Laibach: WAT

[20 May 2004]

By Richard T. Williams

Laibach view themselves as an artistic time machine, able to step in and out of points in history. They tend to borrow aspects of their approach to art and performance from controversial eras in world politics, monumentally horrific sections of time that they choose to culturally exhaust by draining as much aesthetic influence and satirical ammunition as possible from them, frequently by exaggerating fascism and authoritarianism to comic proportions. Much of what Laibach attempt is similar to a political Saturday Night Live sketch, though the band never laugh at themselves and never break character during a performance, and thus can be misconstrued easily as handling their subjects devoid of irony. Named after the capital of their homeland Slovenia while under Nazi occupation, and formed in the difficult post-Tito political climate of Yugoslavia in the early ‘80s, Laibach’s performances were often banned, yet the controversy they stirred helped build their public profile. Eventually, they softened their overt political attack, if not their militaristic rhythms or aggressive sounds, and broke out internationally by focusing on comedic and disturbing cover versions for the majority of the next decade, all of which housed subtle satirical messages or anti-fascist political agenda.

Their misleadingly-titled new album, WAT (“We Are Time”), marks Laibach’s return to concentrating on their own material. As usual, the lyrics are spoken in Milan Fras’s impossibly guttural deadpan, alternating between German and English, and focusing somewhat on general political concepts that veer the band dangerously close to mid-‘90s KMFDM territory (“Achtung!”) or visions of a war-ravaged world on its way to impending apocalypse (“B Mashina”, “Ende”). But Laibach are at their liveliest when handling the heavier topics, as at least three tracks actually allude to the war against terrorism or warn against anti-American sentiment in other parts of the world. “Now You Will Pay” declares, “Barbarians are coming / From the east”, only to follow with, “With knives in their pockets / And bombs in their hands, / They’ll burn down your cities / And your Disneylands”. “The Great Divide” laments, “The crack is getting deeper / The flames are burning higher”, in reference to the events of the new millennium. “A bloody horizon / Has consumed the sun / In the machine / 2000 and one”.

The time machine concept is declared in the title track, but also reiterated in “Das Spiel Ist Aus”: “Was entstanden ist / Das muss vergehen / Was vergangen ist / Muss auferstehen!” This translates as, “What has come to be must pass, and what has past must rise again”. This also allows the band to return to the use of a musical backdrop that has become all-but-extinct in the new millennium. By the end of the ‘90s, industrial dance music had been absorbed into alternative hard rock or the dozens of offshoots of techno bubbling under the mainstream surface; the remaining bands that adhere strictly to its predominantly electronic style and gothic atmosphere are lost in a disconnected subculture with little ability to change or affect the overground music industry and the masses that abide by it. Laibach themselves had abandoned the style for their last album, 1996’s religious-themed Jesus Christ Superstars, exchanging their by-then trademark combination of hard electronic beats, Wagnerian classical flourishes, and operatic choirs for a metallic guitar onslaught, not unlike the sound Rammstein would eventually introduce to the world with less associated baggage. Thus, why would the band who once covered the entire Beatles album Let It Be, as a chillingly beautiful and humorous statement against the commercialization of music without social conscience in western civilization, return to active status in a subsumed, out-of-fashion genre, where their messages (they refer to their lyrics as “texts”) would fail to find an audience even as wide as the one they left behind?

The band are merely donning the appropriate suit for the occasion, rather than attempting to fit into a scene. During Laibach’s seven-year absence, electroclash—the little fad that could—revitalized electronic music, in the way that punk once did for rock and roll. The subsequent revisitation to early synthesizer bands like Kraftwerk, OMD, the Human League, and Gary Numan resurrected an element of futurism that was lost in the pompous jazz-like professionalism found in techno after it hit the zeitgeist in 1997. Laibach’s ideal sound to support their new “texts” requires the same sort of combination of retro and futurism found in their message of learning from war-torn history while looking to the apocalyptic future. As a result, the band is able to function outside of the current state of their outmoded genre. The dance single “Tanz Mit Laibach” best exemplifies this; as a direct tribute to German industrial pioneers D.A.F., it draws from the same musical resources as electroclash, yet the political sloganeering about finding common bonds in the same adversaries is no less current today. As the most accessible track on the album, already immortalized by the Flash-animation kittens at as well as an episode of Alias, “Tanz Mit Laibach” has already assured that Laibach have made as much a mark on today’s pop culture as they did with their cover of Queen’s “One Vision” seventeen years ago. And, in the shadow of the political events of the past few years, as this era is well on its way to becoming another dark age for Laibach’s time machine to reap, their return isn’t merely welcome; it’s required.

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