The first music I heard by Einstürzende Neubauten was 1989’s Haus der Lüge. It was their fifth album, and their most accessible to date, though I didn’t know that. To 17-year-old me, it sounded like the Ministry and Skinny Puppy albums I had already heard (the first song, “Feurio!”, throbs to a pounding techno pulse), with additional jagged bursts of noise, and Blixa Bargeld‘s vocals were positively uncanny, veering between a low groan and a breathless shriek. I was thrilled, but also somewhat unnerved by the possibilities this dramatic, destructive music represented.
I traveled to Los Angeles that summer, and while I was there, they played at a small club called Helter Skelter. The live show was much more intense and even overwhelming than the album; I didn’t know the majority of the songs they were performing, and the equipment they were using to make their sounds was unlike anything I’d ever seen: metal racks with coil springs stretched across them and smacked with metal rods, a shopping cart attacked with power tools, and even the conventional instruments — guitar and keyboard — seemed to be pushed to the brink of destruction. Onstage, Bargeld was a frightening presence, rail-thin with spiked hair and a maniacal glare. I came away obsessed, convinced that Einstürzende Neubauten were the greatest thing in the history of music, that they were tearing down the world and rebuilding it, and I was all in.
I saw them two more times, in 1990 and 1992, in slightly larger venues, and they were still stunning, but either I was getting used to their methods or they were slowly softening their approach. (It was both.) I’d investigated their back catalog thoroughly by then, and found that I preferred the Strategies Against Architecture compilations; the best moments, like the live version of the Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. track “Armenia,” were glorious, but the albums had too many slack spots, and it was becoming clear that the group were not wreckers of civilization (to borrow a slogan from Throbbing Gristle) but an art troupe. Which is fine, but only in small doses.
The last time I saw them live was 20 years ago, following the release of Silence is Sexy (a good, if subdued, album). I’d spent an hour interviewing Bargeld before the show, and he was a fantastic conversationalist, smart and witty and possessed of an almost diplomatic graciousness. He was also immaculately dressed in what looked to me like a very expensive suit. Things had changed in Neubauten-world.
I lost track of them after that. I’m aware that they made several albums in the 2000s, and embarked on fan-supported projects, but if I ever heard Alles Wieder Offen or The Jewels, I can’t remember what they sounded like, and 2014’s Lament held no appeal for me at all. They seemed to be following a similar path to Laibach, taking everything interesting about themselves and transforming it into a kind of kitschy funeral for what they had once been.
Alles In Allem is the first Einstürzende Neubauten album I’ve really dived into since Silence is Sexy, and it’s barely recognizable as the work of the same people who produced the clanging “Yu-Gung” or the stark, terrifying “Kalte Sterne.” Bargeld has become a refined, subtly witty vocal presence, seeming to stand in front of his bandmates delivering a complex, multi-leveled lecture on art and human existence. Neubauten songs are filled with wordplay and layered references, many of which I think are only accessible to German speakers (of which I am not one), so if he’s not emitting the unearthly screeches and guttural moans that formerly allowed me to appreciate his voice as an instrument, it’s up to the music to carry the weight. Which it does.
Neubauten’s gift for sound design is undiminished. “Am Landwehrkanal” has almost a nursery rhyme structure, with clinked bottles for percussion and a massive, distorted bass line like something Eric Avery would have played with Jane’s Addiction, joined eventually by harmonium and a complex rhythmic pattern beaten out with what sound like broom handles striking the floor or the walls. “Zivilisatorisches Missgeschick” is a collage built of the noise of giant factory turbines, squealing tapes, metal chimes and Mellotron-like organ drones. The title track is driven by slow organ and a whooshing, scraping rhythm; the haunted, mournful melody, and Bargeld’s delivery of it, reminds me of Roky Erickson‘s “Burn the Flames.”
Alles In Allem is a fantastic record. I went into it thinking I didn’t need a mature, civilized Einstürzende Neubauten, but at the same time I didn’t really want to hear them striving — and inevitably failing — to match the tear-it-down energy of their early work. I was mentally setting them up to fail me. But the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. And that’s precisely because it has so little to do with what came before. Yes, the classic Neubauten sounds (the huge bass, the rattling and smashing in the background, the bursts of ear-shredding industrial noise) are still present, but they’re being put to new and appropriate purposes; they’re not reflexive gestures, but tools, and the musicians making use of them are as creative as at any point in their careers.