Once, the idea of making music out of industrial refuse and random construction materials was challenging, radical, and innovative, even verging on dangerous; these days, it amounts to a night of family fun at a performance of Stomp! But while Stomp! shows how extorting unlikely rhythms from non-musical objects can be a mere gimmick, Einstürzende Neubauten, the German band who helped pioneered the idea in the ‘80s, prove that there’s still challenge and provocation in it, fashioning an unsettling metaphor of music-making as a kind of hard labor while inverting received notions of what is organic, spontaneous, mechanical, industrial.
Before the show began, the audience had a chance to survey the stage, which was in itself a sight to behold. It looked like a cross between a fitness club’s Nautilus room, an abandoned construction site and a hardware-store sidewalk sale. On a riser in the center was a drum-kit set-up, only the cymbals were replaced by jagged rotary-saw-blade looking discs and instead of a snare there was a rumpled sheet of metal. Suspended from a rack was another sheet of metal, like a primitive kind of gong. To the right of that set-up on another riser was what looked to be a series of weight benches festooned with more coils, springs, metal bars and plastic tubes cut to various lengths. On stage level were more plastic pipes, some eight or nine feet long, and several bulbous containers that looked like propane tanks, and one of those refrigerator-sized Ampeg bass cabinets that in the company of all that scrap metal took on the appearance of being heavy machinery. And that’s really the point, to suggest that working musical equipment should be considered intense, blue-collar work, similar to working a crane or a back hoe. Part of Neubauten’s decades-long assault on musical convention is to reject delicate, practiced virtuosity in favor of brute repetition and the accidental noises that derive from the repeated motions of manual labor. In this sense, Neubauten is rightly considered “industrial music,” and the stage could be seen as some sort of facsimile of a factory floor. But “industrial” in their case does not mean mechanical or precise or assembly-line; in fact, when you see how tenuous and jury-rigged their instruments are and how organic has been their evolution in the pursuit of more rarefied noises, you begin to appreciate how much deliberate randomness they necessarily must embrace, and how chances are high that any of their performances will be utterly and unpredictably transformed by slight technical difficulties. And there’s a good chance an audience wouldn’t even notice; their format is flexible enough to embrace such inevitable mishaps as compositional elements. (That they are rigidly repetitious at the same time is part of their paradoxical appeal—they methodically build up songs that are always in the process of being undermined by their own materials. Hence the name, which is “collapsing new buildings” in English.) The real “industrial” music, when you think about it, is that which is rigorously engineered by the culture industry for pop satisfaction, and is eminently reproducible—when I saw Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli on the Club MTV tour in the ‘80s, that was far more industrial a performance.
On this night, Neubauten drew a predominantly goth crowd, which befits their reputation for being dour and extreme. However the band’s demeanor was anything but confrontational; frontman Blixa Bargeld—barefoot in a black suit, his floppy hair and bug eyes making him look a little like Steve Buscemi—greeted the enthusiastic crowd with a long, congenial monologue in his heavily accented English, looking back nostalgically over the band’s New York City performance history (after announcing, sadly, that this tour would probably be their last in America), recalling the long since disappeared venues they had played—the Danceteria, the Palladium—and the trouble they caused with their eccentric stage show. Though their music can often seem forbidding, Bargeld himself was charming and affable throughout the set, never failing to demonstrate a sense of humor about himself, joking about his age and his songs’ extensive lyrics, which as they were in German were mostly incomprehensible to the majority of the crowd. He was less like a character from SNL’s Sprockets parody than he was like an impish Serge Gainsbourg-like figure, comfortable in his continental charisma, seeming to smirk at his own presumptive outrageousness.
Virtually all of the songs Neubauten played shared a similar structure, building from an anchor of an insistent, minimalist bass line and an almost subliminal guitar drone over which Bargeld would alternately declaim and croon his words while two percussionists clanged and clattered their variety of noise-making implements: ersatz xylophones made from plastic plumbing, compressed air blasted into a revolving stack of crushed plastic bottles (used primarily in a song seeming to comment on the dubiously self-satisfying gesture of recycling), steel mallets pounding on grates, coils jangling against deliberately placed barrels. When Bargeld would launch into one of his trademark tortured shrieks it made for a startling contrast—the stark, inhuman metallic sounds set against with the all-too-human sound of vocal cords pushed to their limits. It freshly dramatized the tired conflict of man vs. machine. These piercing wails seemed to evoke strangulation and complete freedom from inhibition at the same time, both pained response and refutation of the machine cacophony framing them. His cries drowned out the industrial noises, mastered them, but only by becoming extreme and unnatural, only by resounding with anguish.
Some songs verged toward a kind of robotic funk, others simmered in their own murk, but all emphasized rhythm at the expense of melody. This made them strangely irresistible, highlighting the universal nature of rhythm that structures and patterns all of the natural world. As if to make this point, one song was built around a horrifically amplified heartbeat, overridden with a host of other rhythms, dramatizing how that primal pulse struggles to assert itself and maintain its consistency in the wake of the other paces imposed upon it.
Other songs stressed dynamics over polyrhythm, switching between quiet and loud passages, the volume provided mainly by explosions of synthesized strings provided by a keyboardist tucked into the corner. That there were synthesizers involved seemed at odds with the carefully hand-crafted devices the percussionists used to make their sounds, all of which could have easily been reproduced and more carefully manipulated with a laptop and some imaginative programming. But the cumbersome contraptions on stage demonstrated how meticulous they were willing to be to stay faithful to their original sound sources and how important the arduous methods are to their concept of music. The synthesized portions made one more acutely aware of how much they had refused to simulate, how many short cuts they hadn’t taken. And how grateful we should be for this, in a time when it’s considered an acceptable rock show for a “performer” to sit at a desk in front of a computer and click his mouse. Neubauten are totally committed to the spectacle of sound-making, which seems to be inherently fundamental to the whole notion of seeing music played live: One has to believe that seeing music made introduces a new dimension to the experience.
The beauty of Neuabuten is that their music is almost incomprehensible without the spectacle. Their fidelity to their organic noise-making implements brought in a seductive air of mystery. Deducing how they were able to make the various noises was at least as interesting as the sounds themselves. During the show it became impossible to separate the pleasure of Neubauten’s music from the pleasure of making these kinds of deductions: Is that whirring a drill or an air compressor? Is he hitting that metal plate with a hammer or a stick? Is that a spring or a rubber tube making that deep, kidney-rumbling bass sound? At times, it becomes to impossible to distinguish between planned effects and spontaneous accidents - their roughhewn instruments guarantee that their every use will be somewhat unpredictable—and this balance between what has been composed in advance and what has been discovered incidentally in the process of playing makes each show seem unique and irreducible. While plenty of conventional bands often seem to be going through the motions on any given night, playing the same show they played the night before in some other town, Neubauten couldn’t convey that sense if they tried. That alone is reason enough to see them while you can.