Only Laibach could get away with a cover album that consists entirely of various countries’ national anthems.
That’s right, national anthems.
Volk is the name of that album, and its premise is an idea so Laibachian that it’s almost surprising that they’d never done it before. Laibach’s most discussed work is often its choice of covers — these guys spent an entire album covering The Beatles, named albums after Jesus Christ Superstar and “Sympathy for the Devil”, and one of their better-known tracks, “Geburt Einer Nation”, is actually a totalitarian rendering of Queen’s “One Vision”. Any reverence for the original tracks is quickly thrown out the window in favor of Laibach’s signature, vaguely militaristic, distinctly eastern European brand of electronic/industrial mayhem. It’s also well-established that Laibach tends to dabble in political material, though its specific stances on the so-called “issues” tend to get lost in their gleefully over-the-top fascist satire. Heck, Laibach is basically the house band of the NSK, the Slovenian micronation whose aim is to emphasize collective effort over that of the individual.
It then follows naturally that the “covers” of national anthems on Volk aren’t true covers, per se, but “reinterpretations”. This could easily have been surmised, given that Laibach vocalist Milan Fras doesn’t sing so much as he growls and croaks, though Silence vocalist Boris Benko fills in nicely for the necessary melodic segments (Silence composer Primož Hladnik is also along for the ride, helping with the instrumental backdrops, though it’s hard to derive his specific role thanks to the NSK’s aversion to individual credit). What results, then, is a two (or more)-vocalist setup where Benko does the actual anthem singing and Fras adds English language translations and commentary.
You see, the entire goal of the album is to point out just how steeped in blood and warfare the typical “national anthem” happens to be — “And the rockets’ red glare / The bombs bursting in air”, says the United States’ anthem at its most climactic, while France’s “La Marseillaise” has a refrain that ends “May the blood of the impure / Soak our fields’ furrows!” Anthems, analyzed individually, tend to be statements of defiance as much as they are pride, expressions of the will of a country’s people to die for a geographical and ideological boundary.
This is a far more serious and straightforward set of thematic ideas than Laibach tends to use in its music, and the music itself, from the meticulous sense of composition to Fras’ restrained, bubbling-under-the-surface delivery, is reflective of the gravity of the subject matter. Laibach has always been a band that tries to achieve a grand sense of majesty in its music, usually via chanted vocals, or militaristic snare drums, or horns approximating those of royal heralds, or even the occasional metal guitar. That majesty can be found in Volk as well, but it’s far less in-your-face, far less overt than the big, charmingly clumsy statements like NATO and Opus Dei; the album starts with what sounds like a red herring, all quiet pianos and Benko’s exquisite voice harmonizing the words of Germany’s national anthem (the track itself is called “Germania”), but despite the beat picking up a bit and the introduction of more overt electronic elements, it eventually becomes clear that the current incarnation of Laibach is less about pomp and explosion than the band has perhaps ever been, geared toward a more subtle approach designed to make listeners dig deeper and listen harder.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most effective tracks are geared toward those nations who have spent the last five years dominating the news, turning the political global landscape into the opinionated, constantly at odds scenario we now live in. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the harshest words are reserved for “America”, in which the anthem is twisted and interpolated even as Benko is singing its admittedly effective melody: “So the land of the free / And the home of the brave / Are you Heaven on Earth / Or the gloom of the grave?,” he offers with a melodic whisper, setting the stage for Fras’ menacing, controlled spoken-word tirade. America’s pre-occupation with ideals of “strength” and “honor” are challenged, and the pre-occupation with using standards based on religion in its foreign policy is pointed out in a number of ways. “Anglia” (England) is attacked for its attitude of superiority, “Espana” (Spain) is derided for its imperialistic past, and “Turkiye” (Turkey, naturally) is even implicitly chided for claiming freedom for its people as a God-given right. Whether or not you agree that these are valid points of criticism (“Turkiye” feels like a bit of a stretch, honestly), it’s difficult to argue that the delivery is appropriately grave and brilliant in a far different way than Laibach has ever before explored.
The most effective moments on Volk, however, are the ones where no direct criticism is leveled — the times when the mere juxtaposition of words and sounds does all the work. “Rossiya” (Russia) is a gorgeous track, tempered by a childrens’ choir, triumphant and peaceful, even as the popular perception of Russia has been neither of these things for quite some time. And then there’s “Yisra’el” (Israel), the most potentially controversial of the bunch — the lyrics are entirely built from anthems, but there are actually two anthems at work here: plopped in the middle of Israel’s anthem is the Palestinian national anthem, culminating in the repeated, pounded chant of “My country, my country, my country / My ancestors!” It’s difficult (as usual) to specifically surmise exactly what point Laibach was getting at when they came up with this particular mash-up, but the combination is, given the historical context involved, both interesting and a bit disturbing.
Volk loses steam a touch as its latter half progresses, though that may be entirely due to the fact that China and Japan have largely managed to stay out of global headlines of late — “Nippon” (Japan)’s seven-minutes actually holds up musically, and the decision to represent the Vatican (“Vaticanae”) using merely a solo soprano, a male “choir”, and a pipe organ was an inspired one — the lyrics, where we can understand them, don’t hit home like the ones toward the beginning of the album, though that’s not to say they won’t in five, or 10, or 15 years’ time.
There’s nothing on Volk to suggest that it will one day be the album for which Laibach is remembered — nothing here cries out for attention like “Geburt Einer Nation”, or “Leben heißt Leben”, or even the covered “Final Countdown”. Still, it is that subtlety, humility almost, that marks Volk as a masterful stroke, the likes of which Laibach may never again achieve. One listen, and no matter what country you may call your homeland, you may never see your national anthem the same way again.