Einstürzende Neubauten, Alles in Allem (Potomak)

It’s been thirteen long years since the last Einstürzende Neubauten album Alles Wieder Offen, but the boys from Berlin have been far from inactive in the meantime. There was Lament, not a proper album but the soundtrack to a site-specific performance piece, and the ironically titled, beautifully sequenced Greatest Hits set, around which the group have been on a more or less never-ending tour since 2015 or so. I saw them three times on this tour, in Munich (2015), Krems (2017) and Geneva (2018). As mightily impressive as those shows were, it was clearly time to switch things up a bit, there having been no new studio material since 2007.

Alles in Allem is the outcome, the result of a vigorous crowdfunding campaign with rewards for donors of “exclusive content” such as 7” singles, webcasts, videos of Blixa Bargeld cooking and goodness knows what else. In the first place, it’s time to nail the canard put about by Bargeld in numerous interviews that Neubauten, specifically Bargeld’s wife Erin Zhu, invented the crowdfunding model. The first Neubauten crowdfunding campaign was in 2002, but neo-prog also-rans Marillion had already done the same thing two years earlier. I hold no brief for Marillion, but credit where it’s due.

I don’t have a problem with crowdfunding per se, although all this talk of “making a record without record company backing” does make me wonder exactly what is new here. Musicians have been producing and releasing albums themselves – self-publishing, essentially – ever since the 1960s (various folk and psych private pressings), 1970s (Throbbing Gristle, Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch) and 1980s (Current 93, Nurse with Wound, Whitehouse, etc). These people managed to get their music out into the world without recourse to crowdfunding, so it’s certainly possible to make an album without record company support and without relying on this particular model.

The problem with Einstürzende Neubauten’s take on the crowdfunding model is that it partially cedes creative control of the project to the donors (my preferred term for what Neubauten refer to as ‘supporters’) – the very last people, in my view, who should be allowed anywhere near the creative process. As part of the recording for Alles in Allem Bargeld called up randomly selected donors and asked them to suggest words or phrases which he would then incorporate into the lyrics. I must admit, I find it quite staggering that a writer of the standing of Bargeld, a man whose dazzlingly clever texts are steeped in the German Romantic literary tradition, should now deem it appropriate to go about the business of songwriting in this way. (And yes, I’m well aware of the aleatoric ‘Dave’ system used by the group and of their alignment with the Dada artistic movement, neither of which have any bearing on this new practice.) What we end up with is the spectacle of Bargeld declaring “Here comes Ten Grand Goldie” with evident glee, while the rest of us are left scratching our collective heads and wondering what Bargeld, or more precisely some bloke from Stockholm, is on about.

The good news is that “Ten Grand Goldie” is a barnstorming opener that fairly crackles with energy, a loopy and likeable song with splashes of funky brass and organ. The rest of the album, by contrast, is mostly slow and reflective, reaching deep into central European folk traditions and powered by the insistent throb of NU Unruh and Rudolf Moser’s percussive architecture. Jochen Arbeit’s sleek, understated guitar work and the lowering bass of Alexander Hacke construct the spaces within which Bargeld sings, his rich and sumptuous voice tenderly evoking the German word Sehnsucht that underpins all of Neubauten’s work, fusing nostalgia, longing, regret and destruction. The one discordant note is struck by “Zivilisatorisches Missgeschick”, a delirious lurch of a song that, recalling the group’s legendary early days, features the unmistakable sound of the power drill.

Those who pay close attention to Alles in Allem will come to realize that it’s actually a psychogeographical exploration of the city of Berlin, and specifically of the West Berlin in which Neubauten were birthed in 1980. Wandering from the district of Wedding in the north to Friedenau in the south, via the Liechtensteinbrücke, the Landwehrkanal and the Grazer Damm, Bargeld traces a path through streets shot through with shadows, ghosts and fading memories. Flickering field recordings and sounds carved from Neubauten’s historic arsenal of metal instruments, many of them sourced from Berlin junkyards, mark the route of Bargeld’s dérive. He ends up at the disused Tempelhof airfield, lost and alone, the unlikely but perfect strains of cello and harp his only companion.

Einstürzende Neubauten, Geneva Alhambra, 2 February 2018

Three years ago I travelled to Munich to see Einstürzende Neubauten play at the Haus der Kunst, a concert that coincided with the opening of an exhibition on German post-punk music at the same location. I never got around to reviewing the concert, nor did I write about the group’s appearance at the 2017 Donaufestival in Krems, one of the last concerts I saw in Austria. In truth, though, there wasn’t much difference between those appearances and Neubauten’s show last month in Geneva, so this review can stand equally as a review of those earlier two as well.

