Laibach
"Laibach"

(Mute 2004)Laibach - Laibach

For nearly two decades, the Slovenian musical / performance art ensemble Laibach has been known primarily for dressing in Nazi-esque uniforms, playing scary industrial marching music, and being intermittently banned from performing in their homeland during the 1980s. Laibach's sinister image was further reinforced in the public mind by the band's stark drum-and-synthesizer sound, Nuremberg-rally-like live shows, and mostly German lyrics sung in a devilish death-metal croak, backed by eerie, Wagnerian choirs of boys and women. That Laibach's fan base included more than its fair share of skinheads certainly didn't help the group's reputation, either.

However, behind the fascistic façade, the members of Laibach were the polar opposite of everything their aesthetics suggested: anarchic idealists, artists, and activists who opposed tyranny in all its forms (fascistic, communistic, capitalistic) and envisioned a future free of war and oppression. Easily the most misunderstood band of the past century (only Devo comes close in that category) and ranking among history's most politically significant musicians (alongside Bob Marley and American folk singer/labor organizer Joe Hill), Laibach are a band of devils deserving far more sympathy than they have received.

To commemorate Laibach's 25th anniversary, Mute Records has released a double-disc CD retrospective "Anthems" and a single-DVD video collection simply entitled "Laibach." Besides the comprehensive selection of previously released material, the CD set features a disc of new and rare remixes, while the DVD offers a highly illuminating documentary about Laibach's career and the political turmoil that surrounded it. Both cover roughly the same set of songs, though the DVD is by far the more entertaining introduction to the group's art and ideology.

The DVD's main program opens with the 1986 video for "Drzava". It opens with Laibach's vocalist (Milan Fras - though the band never voluntarily released individual members' names) standing on a podium, rasping into an antique microphone, a white banner with a black cross serving as an ominous backdrop. To his right and left, two other, uniformed members of the band beat out a militaristic rhythm on snare drums, their faces lit in the same, harsh manner as the Aryan figures in Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films, occasionally pausing to raise trumpets to their lips and blast out a harsh fanfare. Only the presence of a company of black-clad ballet dancers serves to indicate that this is not an actual political rally, and even then their movements seem unnatural and threatening.

"Opus Dei" (better known to many fans by its refrain: "Life Is Life!") presents another side of the same coin, with the band dressed in stiff wool suits, hiking across a pastoral, alpine landscape, and generally looking like a bunch of Hitler Youth on a field trip. Meanwhile, the English-language lyrics proclaim "When we all give the power / We all give the best / Every minute in the hour / We don't think about the rest... Life is Life!" Taken together, it's almost as if the band is climbing towards some bright, shining future to which the rest of us are not invited.

By the fourth video, 1988's "Sympathy for the Devil", viewers will be wondering whether these Laibach guys can possibly be serious. Fortunately, it's hard to miss the band smirking inwardly behind their stone-faced masks on this particular video, in which Milan Fras portrays Mick Jagger's lyrical Lucifer as a full-on Dracula-style super villain, sitting down for a feast of flesh and blood with his uniformed band mates and pet wolf. By the end, the pure-evil factor has been ratcheted up to such an absurd level that no sane, intelligent, culturally literate individual can mistake it for anything but the wry, satirical joke that it is (though, for the record, my sane, intelligent, culturally literate wife walked out in disgust before the video was over).

As the collection enters the 1990s, Laibach kind of loses its way, visually, burying its powerful image under a mess of cheap-looking computer graphics on the videos for 1992's "Wirtschaft ist Tot" and 1994's "The Final Countdown". Thankfully, they get their groove back on their 1995 video for "War", which supplies the timeless musical question "War...what is it good for?" with a new, cynical answer: "Science, religion, the economy, GM, IBM, CNN..."

This video also marks a sort of ideological turning point for Laibach: apparently tired of the public's inability to solve their cryptic, satirical riddles, they instead come right out and state their anti-war, anti-government views in far more literal, easily understood terms. In a way, it parallels the transition that fellow satirists Devo went through on their album "New Traditionalists," on which they stopped encrypting their counter-cultural message with irony, and started broadcasting their beliefs in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately -- in another parallel with "New Traditionalists" -- it also marks the end of Laibach's most creative period. Subsequent albums and videos would find them recycling old ideas, beats, and images, whilst trying and failing to stay relevant by ripping off younger industrial bands such as Ministry and KMFDM (e.g., on 1996's "God Is God", little more than a second-rate rehashing of "Opus Dei" with gratuitous heavy metal guitars).

Still, in their prime, Laibach were unique among industrial bands. Where groups like Skinny Puppy, Throbbing Gristle, and Front Line Assembly could only offer stylized, science-fiction daydreams of dictatorship and police-state paranoia, for Laibach those things were part of their daily reality as Yugoslavians. So much so that any attempt to separate Laibach's art from its underlying politics is doomed to failure.

Spanning from 1980, the year that Tito -- Yugoslavia's longtime dictator and sole unifying personality -- died, to the late 1990s, Laibach's career roughly coincides with Yugoslavia's chaotic descent from Communist dictatorship into genocidal civil war. In the early days, Laibach often found their concerts shut down by the police and/or military. After an inflammatory appearance on state-run television, Laibach were banned from performing or releasing albums for seven years (they continued to perform and release records, though they never put the Laibach name on the covers or posters). When their home state of Slovenia finally won its independence from the Yugoslavian government in the early 90s, Laibach went from being blacklisted thought-criminals to national heroes, though they continued to tour the rest of Yugoslavia even as the country descended into violence (during the 90s, Laibach frequently played concerts in cities under aerial and artillery bombardment, and even had their hotel room bombed on one occasion).

Whether you're unfamiliar with Laibach, an old fan, or wrongly wrote them off as a bunch of skinhead idiots, Laibach's self-titled DVD collection will give you a whole new perspective on this too-often misunderstood group. Regardless of whether or not you're into industrial music, the band's videos make fascinating political theater. And if, while viewing, you find yourself tapping your toes to Laibach's relentless, blitzkrieg beats, then I'd recommend you pick up the double-disc set "Anthems," as well.

A

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