Also Sprach Zarathustra, the ninth studio album by the long-standing Slovenian outfit Laibach, would play evocatively in numerous settings. David Fincher could easily use many of these songs as backing for one of his unmistakable thrillers. The same for Denis Villenueve, whose glum flicks Prisoners and Enemy would have been well complemented by Laibach’s brooding music.
Like all great instrumental music, Also Sprach Zarathustra could find a home in any number of artistic venues. Hell, even a nighttime walk would be made more intense and contemplative with Laibach’s latest. Walking around a city at dusk while hearing Nietzschean philosophy delivered in robotic monotone, with doomy strings and shiver-inducing electronic pulses forming a tense background, one can easily transform a late day stroll into space for dark meditation.
In its imaginative capaciousness, Also Sprach Zarathustra overcomes the first hurdle inherent to its origins, as a score to a stage production based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, directed by Matjaž Berger for the Anton Podbevšek Theatre in Laibach’s home country of Slovenia. Much like Apparat’s 2013 release Krieg Und Frieden (Music for Theatre), Also Sprach Zarathustra‘s purpose for a specific performance can, in theory, limit its appeal beyond that initial context. Laibach wrote the music for Also Sprach Zarathustra with a specific show in mind, meaning that in its wide release on CD and vinyl, it loses some of what caused it to exist in the first place. Laibach can bring its musical vision to the world, but it can’t re-stage the Nietzschean tribute with which it coalesced. For some instrumental music, this does not pose a problem: many movie scores, for instance, compel far beyond their film source. Also Sprach Zarathustra can count itself among such scores.
Sounding like the Haxan Cloak’s Excavation as performed by Rammstein, Also Sprach Zarathustra is all twinge-inducing electronics, eerie echoes, and German spoken word filtered through gravel-throated distortion. Closing number “Von drie Verwandlungen” utilizes what sounds like an emergency siren as the centerpiece of its study of sonic disquietude. Squalling around the siren noise, a cacophony of wind sounds — it appears that Laibach was able to harness gale force winds into the studio — brings the curtain down on Also Sprach Zarathustra with a chilly finality. “Die Unschuld I” features a kind of digital harpsichord whose piercing notes ride the line between beauty and terror — a feature Nietzsche himself would undoubtedly love. Strings provide the necessary reprieve from the tension and unease that pervades the album; they weave in and out of “Vor Sonnen-Untergang” and “Vor Sonnen-Aufgang” with dramatic verve. Even though the listener isn’t afforded a viewing of the stage performance for which Laibach wrote this music, the band undeniably knows how to set a scene with music.
Also Sprach Zarathustra marks yet another eclectic entry in Laibach’s discography, which since its inception in 1985 includes, among other things, an album of Beatles covers and an LP where the group interprets national anthems from across the globe. Laibach has been the target of much criticism, largely its politics, which depending on who one asks are either anti-totalitarian or a wholesale endorsement of totalitarianism. Given the troubled lineage of Nietzschean philosophy in 20th-century fascist movements, those arguments will become even more opaque. (Nietzsche remains one of post-1600 philosophy’s most misunderstood philosophers, a subject well beyond the bounds of a music review. This video is quite useful in explaining that problem.) What one can’t say of Laibach is that it’s lost its compositional savvy or that it’s abandoned seeking out new ways of writing music. Also Sprach Zarathustra brings up dozens of reference points, yet that’s no knock against it. This (mostly) instrumental album paints a dozen different creepy and malevolent pictures with each synth texture, legato string note, and stone-faced Nietzschean aphorism.
Nietzsche himself once quipped, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Insofar as that is true, Laibach has made no mistake in Thus Sprach Zarathustra, either in paying homage to Nietzsche or writing compelling music.