The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


In Bloom: Einstürzende Neubauten's Tabula Rasa Revisited
Jeremy Allen , February 16th, 2023 09:00

Jeremy Allen looks back to EN's glorious sixth album, Tabula Rasa, and praises the idea of the post-hype masterpiece

In 2009, Blixa Bargeld published a semi-fictional tour diary that doubled-up as a personal log of fancy restaurants he’d dine in when not playing live or travelling from city to city. Europa Kreuzweise: Eine Litanei was translated into English and re-published last year by Contra Mundum Press as Europe Crosswise: A Litany, a drôle account of Einstürzende Neubauten’s European tour of 2008, with all the details of the shows eschewed for the all-important sumptuous salvers in salubrious surroundings.

Next to a generic setlist you’d read about Bargeld tucking into a buttermilk-steeped kremstal veal fillet with lemon noodles in Vienna or berating a restaurant in Moscow for food smelling of rat poison. He insinuates expensive taste and a discerning, epicurean palate – deliberately exaggerated – turning his nose up at the gimmickry of hipster chefs serving up M&Ms in their food. At one point he discusses his trepidation at being on the waiting list for Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, apparently the second best restaurant in the world at the time of writing.

Perhaps Bargeld anticipated the post-truth age with this account, making the timing of the translation feel reasonably felicitous, although the unreliable narrator trope is nothing new. It’s a short book, and there’s really only one joke – a good one – based on a scintilla of truth given his willingness to share the culinary secrets of knocking up a mean risotto on camera. Bargeld, the rat-haired, razor-cheeked, ineffably pallid, speed-dealing maniac who climbed out of the detritus of bombed out West Berlin with the mad gleam of Artaud Antonin in his eye, is now a snobby, prissy gourmand.

Ostensibly he’s still a wild man of sonic terror, but success has blunted his anger and made a fraud of him. A man who once claimed he didn’t know what a garden was now knows his garden salads from his guacamole salad. And it works so well because that former Bargeld holds such power over our collective imagination, burned into our retinas with the sound of industrial pounding ringing in our ears. He will always be that dichotomy of tough and androgynous, “the most beautiful man in the world,” as Nick Cave once wrote, emitting screams that curdle blood.

Three decades ago, when Einstürzende Neubauten emerged from contractual purgatory with a new album, released by their new label Mute Records a whole four years after their last one, they’d evidently changed. Or rather, they’d evolved. The broader, multidimensional Neubaten wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. The shock of the new that came with Kollaps in 1981 was now more than a decade old, but it was an album that cast a long sonic shadow and inspired a strange brutal purism among certain fans. The fact that Neubauten had made the masterpiece they’d been working towards for 13 years was lost on many.

“Bargeld has always described Neubauten as a ‘pop group’, maybe as a sarky one in the eye of his extremist loyalists, maybe out of a deep craving for wider attention,” wrote The Wire in a reissue review from 2004. “Here, [with] the hurricane of early Neubauten mostly spent, they take stock and diversify. The results are more accomplished, less viscerally thrilling. Tracks like ‘Zebulon’ are awkwardly straight, the porcelain Goth of ‘Blume’ affecting but hardly traumatic." The reviewer also complains that with sporadic English in use for the first time, the band replaces “inscrutability” with “naivety”.

Softening the sound in any form is almost always distrusted by critics, in this case suspicious that Tabula Rasa somehow represented the thin end of the wedge on the inevitable journey to commercial pop spondulix (a preposterous projection in EN’s case), or even worse, a betrayal of one’s class (“he’s getting ideas above his station”, etc). Bargeld wasn’t the first artist to be accused of relinquishing his “fire”, and he’s not the last either, with his erstwhile bandmate Nick Cave recently accused of allowing himself to turn into a Hallmark card hippie.

Albums that introduce us to artists in their primitive states are often the only snapshots of them we need. When supposed authenticity comes up against chops, the former invariably wins, usually without question. The psychedelic feedback of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy preserved the band forever in the minds of those who fell in love with the Reid brothers in 1985 as they drew on the démodé Phil Spector and the then still reasonably recherché Velvet Underground, but Darklands (1987) offers a wider screen with arguably better songs. Pixies took on JAMC’s ‘Head On’ from the latter’s neglected Automatic (1989) on their own undervalued Trompe Le Monde (1991), a record that, when listened to objectively, is a more thrilling experience than the deified Surfer Rosa (1988). The idea that learning to play better is some kind of betrayal of the incipient artist, and becoming more comfortable and content somehow makes one more creatively impoverished, is as childish as it is bogus. Ursula K. Le Guin said it best: “We have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil, interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.” Happiness might be overstating it in this case, but you get the point.

