The first 10 minutes or so of Einstürzende Neubauten‘s performance at the London venue Koko is the loudest they’ve been in years. Tools are scraped over a steel table, chains over metal sheeting, an electrical screwdriver is dragged across a spring, and a giant steel cube is flung into the air to form the core of a ramshackle structure of boxes, beams and pipes. Blixa Bargeld, in a black suit threaded with silver, holds up cards: “War does not break out, it is never caught or chained…It moves…Waltzing back and forth on the ground it tramples…Shredded hopes, false blame and fatalism.” The sound onstage builds to a scream.
This is “Kriegsmachenerie” (or “War Machinery”), the opening track of a brand-new Einstürzende Neubauten piece titled Lament. Lament was commissioned by Diksmuide, a Belgian town that saw some of the heaviest fighting of the early months of the First World War. Music from the performance, which has toured Europe, has subsequently been released as Neubauten’s 15th studio album.
Intended to represent the arms race that was a contributing factor in the outbreak of war in Europe in the summer of 1914, “Kriegsmachenerie” is the only moment of the night’s moving and powerful performance that harkens back to Neubauten’s discordant birth in West Berlin 35 years ago. In their early days, the group was so poor that they had to improvise instruments from scrap metal and junkyard supplies. Their name translates as “collapsing new buildings,” a reference to the shoddy quality of the German architecture of the post-World War II reconstruction, while their 1981 debut album Kollaps captured this sentiment in fragmentary, brutal rhythms and disintegrating noise. These early gambits resulted in them struggling to escape the stereotype that they are drill-wielding goth psychopaths, despite the fact that most of their recent albums have been song-based, rather elegant affairs. Still, this battle against cliché makes Einstürzende Neubauten the ideal group to counter the mawkish sentiment, nostalgia, jingoism and dangerous nationalism that can surround commemoration of the 20th century’s most brutal conflicts.
Speaking a few hours before Neubauten take to the stage, Bargeld says that the group’s aim with Lament was to create a musical piece that defied expectation. “I was very much convinced that we should not fulfill the equation of Neubauten and noise, war,” he says. “I wanted to tell a horrible story beautifully.” And so it goes: After “Kriegsmachenerie,” the pace changes entirely with “Hymnen,” a corrupting of the British national anthem “God Save the Queen,” sung in English and German with string quartet accompaniment. In “Nikki Willy Telegrams,” bassist Alexander Hacke assumes the role of the Russian Tsar Nicholas, while Bargeld is Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Each read the messages, in formal diplomatic speak, that the cousins — both descended from Britain’s Queen Victoria — sent one other, even as Europe ground inexorably towards war. Autotune gives their voices a strange and contemporary pop edge, underlining the absurdity of the situation.
Questioning of national identity and its role in conflict is a theme that occurs throughout Lament, conveyed through the symbolic deployment of Neubauten’s formidable array of homemade instruments. For “WW1 Percussion,” plastic piping wired up to contact mics is placed onstage. Each pipe represents a country, and a rhythm is beaten out by Hacke, Andrew Unruh and drummer Rudolf Moser, with new pipes either attacked or left alone as Bargeld announces nations entering or leaving the war. Finally he declares, “The First World War ends with the next bar!”
Any artistic response to the First World War runs the risk of reflecting nationalism itself. “I did not do this as a German,” insists Bargeld. “I didn’t try to have any German perspective or want to represent anything German about it.” He adds that the organizers of the event in Diksmuide had wanted Neubauten to perform on the German side of the old front lines, which he found “a bit weird.” Despite this, would a British or American group have been able to create a piece of work that comes across as so open and resolutely non-judgmental? “I was going not for a statement, but a much more human aspect of war in general, of little, more underrepresented corners of knowledge,” says Bargeld. You can hear this thoughout Lament. Neubauten spent research time in various museums and archives, and the piece includes voices that might not have previously been part of our collective remembrance. In “On Patrol,” the group uses the songs of the Harlem Hellfighters, jazz-playing African-American soldiers who, because of the racism of the U.S. army, had to fight under French command.
Bargeld says that though he has no conscious links to the German generation that fought in World War II, the surreal experience of growing up in an occupied West Berlin saturated by the propaganda of both the Warsaw Pact and NATO gave Neubauten both sides of the narrative of the war, as well as the awareness that things could suddenly get very hot. “It was for us a normal thing to assume that the war could start at any point,” Bargeld says. “When you heard an airplane a bit too low, a bit too loud, a bit too long, you thought ‘now it is going to start.’”
As Einstürzende Neubauten was working on Lament, Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula. Bargeld says that the spats between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin “are the Willy Nicky telegrams all over again,” adding that he is afraid of playing the piece in Moscow, where he believes he is routinely followed by the security services. Does he feel that Lament is capturing just the latest moment in a war that’s set to continue? “In [the year] 2100, we might look at the First and Second World Wars and the ones that followed it as being all the same complex of things,” he replies. “The war did not end, it was just locally not moving much. I don’t know how you look at that in another hundred years. You might clamp this all together in a much larger bracket, and I don’t know if I should call myself a pessimist because of that.”
The most powerful part of the evening comes with the three-part “Lament” suite. In the first, the stage is bathed in yellow light, replicating mustard gas, as music is built from the vocal tones of each band member, who stand hands folded in front of microphones. For the suite’s second part, “Abwärtsspirale,” there are jarring white flashes of light, rhythmic hits and a pounding of bass, like shellfire before the big push. Into the vacuum after these explosions of sound come dolorous strings, indecipherable vocals crackling away, the last message from a field telephone. It’s an unsettling soundtrack that evokes the baleful chaos of no man’s land at night, a broken and jumbled landscape of mud and death.
The greatest artistic responses to war, from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 to the grotesque sketches of Otto Dix, capture both its unsparing unpleasantness as well as its ludicrousness. So in the encore, the sight of Bargeld dressed in a swan-like cape outfit to sing Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret staple “Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind?” (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”) is haunting. It’s followed by “Let’s Do It a Dada,” one of three back-catalog numbers played. An ode to the left-wing antiwar art movement that began in Europe in 1916, it features comically honking horns and Unruh in a white stovepipe hat in homage to a performance by the artist Hugo Ball. It’s a mixture of the daft and the defiant. Engaging, propulsive noise ties together the threads of an astonishing performance that embraces classical composition, the avant-garde, noise and theater in exploring the sensory overload and surrealism of war. Strange as it might be, in Lament‘s very human commemoration of an endless cycle of violence and misery where there never have been, and never will or can be any victors, Einstürzende Neubauten have found their greatest triumph.