Berlin’s Einstürzende Neubauten — that’s “Collapsing New Buildings” to the uninitiated — are in many ways an embodiment of a certain stereotype about German art rock. They could have been the inspiration for the Saturday Night Live “Sprockets” character — you know, the tight black trousers, the turtlenecks, the pale, unsmiling faces. Early footage taken of Neubauten features a bunch of skinny, dark clad young men who never smiled, beating with all their might on the detritus of an abandoned industrial site. Live, they set the stage on fire — literally. Einstürzende Neubauten’s arsenal of “instruments” initially included the dulcet tones of the pneumatic hammer, the circular saw, and the pile driver. Formed in 1980, Einstürzende Neubauten adopted punk’s apocalyptic impulse, but incorporated none of its sarcasm or joyful abandon. Their nihilism was more Dada than Chelsea: they coveted nonsense rather than simplicity, improvisation over the three-chord mantra.
For all this apparent typecasting, after 21 years it is clear that Einstürzende Neubauten are that rare thing: an enduring avant-garde act. From their ear-smashing, power-tool wielding inception onward, Neubauten have been faithful to their founding credo: that you must destroy in order to build. As easy as it might be to pigeonhole these Teutonic noisemeisters, Neubauten have consistently striven to smash not only popular music’s conventions, but their own as well.
Even by the mid-’80s, they were moving away from pure improvisational havoc. They began to use actual instruments, objet-trouvé recordings, and singer/guitarist Blixa Bargeld began to pen lyrics that actually seemed to be about something, even if it was something weird like helium or shrimp scampi. The ’90s saw him start to singing in other languages besides German — the current list now stands at English, French, Latin, and Spanish. With the added structure came a new focus on song craft and on stage production. The title of their most recent album (before this retrospective), Silence Is Sexy brings Einstürzende Neubauten 180 degrees from their cacophonous beginnings, exploiting restraint and reticence over explosive excess. In other words, you’ll be waiting a long time if you’re hoping to spy Blixa Bargeld on the side of a highway in Eastern Germany, screaming as he waves a piece of twisted highway flotsam. He is so over that.
For all that, it isn’t easy to map Neubauten’s implosive trajectory on to the traditional “avant-garde purists grow up, become more accessible” story that describes musicians from Jonathan Richman to Sonic Youth. The closest analogy I can find, not really in terms of sound but in terms of narrative, is Elvis Costello, whose early do-it-yourself angry man anthems gave way to a hodge-podge of collaborations and reinventions, some more successful than others. Einstürzende Neubauten have spawned a variety of side projects in addition to the broadening of their sound. Since 1984, Blixa has been the guitarist for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Other band members have worked with industrial acts like KMFDM, penned movie soundtracks and even ballet scores. The band has written and performed music for a theater play of Faust, which was written by Werner Schwab with the band in mind. Like Elvis Costello, whose most recent project is a jazz collaboration, Einstürzende Neubauten have never been shy of so-called “high” art. Part of their commitment to anarchy involves a refusal to acknowledge the validity of any such distinctions.
In Neubauten’s case, the story is complicated by the role they’ve come to play in the European art establishment. Their work on Faust, for example, provided them with a workspace at East Berlin’s prestigious Academy of Art. In collaboration with stage designer Erich Wonda called “Das Auge des Taifun” (The Eye of the Typhoon), the band went to new heights in its conceptualization of site-specific performance art. They built a set designed to process around Vienna’s Ringstrasse, a street that rings the city, and within the moving installation the band frolicked in an enclosure that resembled a bomber cockpit while huskies moved past on conveyer belts. Blixa Bargeld has so much high-art cachet in Germany that his serialbathroomdummyrun project — a series of photographs from different hotel bathrooms he’s used — has spawned not only several exhibitions but also a coffee table book. His list of projects reads like the CV of a pair of idiot-savant Siamese twins.
I very much doubt that the irony of this situation is lost on Herr Bargeld, whose waspy, leather-clad Sturm und Drang is nothing if not deliberately cartoonish. On the other hand, Einstürzende Neubauten’s experimentations are sincere: Silence Is Sexy‘s “Anrufe in Abwesenheit” (also included in this collection) is a commentary on modern communication made entirely of cell-phone noises (rings and beeps) coupled with the caller’s disclosure of his or her exact location at the time of the call. It certainly goes a lot further, influence wise, than a dry academic monograph on the shrinking distances of our wireless world, but the impulse is the same. Though the packaging may be goofy, the critique is always dead-on.
This newest retrospective covers the years 1991 through 2001, thus bringing us up to date on the band’s latest doings. The double-CD set covers the Tabula Rasa triptych of albums inspired by the band’s collaboration with the Canadian dance company La La La Human Steps (Tabula Rasa, and the EP’s Interim and Malediction); Ende Neu, and Silence Is Sexy. During this period, the band lineup also went through significant changes: longtime members Mark Chung and founder F.M. Einheit left shortly after the Faust play, and longtime friend, keyboardist, and soon-to-be-full-fledged-member Roland Wolf was killed in a car accident.
Rabid fans (and there are millions of them worldwide) will purchase this album anyway, but they will be gratified by the large percentage of live and unreleased material included on this album — again in keeping with the band’s “ever onward!” philosophy. You get to hear Blixa yell, “Ready to go, the only take we’re gonna take on this one! No further changes! Rolling!”, and then at the end say, “Again!” and laugh with a welcome bit of irony. The album includes unreleased, alternate versions of recent favorites “Three Thoughts (Devils Sect)”, “Architektur Ist Geiselnahme”, “Was Ist Ist”, “Installation Nr. 1 (John Is Mixing)” and “Silence Is Sexy”. This last track I found particularly compelling for its sparse, moody feel, and the immediately recognizable crackle and hiss of a long cigarette drag as its main sonic feature.
It’s such gems that are sure to intrigue the less-than-rabid fan, though I’ll admit it takes a die-hard to sit through over two hours of this stuff. Songs like “Helium”, in which, you guessed it, Blixa inhales helium to produce chipmunk-style German voices, are almost worth the entire price of admission (so to speak). Blixa’s characteristically deadpan commentary, by the way, was, “I had the idea that helium always just lifted up in pitch, but in fact it also means it’s impossible to control for voice’s range, which, of course, is very interesting”.
The retrospective also includes extensive liner notes, which will help guide the novice through the riotous soundscape.
Einstürzende Neubauten’s great gift, what has allowed the band to last for so long without becoming hidebound, is absolute immediacy. From the breathless intimacy of the inhaled cigarette to the goofiness of “Scampi Alla Carlina”, (the recipe’s included in the liner notes), even the uninitiated listener will feel themselves drawn into the intimate world of this group of creative people who are willing to try anything. Furthermore, those who faithfully bought the albums over the past decade and found themselves flinching more often than not (I’m thinking of Ende Neu‘s ill-fated detour into ska on “Zampano”, but there are others) will be grateful that Mute has so thoughtfully passed over these embarrassments to bring us the multifaceted best of Einstürzende Neubauten’s past decade.