It’s not just indie either. That archaic idea of authenticity earned by 'real' musicians playing 'real' instruments became inverted in the field of electronic dance music, meaning Daft Punk were vilified by danceheads for the objectively impressive Random Access Memories in 2013, simply due to its use of session musicians, in breach of the electro primitivism of Homework (1997). The same applies with their live albums: the fabled Alive 1997 and the largely forgotten Alive 2007; even though the latter release boasts infinitely better production values.

Even in painting, command became unfashionable as Jackson Pollock’s dripping ushered in a new post-war abstraction, meaning an artist like Willem de Kooning suddenly discovered midway through a career “that his mastery overqualified him in a changing culture,” according to the art critic Peter Schjeldahl (Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018). You may be an advocate of abstraction or a card-carrying Surfer Rosa fanatic – though whether you agree with any of these above examples or not isn’t really the point – challenging their intransigent aggrandisement is.

In any case, Neubauten’s embrace of nuance and melody and space wasn’t as out of the blue as was supposed, and those who were surprised at the time clearly hadn’t been paying attention. “I was prepared for something to make my neighbours move away,” wrote a critic in Mondo 2000 magazine in 1993 on receiving Tabula Rasa through the post, “but, as I overheard at their performance: ‘They're actually playing music.’ Blixa Bargeld, past member of the tormented caterwaul, straight-up sings – and he has a voice!”

Singing had been in evidence throughout Haus Der Lüge four years earlier. 'Der Kuss’ was almost palatable with its bed of bass notes from the piano, slide guitar and ahh-ing that would work as a lullaby if it wasn’t for the intermittent clunking on sonorous metal objects, and ‘Ein Stuhl in der Hölle’ embraced the same folksy vibe as ‘Zebulon’. Moreover, the bracing electronica of ‘Die Interimsliebenden’ on Tabula Rasa wouldn’t sound out of place sitting shoulder to shoulder with ‘Furio!’ on Haus Der Lüge, but for the fact it’s beefier and catchier than anything in their catalogue up to that point. The other significant change between Tabula Rasa and Haus Der Lüge is, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Star-crossed lovers with Berlin as backdrop are the subject of one of Bargeld’s most visionary lyrics on ‘Die Interimsliebenden’, in what could almost be a sequel to David Bowie’s ‘"Heroes"’ (the UK’s alternative national anthem of the 2010s which, to my mind, always had a whiff of the opportunistic about it). Bargeld brings a deep, experiential legitimacy to the story, firing off whims of poetic acuteness where big bangs erupt and governments are toppled.

And anyone imagining Neubauten disappearing into the quicksand of easy listening should resteel themselves for the pounding, mesmerising cacophony that is ‘Headcleaner’, a 15-minute long, labyrinthine six-part song that interpolates the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’ one minute while threatening to shatter your windows with its sub-bass the next. The track had originally been commissioned for a street event – Das Auge Des Taifun (the eye of the typhoon) staged in Austria in 1992. Legendary playwright Heiner Müller and set designer Erich Wonder, sent Neubauten traversing Vienna’s Ringstrasse pulled along by huskies as they played inside a horseshoe-shaped mobile ice-palace full of billowing fake snow. The annual parade, dating back to fin-de-siecle Vienna, provided an elevated platform for Neubauten to try out a 45-minute prototype of the track. It’s an abominable, eccentric and inscrutable European fandango that would have given Vote Leave victory by a wider margin had they chanced upon the film during the referendum. The ferocity of ‘Headcleaner’ is made all the more powerful thanks to the dynamism of Tabula Rasa, juxtaposed against the gossamer-light tenderness of guest vocalist Anita Lane on 'Blume'.

As ever, the slyly humorous intentions of the band are easily lost, right down to the cover art. Tabula Rasa came as part of a northern renaissance-inspired triptych which, together with the EPs Interim and Malediction, would probably make for a resplendent altarpiece if diligently collected. The 15th century cover art suggests a work of refinement by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Younger, a painter who liked to put the death into nature morte. Looking a little closer at Still Life With Fruit And Grasshopper reproduced on the cover, you start to notice flies circling a carcass, with a subtle pair of jack leads impishly painted into the scene, plugged into the hairy fruit in the right hand corner of the picture.

The flipside of the artwork seems to be a Last Supper pastiche, and it would indeed prove to be the last time Mark Chung recorded with the band, while percussionist Mufti aka F.M. Einheit, who was prone to chucking the odd molotov cocktail into the audience during live shows, threw a wobbly during the production of followup Ende Neu and left, complaining that he was “bored”. He had a point – the next LP was not their best, but Neubauten needed time to rebuild following the culmination of a masterpiece and the loss of key members, ending one cycle and beginning a new one. Their capacity to remould themselves with subtlety for each project, despite the violent nature at the core of what they do, is a miracle of modernity, and Einstürzende Neubauten are a bona fide modern day gesamtkunstwerk. What’s more, they’ve just reactivated their Patreon and they’re beginning to harvest materials for the next album. It’ll be fascinating to see what they cook up.