At first sight there may seem something disconcerting, maybe even safe, about the idea of a group of arch iconoclasts like Neubauten apparently treading water for the past few years, but it’s a notion that doesn’t bear very much scrutiny. In the first place, this bout of touring comes in the wake of 2014’s Lament, the soundtrack to a site-specific performance that is as emotionally affecting a piece of music as Neubauten have ever put their name to. And in the second place, 2016’s heavily ironically titled Greatest Hits compilation, around which the group’s current show is based, is very much of a piece with the tendency to self-mythologization that has characterized Neubauten’s approach over the past 37 years.

It’s become a truism, in critical writing about Neubauten, to bemoan their apparent move towards the mainstream, to complain that the sonic terrorism of their earlier years has gradually given way to a more conventionally musical approach. But to these ears, the most striking thing about latter-day Neubauten is the almost unbearable tension that they generate through their use of both conventional and home-made instruments, lurking menacingly beneath the surface and frequently erupting into states of discord that are every bit as violent and destructive as the early records and performances with which the group achieved such notoriety. This tension is inscribed deep in Neubauten’s music, from the starkly beautiful melodies that linger tellingly through their songs, to Jochen Arbeit’s miraculous shimmering guitar work, the sinister clank of NU Unruh’s percussive arsenal and the monstrous bass of Alexander von Hacke, all of it woven together by singer and lyricist Blixa Bargeld’s ferociously clever texts.

It’s not perhaps widely known that Bargeld has some help these days in delivering his lines, which is hardly surprising given how formidably dense and allusive they are. Bargeld’s guilty secret, which could readily be divined from the front-row vantage point I claimed at both Krems and Geneva, is that he has a teleprompter at the foot of his microphone off of which he reads the lyrics, controlled by means of a little clicker in his hand. On the face of it there’s something unsatisfactory about this practice, sitting ill as it does with the assumed extempore nature of live performance. Nevertheless it’s a practice I’m happy to endorse, given that Bargeld’s texts exhibit all the characteristics of what Barthes called jouissance: a text that “imposes a state of loss, that discomforts, unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language…

If Barthes, that arch deconstructionist, were around today, he would no doubt be amused by the idea of a group whose very name celebrates the notion of collapse, and who title their long-running series of compilation albums Strategies Against Architecture. And what these concerts showed was that jouissance – a blissful state of discomfort, disorientation, crisis and loss – continues to dwell threateningly inside the group’s music. Forever on the brink of collapse, constantly shifting between beauty and danger, Einstürzende Neubauten remain as compelling and essential as ever.

Concerts of the year

As usual, I find myself way behind with writing for this blog at the end of the year. I hope I’ll be able to go back and fill in some of the gaps in the list below, but who knows. Anyway, here is a list of the best concerts I attended in 2015:

  1. King Crimson, Paris L’Olympia
  2. Glen Hansard, Vienna Konzerthaus
  3. Sun Kil Moon, Vienna Arena
  4. Mono, Sarajevo Kaktus
  5. Al Stewart, London Royal Albert Hall
  6. Neil Cowley Trio, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  7. Einstürzende Neubauten, Munich Haus der Kunst
  8. Jaga Jazzist, Vienna Porgy & Bess
  9. Peter Brötzmann & Steve Noble, Vienna Blue Tomato
  10. Schlippenbach Trio, Vienna Martinschlössl

Blixa Bargeld, Vienna Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, 6 September 2013

Highly enjoyable evening of solo vocal performance from the irrepressible and multi-talented Blixa Bargeld. For those of us who first became aware of Bargeld as the emaciated, hollow-cheeked frontman of Einstürzende Neubauten in the early 1980s (see here for my own bit of backstory), it’s a surreal sight to see him onstage in an expensive three-piece suit, exchanging banter with his young daughter and some other children in a leafy Vienna park, but that was just one of the many memorable aspects of this show. The charming Anna skipped happily on and off the stage throughout the evening, frequently hugging her daddy’s legs and scattering grass at his feet, and at one point singing a sweet little song of her own.

