Harrying Of The Norse: Laibach Live In Oslo

Roy Wilkinson heads to the Norwegian capital and examines Laibach's political obfuscation and explorations of nationalism against the context of the pleasingly strange Ultima Festival. Photo by Ultima festival / Henrik Bec

The great Slovenian art-rock provocateurs Laibach are playing in Olso, at an event marking the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian constitution. On arrival your reporter’s plane comes in over sunlit Norwegian fjords – curving islets looming from a gauze of white cloud; an otherworldly, Moomin-esque Land Beyond. But there will also be less harmonious images – old photos of Norwegian Nazi kiddies, their dark Hitler-ite uniforms contrasting jarringly with their cute, snowflake-patterned woollen mittens. Then there’s a more quotidian kind of consternation – going to a pub for a small bottle of Magnum Mørk beer and being charged £12.

Laibach are playing at Ultima – a fascinating and distinctive festival which, over ten days and numerous Oslo venues, centres on austere classical music and the contemporary avant-garde. But it’s far from all furrow-browed solemnity. A presentation of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe – an 1840 song cycle on the theme of the lovestruck poet – becomes a riot of absurdist slapstick. Alongside virtuoso performance on a grand piano there’s a grunge-rock duo called Fucking Famous. The audience are force-fed litres of vodka, while an actor playing a Buster Keaton-esque chef unleashes a mass of joke-shop pranks. He concludes by pulling down his underpants and performing a snake-charmer routine on his penis – achieving elevation by means of a penny whistle and some covertly attached fishing line.

The theme of this year’s Ultima is "The Nation". It’s hard to imagine a more fitting presence than Laibach. After all, they do have their own utopian state entity – the NSK State (Neue Slowenische Kunst), a borderless supranational structure, complete with its own passports and postage stamps. (In the pre-9/11 world people are said to have successfully negotiated border controls with NSK passports). Laibach have been invited to Ultima to perform their interpretation of music by Norway’s most celebrated composer, Edvard Grieg. Laibach will premiere their variation on Grieg’s unfinished opera Olav Tryggvason, a work named after a Viking king.

On route to Ultima I attempt to get some perspective on the Norwegian nation. Or, at least, to cross the width of this long thin land – travelling from Bergen to the capital. Bergen is a wonderful place, surrounded by a combination of sea and mountain that send the senses into exaltation. But, as with the way Laibach’s 35-year career has seen them embrace the counterintuitive and generally command us to "expect the unexpected", Norway also has its contrarian aspects. Bergen fast-food includes whale burgers. Gift shops sell T-shirts with a provocative message: "We save whales… for dinner". But Norway is also clearly a very globalised nation. Even in the depths of a forest up above Bergen there are trail-side signs in playful English: "If nothing goes right then go left". Applied to Laibach this would read "go left and right and then keep going". Laibach’s audio-visual output has seen them repeatedly incorporate and rework symbols from the extremes of history’s political spectrum – including both the Soviet era and what they call "Nazi-kunst".

The rail journey from Bergen to Oslo is a seven-hour marvel – up high on to the bewilderingly barren expanses of the Hardangervidda (Hardanger plateau). The Norwegian nation was gravely affected during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. But in the landscape up by the Hardangervidda there was one of the most celebrated acts of anti-Nazi resistance – the sabotage attack on the Norsk Hydro plant at Vemork, where the Germans were overseeing the production of heavy water, with which they hoped to move toward the production of an atom bomb.

On arrival in Oslo we check into our accommodation at the Ultima festival’s HQ, the Scandic Vulkan hotel. Though Vulcan was the Roman god of blacksmiths and the forge, Scandic Vulkan has a wildly Norse ring to it. And with Vulcan you can also divine connection with Laibach. Vulcan was also the god of artists and a half-sibling of the god Mercury. In the video for the 1992 track ‘Wirtschaft Ist Tot’, Laibach wore hats based on Mercury’s winged helmet. Laibach also have close connection with Freddie Mercury. It was with their martial cover-version interpretation of Queen’s ‘One Vision’ in 1987 that Laibach first came to wider international notice. Here was part of presentational style that led to a recurring Laibach dimension – are they Nazis? But would white supremacists really find such allure in Freddie, a gay drug fiend from Zanzibar?

