The tale of an uninitiated music reviewer traveling through a world of foreign sonority and coming out potentially scarred for life, and better for it.
My last run-in with Einstürzende Neubauten was a purchase of 1983's Drawings of a Patient O.T. I was 16 years old, immersed in punk rock, but intrigued by early industrial music or any music of that era that was non-traditional, for lack of a better term. I was listening to lots of Wire, Gang of Four, Birthday Party, Mission of Burma, and so forth. I didn't dig that deep into industrial, focusing primarily on Twitch-era Ministry and the earliest recordings of KMFDM. Einstürzende Neubauten were a completely different beast.
The Strategies Against Architecture series began in 1983 with Einstürzende Neubauten's earliest recordings, some purely experimental, some cassette-only, album tracks from Kollaps and Drawings, live recordings, and all things most people would consider unlistenable. Remember, they started as a performance art act and their, er, "songs" mostly consisted of screaming and metallic cacophony. The fourth collection in this series, spanning the years 2002 to 2010 and featuring studio recordings, live performances, and things only available through download or supporter fees or convoluted online video games (seriously), showcases an often more melodic side of the band, certainly not forgetting their signature descents into Hell, like a polite neighbor who comes over for dinner with gifts and pleasant conversation, then stabs you to death and burns your house down.
The 26-track, double CD begins with possibly their most successful song in the eight-year span, the single version of "Perpetuum Mobile", sporting impressive metallic rhythms and a semi-conventional song structure, which is actually the detriment of the track--not bad by any means, but not that memorable. Einstürzende Neubauten's shots at "normality", if you can call them that, are usually less successful than their signature noise expirements but showcase the range of a band that I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't expect to still be around. "Selbstportrait Mit Kater" again gives us some unexpected melody, similar to a nuanced, sparse take on the aforementioned Twitch by Ministry, and is highly successful. "Ein Leichtes Leises Sauseln" recalls Sigur Ros, with its engaging melodies, ethereal keyboards, and rainy ambience. The live version of "Youme & Meyou" doesn't sound too far from the recent output of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, of which Neubauten's vocalist/founder Blixa Bargeld (the former pin-up for girls of the punk, goth, or industrial ilk) has been a longtime member.
Continuing the group's newfound forays into "near-pop" is "Dead Friends (Around the Corner)" featuring their strongest actual bassline and a lyrical image I particularly love ("There's a place around the corner where your dead friends live"). It honestly would fit in easily on Wire's recent album, Object 47. "Insomnia" is quiet through and through, evoking krautrock legends and Herzog favorites Popol Vuh, with flourishes of Eno-esque ambience. "Party in Meck-Pomm" is one of a handful of perfect songs in this collection, a Pere Ubu/Birthday Party hybrid that is completely bizarre and completely awesome. "X" is not so successful, with jazz flavors and weak shots at conventional melody, unintimidating and slightly playful.
"Floorpiece / Grundstück" begins with the old (a non-musical collage of metallic sounds and sporadic, fitful vocals) and segues into the new (melodic, cinematic strings reminiscent of Tindersticks). "Good Morning Everybody" wants to show you that things are going to be okay, maybe, given what is soon to come, with actual verses, choruses, melodies, and a standard 4/4 rhythm. This time around, there is no detriment, only a great song. But prepare yourself. "Waiting for the Call" gives us a damp, nightmarish atmosphere, like rain on a foreboding, gutted industrial complex into which Lucifer's currently crashing, rushing headlong into a cacophonous battlefield, ending with booming bass sounds and machinery.
"Wo Sind Meine Schuhe?" (translated to "Where Are My Shoes?") is more typical of the industrial genre, featuring a prominent bassline and slight hints at dub. "GS1 & GS2" is another sonic equivalent of a cinematic "Gotcha!" moment, providing rhythmic tom drums, chants, and sheet metal, eventually adding bass, doom, and disembodied, anguished screams. CD1 finishes with "Palast Der Republik", a damned frightening excursion offering only atmosphere created by anarchistic percussion, bass drones, and manipulated, despairing vocals.
Had enough? Because we're not nearly finished.