As for Bargeld’s performance, it was not at all the kind of spoken word reading I had expected, but a far more creative and interesting animal. Bargeld’s lyrics for Neubauten have always been a key part of the group’s appeal for me. Steeped in multi-lingual wordplay and erudition, the texts revel in language for its own sake and situate Neubauten squarely within the European avant-garde tradition. In the solo vocal context Bargeld seems to use more of a Sprechstimme technique to highlight the words themselves, which are given a strong performative element through heavy use of effects pedals. There’s a certain amount of wordless vocalizing, which is then looped to form drone or rhythm tracks over which Bargeld recites in his distinctive, precisely enunciated tones.

If this description makes the show sound like some kind of dry performance art piece, nothing could be further from the truth. Bargeld is a genial and engaging performer, at pains to emphasize the humour in his work – although the vast majority of the material was in German and therefore completely passed me by. Of particular note was an extended routine that had something to do with the position of the planets within the solar system, for which Bargeld divided the audience into two halves in order to provide appropriate sound effects. It wasn’t all played for laughs, though. In one shocking and unexpected section Bargeld unleashed his legendary and fearsome scream, while elsewhere he reached far back into Neubauten history with a devastating rendition of “Negativ Nein”. Contrasting vividly with the innate good humour of much of the show, these raw moments acted as necessary reminders of the anguished and confrontational aspects of Bargeld’s work.

Short Cuts 4: FM Einheit, Peter Brötzmann/Full Blast, Terry Riley, Naked Lunch

The fourth in an occasional series of handy bite-size reviews of recent concerts I haven’t got the time or the energy to write more about.

FM Einheit, Vienna Fluc Wanne, 5 October 2010

Enjoyable evening of metal-bashing and whatnot from the ex-Einstürzende Neubauten man. Einheit had kitted out the venue with long metal coils suspended from the ceiling, and played them with mallets and hand drills to the accompaniment of backing tapes. He also made the already dusty atmosphere of the Fluc Wanne even murkier by pulverising concrete blocks into rubble. It was all very industrial, but I can’t help feeling that the moment for this kind of thing has come and gone. Neubauten didn’t replace him, after all. Plus, it wasn’t Mufti’s fault but this concert had the most annoying audience member I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter, a bloke down the front who insisted on dancing – dancing, I tell you – and shouting incomprehensibly throughout the entire set.

Full Blast, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 18 October 2010

The incomparable Peter Brötzmann returned to Vienna for the first time in a year, this time with his Swiss rhythm section of Marino Pliakas on bass guitar and Michael Wertmüller on drums. The trio was augmented on this occasion by the ubiquitous Ken Vandermark on reeds, plus an additional trumpeter and percussionist. Unusually, the first half of this evening was devoted to a composed piece by Wertmüller, who conducted energetically from his drumkit. It was something of a surprise to see music stands onstage at a Brötzmann gig; he didn’t have one himself, of course, but all the others did.

It was “as you were” after the interval, as the sextet launched into a furious, raging improv. Great to see Peter end the set by jumping into the air on the last note, just like Springsteen with his guitar. Except for a blistering duet with Brötzmann in the second half, I felt Vandermark struggled to make his presence felt in this context.

Terry Riley, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 October 2010

A grave disappointment, this. I went along on the basis of Riley’s peerless reputation as a minimalist composer, rightfully gained from his seminal works In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air. But on this occasion Riley proposed a series of shortish, dreary piano pieces, with meandering and soporific accompaniment from Talvin Singh on tabla and George Brooks on saxophone. I’m out.

Naked Lunch, Vienna Arena, 30 October 2010

This was the first time I’ve seen Naked Lunch do a proper show of their own, rather than play the Universalove soundtrack. It was a superb, engrossing performance. Oliver Welter prowled the stage intently, his haunting voice tracing patterns of love and loss around the emotionally dissonant forces unleashed by the music. There’s a troubling, volatile core to this group; the songs obey many of the rules of alt.rock, yet they contrive to keep the listener off balance with their jagged, restless qualities.

And by the way, am I really the only non-Austrian who thinks Naked Lunch are great? Apart from the growing pile of unread and uncommented-upon reviews on this blog, I’ve never seen a single word written about them in English.