Leading up to Laibach’s performance Ultima and Oslo supply much intrigue. In the Nasjonalgalleriet there’s a recital from the revered Norwegian pianist Håkon Austbø. He plays music by Norwegian composers this writer has never heard of – Arne Nordheim, Asbjørn Schaathun. But, with Austbø marking his 50th year as a public performer, it’s absorbingly astringent stuff. Closer to rock and pop realms is a collaboration between Norway’s Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød, taking place in a church – a powerful, intoxicating mix of grand piano, electronica and sometimes incomparable human voices. The Norges Hjemmefrontmuseum is dedicated to the history of Norwegian resistance during the Second World War. It’s here you can see the photos of the unfortunate youngsters who ended up in the World War Two Norwegian Nazi youth wing – all in black apart from those sweet mittens, more suited to throwing snowballs than grenades.

Labaich have their own history of uniform-based peculiarity. Their two-part set at Oslo’s Sentrum Scene includes an airing for the video in which they dressed up in SS uniforms and went shopping in a Slovenian shopping mall. This comes after an opening 30-minutes audio-visual presentation of their take on Grieg. The music isa captivating mix of synth abstraction and orchestral fanfare. The back projection includes runic typography and revolving, transfixing computer-aided-design-style images of a viking longboat. The second set mainly draws on this year’s Spectre album. An obvious highlight is ‘The Whistleblowers’, a song that highlights Edward Snowden and his fellow-travellers, using them as a lens on to the individual’s position in society. If this sounds dry, the reality on the night is simply joyous – smiles beaming around the venue, air punches, a real ovation at the end.

Laibach don’t play any of their best known recordings – ‘One Vision’ or their equally unrestricted reworkings of Opus’ ‘Live Is Life’ and Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’. But they do play their starkly powerful versions of Dylan’s ‘Ballad Of A Thin Man’ and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1928 song ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’. In Nordic northern Europe here’s Laibach playing the blues, bringing a subtle reminder of Afro-America’s key part in musical history.

The next day there’s a public discussion in an arts cinema, with the Czech artist Petr Svarovsky talking to Laibach’s Ivan Novak and Luka Jamnik. Over their history Laibach have preferred to communicate in a monumental collective voice, but this discussion turns out to be unusually revealing on the personal front. Ivan talks about what he sees his musical manifest destiny – he says it’s a trade he was bound to follow because Louis Armstrong was playing when he was born. He also talks about the concerts he used to attend in his teens in what was then Yugoslavian – distinctly non-Laibach-ian artists including the American jazz rockers Blood, Sweat & Tears and UK prog rockers Brian Auger And The Trinity. He also says "Nazism is horrible" – a statement Laibach would never have made 20 years ago. For much of their career Laibach were intent on drawing out the "true nature" of political systems, while neither confirming or denying allegiance to any of them. There’s also an interesting art-history digression on the way Laibach’s use of deer antlers on stage was partly inspired by the 1851 Sir Edwin Landseer painting Monarch Of The Glen – an image that has recurred across the ages, from Glenfiddich whisky to being variously appropriated by both Sir Peter Blake and Peter Saville.

Laibach also explain how their interpretation of Grieg was intended to be both abstract and romantic, with the "digitised form of the music working as a metaphor for things happening in society… We all work for Apple!" After the talk your Quietus reporter walks with the Laibach duo back to the hotel. They’re full of smiles and good cheer as they talk about their next overseas mission – an event in Poland where they will revisit the content of a recent "special project" CD which they marked the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, the revolt against the occupying Nazi forces in the Second World War. It seems this most fascinating, assiduous, entertaining collective still have plenty to say about our past – and our present and future.

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