CD2 is more experimental, bizarre, surprising, and frankly, often terrifying. It also features Einstürzende Neubauten's stronger material from 2002-2010. The brief interlude "Sendezeichen Phase 3" is a completely appropriate beginning, one minute of foreboding drone that absolutely explodes into industrial rhythm in its very last seconds. "Tagelang Weiss" follows, delving into the tones of Neubauten's krautrock forefathers, recalling Neu!'s quieter moments and the ambient soundscapes of early Tangerine Dream. "Wenn Dann" is less organic and more electronic, and oddly enough, it sounds like something off a 1980s science fiction film soundtrack. "Jeder Satz Mit Ihr Hallt Nach" is primarily hushed, spoken vocals and eerie ambience, while "Susej" is shockingly reminiscent of The Future-era Leonard Cohen, sans the canned drums and bad synths, but with the same dark melodies and foreboding vibe. "Magyar Energia" is one of the few disappointments, a throwaway track akin to the sonic experiments of Nine Inch Nails' Ghosts series without any of the atmosphere.
"Birth Lunch Death" (great title) is all dark melodies and metallic destruction, featuring something that sounds like a melodica, giving it a bit of a dub flavor. Oddly, it could've been something by Tom Waits at his most damned. "Weil Weil Weil (Freie Radikale in Der Warteschleife)" gives us tribal rhythms, chanting, and... marimbas and vibraphones (?!) before dissolving into a near-IDM experiment of otherworldly sounds and unsettling synths. Then it blows up, and it becomes beautiful.
I never expected to go into this and come out having experienced one of the most amazing sonic happenings of my life, but that's what happened when I heard "Unvollständigkeit", a live recording of the Gospel according to the Antichrist in a little over 12 minutes. A drone. Spoken words, like an invocation. The introduction of a bass drum and hi-hat, vocals like waves, in and out, with differing levels of urgency. A bassline starts creeping around with tom drums. There's a dark ambience, and things are intensifying. Agoraphobic dread appears as Blixa muses, "Can I actually face it, this thing called 'outside'?" Synths suddenly fly into the stratosphere, but the quiet quickly resumes. With three minutes to go, the collapsed buildings are being built again, with great vengeance and furious fire. My God, the intensity is awe-inspiring. Glass shatters. Drums roar. This is now the sound of the motherfucking Apocalypse. The crowd screams. The band waits for silence. This is the fallout. "Finally clean, finally empty," says Blixa. And this should've been the final track, as now there is no going back.
But we continue with "Let's Do It a Dada", with their clanging rhythms, a hint of a melody (but still anti-pop), recalling something from Wire's Read & Burn series. Following this attempt at a respite is 27 seconds of nonsense, leading into the album's final experience. Like something out of the progressive rock playbook (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer come to mind), this collection ends on a 15-minute live track in four parts, or suites, entitled "Musterhaus-Ausstellung" (part of a series only available on Einstürzende Neubauten's website).
Part one, "Anarchitektur" is a frightening sound collage of breaking industrial material, hisses of pipes and radiators (think Eraserhead), and a bizarre electronic muffle. This leads into "Et Cetera", startling us with beautiful piano that quickly serves to calm us from the post-nuke background. Deafening drones and the tribal rhythms of cannibals ensue. Part three, "Weingeister", sadistically pulls us deeper into Hell, with skyrocketing layers of terrifying, screaming vocals, clearly indicating, at this point, there is nothing on Einstürzende Neubauten's minds but pure sonic terror. They can do it quiet, and they can do it loud, and they can make it seem innocuous, but it's still akin to a panic attack in locked room of rotting corpses. The finale, "Tohu Wa Bohu", is African-inspired, with tribal chanting, little bombs of rhythm, and the light sounds of crumbling infrastructure dissolving into silence.
In their darkest moments, it seems as if Einstürzende Neubauten, in their maturity, are no longer trying to annihilate music but are focusing on constructing highly sophisticated compositions of destruction and desperation. Like an extraordinarily disturbing film that seeks to decimate your soul, the right person at the right time cannot shut it off and is only intrigued by the overwhelming doom. They seemingly seek to provide the soundtrack to the listener's own descent into Hell, personal or literal. And with the introduction of slight convention, occasional structure, pinches of melody and even playfulness, it just goes to show their ability to run the entire spectrum of emotions through drones, ambience, found sounds, and disarming noise is all the more astonishing.