able to capitalize on (or at least address through their art) the recent rising tide of right-wing pseudo-populism in Europe. But would their return to significance be worth the cost, given what would have to happen to society for their music to regain the resonance it had in the 1980s? Better that they remain a cult phenomenon, especially if the work is going to be as good as Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Stream Also Sprach Zarathustra on Spotify: