I’m struggling to think of a single band in “our thing” that has had as much mainstream coverage – as in appearing in the news, not just in the music press – as Laibach did last year when their show in North Korea was announced.
The Forum, NW5
There was BBC coverage (that was surprisingly well-informed), the Daily Mail coverage (that was hilariously ill-informed and at points just plain wrong), CNN, the Guardian, and of course the hilarious (but wrong) John Oliver sketch about it. And that’s just some of it.
Most bands that are active in the industrial scene (of any stripe) would give at least one of their limbs to get this kind of coverage – never mind whether it’s accurate or not, it’s the kind of coverage that regular tours and release cycles simply cannot buy. But then, Laibach aren’t your average kind of band.
Associated with a respected art collective, a fascinating thirty-five year history, and a nuanced take on writing music that almost always results in the wider meaning of their releases being so much more than first appears, whether you like the music that the band produce or not, it is impossible to deny that they aren’t at least interesting.
In recent times in particular – in something of a burst of activity after some years of relative peace – Laibach have been more fascinating than ever. First there was that Tate Modern show, there was doing the soundtrack to a popular, crowdfunded sci-fi film, and then an album that assessed in some detail the whole idea of a united Europe. And most recently, there was playing a show in North Korea and covering songs from The Sound of Music while doing so.
If you’re unaware of Laibach, the very idea of a European industrial(ish)/avant-garde band covering a set of musical standards like The Sound of Music might sound very, very bizarre. But to those of us who’ve followed the band’s output, it’s not actually that odd after all. They’ve covered The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg, a baker’s dozen of national anthems, Queen, Europe, Edwin Starr, Pink Floyd, Oscar Wilde and more…so why not a musical too? Indeed to many, the covers are better known than their own songs, partly because of their ability to bring out hitherto unnoticed subtexts – and also to meld them into their own image.
Either way, it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see the band announce a European Tour, featuring some of the songs they played in North Korea, a few months after the hubbub had died down. Which brings us to The Forum last Tuesday night, with no support and the promise of a lengthy set. But first, we had to endure elements of The Sound of Music, on repeat, until they came on at 2030.
One thing I’ve noticed about previous Laibach live shows is that they are not a band that makes a big statement upfront, blowing you away with the opening track. Things are more gradual, saving the punches for later, so even though the lights go down, and part of the band take the stage, it’s difficult to get sucked in quickly. That might have been partly down to the atonal, screeching synths and pummeling drum solos, that seemed to go on forever until the stately march of Smrt za Smrt [Death for Death] took over.
Smrt za Smrt
Now You Will Pay
The Great Divide
Walk With Me
Resistance Is Futile
The Sound of Music
Climb Ev’ry Mountain
We Are Millions And Millions Are One
Ballad Of A Thin Man
My Favourite Things
Live is Life/Leben heißt Leben
Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves
Saying that, though, one of the earlier tracks in the lengthy set was one of the undisputed highlights – the unexpected airing of WAT album track Now You Will Pay, a thundering, furious track with an astonishing choral chorus that sounds even better live than it ever did on record.
But having thought about it since, and listened to that and the track that followed it in the set (The Great Divide), the various songs from Spectre and crucially Anglia later on…it rather dawned on me. Laibach’s only UK show was seemingly used, in an oblique sense, to comment on the blowing of the political wind here at the moment.
Consider the opening lines of Now You Will Pay: “Barbarians are coming / Crawling from the east“. This song was written in 2002 or so, when the EU was just finalising it’s first expansion into Eastern Europe (which came into effect in May 2004), and there were various screaming headlines from our right-wing press (and I’ve no doubt, elsewhere in Western Europe too) about the catastrophes to come. The sneering second verse of the song takes it further: “They’ll come out of nowhere, They’ll enter your state, The nation of losers, The tribe full of hate. / With knives in their pockets, And bombs in their hands, They’ll burn down your cities And your disneylands.”
Ouch. The Great Divide deals with the image of refugees, seen as bloodthirsty, rapacious thugs who want to subsume wherever they go before moving on again. Again, written nearly fifteen years ago, but seems rather familiar right now when you think about the coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis (and the UK’s paltry refugee intake compared to some of our near-neighbours). And then, with the referendum on Europe looming ever closer here in the UK, it seemed bitterly ironic watching a Slovene band playing an awful lot of an album critiquing the European experience from another angle entirely.
The final kiss-off on this front was the airing of Volk-era “anthem” Anglia in the encore (unexpectedly complete with Boris Benko of Silence on vocals, as on the album – he also appeared on a few of The Sound of Music tracks too), the skewering of the “Great” Britain image taut and on point (“So you still believe you’re ruling the World“), a reminder that many other countries view the UK not as a country punching above its weight, but as a country still stuck in the past with its position in the world.
What was intriguing, though, was how subtle all of that was. It took me some days to think about it, and the significance of what was played, and anyway, this was billed as a show where they’d play some of The Sound of Music. And after the intermission, this is what they did.
I’ll lay my cards out now – I’ve never been one for musicals, and The Sound of Music is one, in particular, I never got on with, although it’s nigh-on impossible not to be familiar with most of the songs from it, as they’ve been ingrained into popular culture over the years. But the question was, how would they sound?
The answer was what we might have expected – like Laibach.
Do-Re-Mi lost the jaunty feel of the original for a wonderful, slower take using vocodered vocals, combined with Milan and Mina taking the lead at different points and the result was frankly amazing. Edelweiss was probably the closest to the original, with again the twin vocals only accompanied by sighing synths and string samples for the most part, while The Sound of Music itself was stripped bare, and not for the first time acted as a stunning showcase for Mina Špiler’s brilliant vocals – all the way through the show she works as a colourful foil for the rich baritone of Milan Fras, but at moments like this she simply outshone everyone else.
The one schmaltzy moment was where Boris Benko joined Milan Fras to take on Climb Ev’ry Mountain, one song that even Laibach’s invention couldn’t make it listenable. Then, in the encore, came a video wall with a cascade of modern items, including various characters from My Little Pony. And Milan singing My Favourite Things, and I couldn’t help but feel that Milan had his tongue deep into his cheek. What was even more amazing is that this song – such a well-known melody, for a start – sounded great in Laibach’s hands.
What was so brilliant about the whole lengthy show, though, was that Laibach confounded expectations at every turn. By picking unexpected songs (and even seemingly having a particular theme to them), by having fun in playing songs from The Sound of Music, but also by not having to rely on the “hits” – something discussed recently in more general terms by I Die: You Die (I’ve got a lengthy response to other parts of that to come, too). The only one of those aired that I might have expected was a rousing, foot-stomping return to the old Opus hit Live Is Life, but otherwise, they were confident enough to avoid Tanz Mit Laibach especially. It was, though, for the better – this was a coherent, enthralling show from start to finish.
What on earth comes next – well, aside from the film of their North Korean adventure, for which a trailer was aired on the screen at the end, which is due later in the year – will as always be fascinating to see. Although I’m willing to bet we hear a Laibach-recorded version of that musical this year, too…