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Einsturzende Neubauten
Lament Richard Foster , November 11th, 2014 11:11

I promise you, this is a record review, not a history lesson. Firstly, it's a review for those who couldn't see the spectacle of this "non studio" album being performed in the Flemish Belgian town of Dixmuide on November 9th, 2014*. Of course, Neubauten will raise the dead with their live performance. But maybe by not being there, we can listen to Lament and construct a relationship with it using our own emotional space; appreciating the underlying rhythms of this complex, ever shifting, quizzical record. Here, away from the Sturm und Drang in Dixmuide, we can take on Lament without our senses being battered by thoughts of "appropriateness" with regard to a "historical" place and time. We can, in other words, treat it as a piece of music dealing with a terrible subject.

I do have to 'mention the war', mind. For musical reasons. Blixa Bargeld's guiding premise behind Lament's creation - that the First World War never really ended - can be easily born out by both reading titles such as Mark Mazower's Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century and clocking the fact that somehow there's no real end to this album. It's incredibly cyclical, moreish, light to the touch. Ready for a rub down and another bout. Lament wants us to realise that war's round the corner, and affects everyone.

Musically, the album invites the listener to tune in to Bargeld's conceit in a number of ways; each one invoking - and subverting - an earlier sonic convention regarding the Great War. Tracks like 'Der 1. Weltkrieg (Percussion Version)' play round the theme of roll calls; which often get a tad mawkish. Pretty Things' 'Private Sorrow' on SF Sorrow springs to mind, with the track's listing of the dead in Sorrow's platoon. But here, on Lament, Neubauten kick sentiment into a cocked hat. Rather than play on a standard "some mother's son", or individual "pity of war" trope, Neubauten go the whole hog and roll call the entire war. 'Der 1. Weltkrieg' is a list of events (namely battles and combatant nations' entries into the war) in which dreadful actions like Vilnius vie for attention alongside other bloody slugfests such as Caporetto, Kut-Al-Imara, and Chemin des Dames. The cumulative effect is overwhelming; one driven by a relentless percussion that taps out a beat to a sprightly dance of death. And the way that the young female voices list the names of the battles in chronological order (Bargeld's cracked, sardonic wheeze adding a counterpoint in the form of a timeline based round combatants and socio-political events) is at once enervating and - somehow - incredibly unnerving.

It's the record's ghastly, ghoulish sprightliness that really catches you out. After a few plays Lament reveals an incredibly light touch, and we could think that the album title is a cruel misnomer. For, while there are undeniably heart-rending passages, Lament isn't a lament in the true sense of the word. If we are to agree with Bargeld regarding the ever-presence of war, we can't properly lament something that we haven't yet lost. And compared with other recent attempts to deal with this subject musically (Tinderstick's latest worthy LP, Ypres, for example; another site-specific commission from the Belgian authorities) Lament is positively skittish. Black comedy is served up with a sardonic twist throughout; best heard in the magnificent 'The Willy - Nicky Telegrams' - where Alexander Hacke and Blixa Bargeld read out the quixotic set of telegrams sent on the eve of war between Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias and The Kaiser, Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Preußen. Neubaten also revel in the irony that the Prussian royal anthem, 'Heil Dir Im Siegerkranz', shared its tune with 'God Save the King'. The resulting track, 'Hymnen', is a grim but funny cut up; matching up snippets of verses from each anthem with a gloriously irreverent verse or two about herrings and spuds from C19th writer, Heinrich Hoffmann. This is a true successor to Karlheinz Stockhausen's 60s cut and paste deconstruction of the same name; and will hopefully cause as much anger. It should.

