[22 July 2008]
Industrial music and gothic rock were two of the more interesting micro-genres to spore off the post-punk movement. Beginning at the end of the 1970s, the UK experienced a kind of midnight renaissance that yielded the likes of Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and the Birthday Party (actually Australian, though based in London). While these bands occupied similar territory in terms of projecting sinister imagery and dealing with macabre subject matter, they also tended to share an interest in the mesmeric sparseness of German experimental music from earlier in the decade.
Einstürzende Neubauten, formed in 1980’s West Berlin by singer/songwriter/guitarist Blixa Bargeld, also drew heavily on the avant garde approaches of krautrock outfits such as Can, Faust, and Neu! Incorporating sheets of white noise and a variety of “found sounds” into their music, Neubauten carried the aggressive tendencies of its predecessors to largely dissonant conclusions. The band’s early material, some of which is compiled on the Strategies Against Architecture ’80-’83 collection, has been described as “verging on the unlistenable at times” and was never particularly focused on structural coherence (the band’s name, incidentally, translates to “collapsing new buildings”).
The Jewels would thus seem to be a Neubauten record through and through. Conceptually, the album is the product of an attempt at rediscovery, or, as the group’s press release would have it, a “search for a navigation system, which led the band back into hidden niches of the Einstürzende Neubauten universe that had not been especially brightly illuminated before now.”
What it basically comes down to is a musical recycling project (who said German efficiency was a stereotype?)—one in which the band created a deck of cards from which to draw at random. The premise: each card “made a cryptic reference to elements of what the Neubauten have created over the last 28 years.” These cryptic references could apparently pertain to such specific details as an instrument played during a certain song’s middle section, or the progression of another’s introductory passage. The final stage in the process involved each band member performing his part in accordance with the instructions of his particular card. “The name of the game was to surprise and be surprised.”
Chaos should have ensued. Instead, The Jewels is a good deal better than common sense ought to dictate. At the very least, it’s a damn sight better than “verging on the unlistenable”. Admittedly, most of the songs on this album should be characterized as miniatures or thumbnail sketches—and be appreciated as such. The jerky “Hawcubite” is just one of these. Others, like “Mei Ro” and “I Kissed Glenn Gould”, function more as assaults upon ingrained notions of songcraft.
Consequently, the music exists more as a challenge to its audience than it does as a source of entertainment (though not in every case). There is a small clutch of more thoroughly developed material present in the mix, but the principal end that Neubauten set out to achieve with The Jewels seems to be primarily experimental in nature. Slightly more traditional-sounding songs like “Ich Komme Davon” and “Die Ebenen” stand out for their relative accessibility, but ultimately the only thing listeners are likely to satisfy with this record is their intellectual curiosity.