There is no band in the world that sounds quite like Einstürzende Neubauten, even after all this time. They’ve been together in one form or another for almost three decades, and while in that time a few brave souls may have attempted to follow in their footsteps, no one else has come close. But aside from their unquestioned status as one of the most unique bands in the history of contemporary pop music, it’s also significant to note that they’ve produced some of their strongest work — arguably their best work — in recent years. Long after graduating from being enfant terribles and moving on to the éminence grise portion of their careers, they’re recording the most interesting, boundary-pushing albums of their careers.
Silence Is Sexy (2000) was such a massively singular achievement that you could hardly have expected them to top it. They may not have surpassed it with Perpetuum Mobile — that’s certainly debatable — but creating an album that deserved to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Silence Is Sexy in any event was no mean feat.
A lot has changed since 2004, and Alles Wieder Offen is not necessarily a straight continuation from these previous albums. For one thing, while the band itself has not changed in the intervening years, almost everything about the way the band works has. They’ve left behind the traditional music industry structure and gone entirely independent. Alles Wieder Offen was created through the ongoing experiment of the band’s www.neubauten.org website, an interactive fan community built on the sponsorship of fans, who made donations to the group in exchange for exclusive access to webcast rehearsals, live performances and unprecedented access. Of course, the fans who pay get exclusive tchotchkes, and were able to see the process of the album’s creation at every step along the way. But everyone can go down to their local music store (or online retailer) and buy a copy of Alles Wieder Offen, recorded, distributed and sold directly by the band themselves, with no middlemen to be found. Considering the troubles they’ve traditionally had with unethical record companies, the setup is a marked improvement. And, it’s worth noting, they left their corporate home at Mute Records and established neubauten.org many, many years before Radiohead went a similar route with In Rainbows.
But does all this backstory have anything to do with the price of tea in China? I think most critics’ response to Radiohead’s release posed essentially the same question: do the circumstances behind an album’s release really matter at all when considering the quality of said album? Obviously, the answer is no. In Rainbows would have been a great album whether it had been released independently or if they had premiered the first single on American Idol. We’ve come a long way since the days when “Internet-only” albums were basically leftover sops to the computer-savvy nerd fanbase (i.e., They Might Be Giants’ Long Tall Weekend). Similarly, the fact that a veteran act like Einstürzende Neubauten set off on their own really doesn’t mean anything in the long run: soon, we’re going to see a lot of bands following in their footsteps. Ultimately, without the support of giant record companies to promote the living hell out of mediocre bands, artists will have to rely on skill and creativity to get ahead in the massive digital marketplace. So we’re back to where we started: is it any good?
And the answer is a qualified yes. If you hadn’t read the preceding two paragraphs, if you had no idea that Alles Wieder Offen represented a significant achievement in the ongoing historical evolution of recorded music, you would be forced to the conclusion that this sounds pretty much exactly what you’d expect a new Einstürzende Neubauten album to sound like. This is both good and bad: one the one hand, Einstürzende Neubauten are one of the great bands of the last quarter-century, and their least is better than most. But — and you knew there was a but coming — it’s something of a let-down coming on the heels of their last two albums.
Einstürzende Neubauten have always set themselves apart from their supposed “peers” in the worlds of post-punk and industrial music by virtue of their bizarre modus operandi: more than a “mere” rock band, they’ve specialized in the use of industrial waste and detritus to create unique instruments and sound effects. Instead of a drum kit, they beat on sheet metal; instead of keyboards they use felt hammers on PVC pipe. They’ve got a few guitars and processors in their shed, but their trademark sound remains a lead pipe crashing against battered sheet metal.
The group is still feisty, but for the most part Alles Wieder Offen appears a much more concise, far less messy album than any of its predecessors. The last ten years have seen the band develop a particularly sophisticated approach to songwriting, allowing them to mellow their overall sound while incorporating more traditional balladry as well as experimental pieces that included spoken-word and white-noise improvisation. The picture we see in 2007 is of a band in complete control of their faculties, to the point where even the seemingly chaotic force of violently exploding sheet metal has been domesticated. Certainly, a harder track like “Let’s Do It a Dada” still punches in the right places, but even this chaotic interlude has been constructed with exactly the precision necessary to hit every beat with scientific exactitude.
It’s odd to criticize a band for playing well, but the lack of spontaneity seems to have sapped some of the energy from the proceedings. It’s an intangible effect, certainly, and I’d be lying if I said there was anything objective to my judgment on the matter. But too many of the tracks rely on subtlety of effect to make a lasting impact. “Ich hatte ein Wort” relies on the same kind of soft percussion that made Perpetuum Mobile’s “Youme & Meyou” such a beguiling and melancholic track, but whereas the latter song built into something more persistent and anthemic, “Ich hatte ein Wort” merely lopes contentedly through its four-minute and 20-second running time. “Die Wellen” effectively builds from total silence into a grand, percussive monument — there are even strings in the background! — but the track ends suddenly and leaves the listener with “Nagorny Karabach”, a subliminally soft track that could almost qualify as a lullaby. “Weil weil weil” recalls the chanted grandeur of “Dingsaller”, off Silence Is Sexy, but the result is simply nowhere near as catchy: “Weil weil weil” (“because because because”) is a drone, whereas “Dingsaller” was catchy enough that you couldn’t help but sing along.
It’s not a bad album by any means. It sounds great, and there are moments throughout that remain as good as anything the band has ever done. “Unvollständigkeit” is an epic track in the tradition of “Redukt”, and it contains just as much of the band’s signature attention to structural detail and gradual metamorphoses as you could expect to find. But the fact is that it’s not so easy to find the highlights on this album. No matter how many times I listen, the details keep sliding out of my grasp. I would not want to say that the album was particularly “boring”, but it struggles to hold my interest, which it about the last thing I thought I’d ever say about a band who made their name by banging pieces of sheet metal in junkyards while screaming at the top of their lungs. Einstürzende Neubauten have made an extremely polite, well-constructed album that infuriates in exact proportion to its ingratiating nature.