Ether column, March 2009

Not much doubt in my mind about the concert of the month (although work commitments mean that I can’t be there, annoyingly) – an evening of blistering free jazz courtesy of The Thing, aka Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and Swedish bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten. Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to learn that both Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love are frequent collaborators of the titanic German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, Gustafsson in the all-reeds trio Sonore, Nilssen-Love in various group formats. Together with Haker-Flaten they walk the precipice between free jazz, out-there rock and garage punk. Gustafsson channels the spirit of Fire Music legend Albert Ayler in his inspirational sax playing, while Nilssen-Love attacks his kit with savage ferocity and the bassist anchors the whole edifice with his rock-solid pizzicato work. Playing in the intimate surroundings of the Blue Tomato, The Thing will surely blast the roof off the place.

If The Thing represent modern European free jazz at its most extreme, saxophonist Paul Dunmall is an example of the kind of dedicated, unsung musician thrown up by the British free improvisation movement. Where Brötzmann and his ilk picked up the sound of American free jazz and took it even further out, Dunmall was part of a British scene that went in the other direction, towards abstraction and relative quiet. Best known for his membership of Mujician, a quartet led by the formidable English pianist Keith Tippett, Dunmall appears in Vienna with a trio that is effectively Mujician without Tippett, i.e. accompanied by Paul Rogers on bass and Tony Levin on drums.

Intriguing evening in prospect – at least for those with good German, which counts me out – at the WUK this month, as Einstürzende Neubauten mainman Blixa Bargeld reads from his new book Europa Kreuzweise: Eine Litanei.  As an attempt to answer the question “what does it mean, to be on a non-stop concert tour for two months?”, the book describes the monotony of movement, interrupted by restaurants, readings and meetings. As I noted in my preview of Neubauten’s last Vienna appearance in April 2008, Bargeld is a lyricist of great skill and acuity, his texts replete with tumbling wordplay and caustic imagery. Between Neubauten activity in recent years, he has given solo vocal performances under the title Rede/Speech, in which he treats his voice with a variety of foot pedals and effects equipment. Expect this not to be a standard book reading.

Ether column, April 2008

It was always going to be difficult for this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Lower Austria, to follow the exceptional line-up of last year’s event. However, there are still plenty of worthwhile performances on the schedule at this most stimulating of festivals. The pick of these has to be the visit of American group Tortoise, who will grace the stage with their slinky and graceful instrumental music. Tortoise are often described as ‘post-rock’, a label which, like many such categorisations, has a kernel of truth at its core. In the early 90s, a time when rock music was in thral to Britpop and grunge, Tortoise emerged playing a music that seemed determined not only to sidestep but to supersede those essentially retrospective approaches. Incorporating elements of jazz, easy listening and dub reggae, Tortoise music achieves the rare feat of appealing to the listener’s head and feet at the same time.

Two evenings later, Connecticut’s Magik Markers drop by in support of their recently released album Boss. The Markers are an unruly noise-pop duo consisting of drummer Pete Nolan and singer/guitarist Elisa Ambrogio, who doubles as the life and music partner of Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny. Joining Chasny on stage for a short, incendiary set at last year’s Donaufestival, Ambrogio demonstrated a glorious ability to shred the hell out of her electric guitar with blasts of intelligent, well crafted noise, mirroring much of the Markers’ previous output (which consisted of one ‘proper’ studio album and a long series of self-released CD-Rs). Boss, however, sees a strong redefinition of the Markers’ approach. It’s a remarkably diverse set of songs, with Ambrogio’s seductive voice reaching out over Nolan’s fiery percussion and occasional contributions from producer (and Sonic Youth veteran) Lee Ranaldo on guitar and glockenspiel.

Back in Vienna, German experimental rock pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten return as part of an extensive European tour. It’s incredible to think that Neubauten have been active now for almost 30 years, without in all that time losing any of their freewheeling and churning creativity. Having weathered numerous line-up and label changes over the years, the Neubauten of 2008 are a lean and reflective proposition. They have long ago abandoned the more challenging extremes of their early incarnations, in which hollow-cheeked frontman Blixa Bargeld would howl dementedly over an eviscerating percussive attack fashioned from scrap metal and building tools. The unconventional instrumentation remains, but Bargeld has matured into a songwriter of rare acuity, his texts (in both German and English) replete with tumbling wordplay and caustic imagery. Musically, Neubauten combine elements of central European folk and out-there rock, powered by the spidery progressions of Bargeld’s guitar and by NU Unruh’s self-constructed rhythmic arsenal. Their life’s work is to capture the essence of the untranslatable German word Sehnsucht, fusing tenderness, longing, regret and destruction.

Einstürzende Neubauten, Vienna Arena, 18 April 2008

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.