Talking about this concert with friends on the way home, it became clear to me just how important Einstürzende Neubauten were, and remain, in my musical journey. There’s a parallel of sorts with Throbbing Gristle, whom I was very excited to see in Krems last year; after seeing them, I wrote that “I simply needed to see these four people onstage, and acknowledge the infinitude of their influence on so much I have thought, done, heard and written over the last twenty years of my life.” Which is all well and good, but of course I never saw TG first time around, and there is an inevitable element of nostalgia, of repeating something that’s already been done, about TG’s recent activities. (I felt exactly the same about the Van der Graaf Generator and Dead Can Dance reunions, for all the joy they brought me.)
Neubauten, on the other hand, have never gone away. I remember my first acquaintance with them very well. In early 1984, at the age of 15, I had recently graduated from Smash Hits to NME as my musical reading matter of choice. I read an article by Chris Bohn about their legendary concert at the ICA (yes, I do realise it wasn’t a proper Neubauten gig), the account of which I found impossibly vital and thrilling. Not long after, my late, deeply mourned mother took my brother and me on one of our occasional shopping trips from sleepy Salisbury to the teeming metropolis that was Southampton. Once there, I made a beeline as usual for Virgin Records, which was at that time a dark, slightly intimidating place, nothing at all like the “Megastores” that came later. Somewhat surprisingly, given that there was little in my record collection at the time except for the complete recorded works of Gary Numan and Pink Floyd, I made straight for the ‘E’ section and was awestruck to discover therein the spidery scrawl of Neubauten’s unutterably strange name and the unsettling blankness of their stick man logo flecked with blood. The record was called Strategies Against Architecture Vol.1. I bought it, took it home and played it, and I’ve never felt the same about music since. A full three years before I discovered Swans, who were to become even more important to me, Neubauten showed me that music could be unconventional, atonal and still somehow beautiful.
Of course, Neubauten have changed markedly since that time, but their art remains as fresh and immediate as it has always done. Last Friday’s sold-out concert at the Arena in Vienna was an illustration of how they have matured into a lean and reflective entity. Their music is tremendously focused and directed; it sounds entirely like folk music to me, wholly European in its directness and simplicity. It’s still sonically devastating, though, with Unruh and Moser’s jagged rhythmic arsenal set implacably against Hacke’s wall of bass noise and Arbeit’s shimmering textural guitar. As for Blixa Bargeld, he is a colossal stage presence, whether intoning his trenchant lyrics, using his voice as a pure sound source or even presiding, like a genial game-show host, over a bizarre Cageian chance exercise in which the group members pick cards out of a bag giving them instructions on how to play.
So there we are – Einstürzende Neubauten, after twenty-eight years, as powerful as ever, and now raising smiles as well.