, February 28th, 2014 08:18
The Slovenians of Laibach are perhaps the pop equivalent of Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine – the 1830s design for a programmable computer that was a century ahead of its time. Laibach's endlessly provocative pop-art has made the average Turner Prize winner seem like a child getting a little bit transgressive with its Lego. Over the past thirty years Laibach have enacted schemes of vast profundity, and of vast entertainment, yet this new album will almost certainly register only on the margins, within the UK at least. A shame, but something that may be met with a shrug in Laibach's own realm – after all, Laibach's many-splendid audacity includes the creation of their own nation state.
The NSK State – as in Neue Slowenische Kunst, or 'new Slovenian art' – is a borderless supranational structure. The NSK State's passports, postage stamps and temporary consulates in London and New York made it seem like a hilariously colossal pre-empting of the subsequent vogue for "pop-up" petit-four outlets. But if the NSK State was typically rich in fascinating local colour, their meditations on the nature of nationalism in the 21st century have been immense. Laibach's national overview peaked with 2006's Volk album – a beautiful and deeply charged reworking of fourteen national anthems, with Laibach's stentorian vocals augmented by gorgeous sounds from the Slovenian duo Silence, whose Boris Benko sings like a Mitteleuropean Billy Mackenzie.
Volk circumvented the idea that all you need to remember about Laibach is their admittedly unforgettable Nuremberg Rally-style refashioning of Queen's 'One Vision'. Volk also underlined the titantic dimensions of Laibach's pop reinvention. Laibach's existence broadly coincides with the concept of sampling in pop. But where sampling was about detail – a hook relocated from one record to another – Laibach's approach saw them absorb whole swathes of pop history, taking The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dylan and Europe's 'The Final Countdown' and obliterating the original context. With Volk they upped the stakes even further, applying the same method to 'The Star-Spangled Banner', 'God Save the Queen' and 'La Marseillaise'. And, of course, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" – or 'Das Lied der Deutschen', to give it its full title. Retitled 'Germania, Das Lied der Deutschen', it was the opening track on Volk. With Laibach's frequent use of uniforms and imagery from the Third Reich, plus their 2012 soundtrack for the Nazis-from-the-Moon film Iron Sky, this returned to a familiar Laibach question: 'Are they Nazis?' Despite Laibach's insistent deployment of totalitarian imagery – the kind of thing that got them banned in 1980s Yugoslavia for "inappropriate use of symbols" – there have been pretty clear clues that Laibach are much more than Hitler-ite muppets. When they've used a swastika in their imagery, it's typically been a swastika created by the anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield. It seems fair to say Laibach have used the most extreme symbols of nationalism to catalyse examination of nationalism in our own era. But Laibach have also consistently refused to reveal any political orientation. This is one of the things that makes Spectre so fascinating.
With this new album, Laibach often seem to come out as liberal idealists. They say the album is one where they become "politically engaged as never before". They tell us the track 'Bossanova' is "a declaration of war against all macho-obsessed... oppressive rulers and political systems". The track 'The Whistleblowers' "alludes to the heroism of the 'digital' Prometheans of freedom – Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange". 'Eat Liver!' calls for "social revolution" and "the equitable division of assets".
After the Nazi clobber and such ambiguous statements as "we are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter", Spectre seems an album on which Laibach reveal themselves as caring, sharing humanitarians. 'The Whistleblowers' starts Spectre in wonderfully invigorating style. Powering along on martial drums and a mountain-fresh take on the sound of whistling milkman, it's at once glorious and camp – heroic and uplifting, but with an implicit understanding of great pop novelty, one that takes it back past Right Said Fred to the original 'Right Said Fred', the 1962 hit from Bernard Cribbins. Laibach say 'The Whistleblowers' is "a sequel to Lieutenant FJ Ricketts's 1914 'Colonel Bogey March'". As with SPECTRE also being a terrorist organisation in James Bond, it's unlikely that Laibach are unaware that Colonel Bogey forms the musical backbone for the ditty about Hitler only having one ball. It's this kind of multifarious allusion that gives Laibach an air of wry cognisance beyond that even of Kraftwerk.
Not all of Spectre is quite equal to 'The Whistleblowers'. There's the occasional functional interlude – standard-issue industrial synth propulsion. But, compositionally and sonically, Spectre is intriguingly accessible. 'Eat Liver!' is an eccentric motivational call, alluringly voiced by Laibach's female co-vocalist Mina Špiler – a metronomic pulse with a counterpoint of orchestral horn fanfares. The album closes with what Laibach say is an "elegant utopian song.... that shows the possibility of a better and fairer world". It's called 'Koran'. This title is the kind of gesture that underscores just how weedy and circumspect Laibach make almost all other popular song seem in 2014. Despite the chatter about Britain's wins at the Sochi Winter Olympics, Slovenia took more gold medals. Thanks to Laibach, the same also applies to pop music.