Elsewhere, dashes of Dada - and Flemish whimsy - underpin tracks like 'In De Loopgraaf'; with its brilliant scoring of Belgian combatant and proto-Dadaist Paul van den Broek's funny verse. With lines like "How can I dance in such narrow trenches?" Good Soldier Svejk's imbecilities and Tzara's madcap actions and, indeed, the whole concept of living as absurdly as possible through terrible times are invoked. Neubauten also pick up on the trick of comic or musical whimsy used as a memory device to sugarcoat a tragedy; something seen in Charles Chilton's 1961 radio programme dealing with songs from the Great War, The Long Trail, a concept which later morphed into Joan Littlewood's later polemic-cum-musical, Oh What a Lovely War!. On Lament, Chilton's idea is brilliantly flipped over and given a new interpretation with 'On Patrol in No Mans Land'. 'On Patrol...' is, without putting too fine a point on it, Chilton's 'Hush, Here Comes a Wizz-Bang', albeit told by the Harlem Hellfighters; a Black American unit who due to their colour, were placed under French command. Despite the underlying sadness of the Hellfighters' own story (both during and after the war) it's, well... pretty jolly stuff. As are the animal voices on the knockabout music hall bash, 'The Beginning of The First World War'. It's utter slapstick, and wait for the surprise ending; I'll say no more. But best of all is Neubauten's stark take on both the war's eventual Nazi fall-out in Germany, and a sort of comment on the sentimental appropriation of this war by the flower power kids, with 'Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind' (Where Have All The Flowers Gone). A homage to Pete Seger, Dietrich's anti-Nazi stance and maybe a sideways glance at the fact that one of the war's most potent symbols is a flower.

That's not to say Neubauten don't forsake the subject's well worn crutch of "atmosphere" for the sake of raising a few sarky giggles. Or the idea of "pity" for that matter. Don't be daft. It's just that Neubauten don't look for sympathy in Lament. What pity there is is touched with terror and a sort of rough, even handed forgiveness that steers well clear of any moral preaching. With tracks like 'How Did I Die?' and 'Achterland' the band seem to both pay tribute to those forgotten on the home fronts and the rear sectors, and summon the terrible, deformed Wights still enchained under places of awful memory like Fort Douaumont, or Hill 70. Suddenly, through Neubauten's grisly, gaseous soundtracks and dulled incantations, their presence is revealed and their vapid shapes still draw a shudder.

And if you want yet more atmosphere... well, the three tracks called 'Lament' (1,2, and 3 respectively) are played out in an impressionist, painterly manner. This is as close as you'll get to a musical take on a tryptich; dragging up the images of Otto Dix's masterpiece 'Der Krieg' (The War). Despite the album's universal message, this is the most "German" section of the record; as well as Dix we could reference Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece or Dürer's Horsemen for that matter. Why the fuck not; we're deep in the slime and shit and blood and gas of Dix's monstrous vision. We could be taking last rites with our legs blown off with 'Lament: 3. Pater Peccavi', with its mix of a 16th Century motet based round the Bible tale of the Prodigal Son, and the Neubauten crew reinterpreting the sound recordings of prisoners of war reciting the same story (taken from wax cylinders found in the vaults of Berlin's Humboldt University). It is a magnificent midpoint and the album's conscience; a mix of voices and strange ghostly sound capsules from the front. Oh, and if you can get through 'Lament: 3. Pater Peccavi' without breaking down, if only because of the music's emotional release after 'Lament: 2. Abwärstsspirale' (with its approximation of a shell's 'crump' as it hits the ground, ends) then you're a much tougher nut than me.

But overall, what makes Lament so brilliant is the fact that Einsturzende Neubauten manage to sidestep any sentiment or grandstanding about the pity of war and remain focussed on creating a wide reaching musical document with an incredibly strong narrative. Any reactions are ultimately left to the listener to formulate. Lament proves itself to be a remarkably effective listen because it is an utterly egoless record; a record that, in binding many stories from all sides, creates a feeling that is ultimately sans-patrie. And it is a record which nevertheless sets a clear agenda; this was a world war, it involved everyone, it affected all the globe's continents in some way, and had catastrophic implications for nigh on a century after. And as such is not an event to be neatly summed up through any one nation's symbols or tropes, or the usual socio-religious ablutions, or any bad tempered appropriations of the past for artistic, political or personal gain (Katie Hopkins, Robert Fisk, Sauron's Eye is looking at you). And, for that fact alone, I will prostrate myself in front of Einsturzende Neubauten and what they've made with this. My personal record of the year.

Footnote: the booklet is nigh on incredible; a true companion to the record. *At the height of possibly the most important battle of the war, 1st Ypres. And (and I'm sure Bargeld knows this) it's also Schicksalstag (Fateful day).