Einstürzende Neubauten – ‘LAMENT’ live @ Ancienne Belgique, Brussels – 28 May 2015
‘Lament’ is probably the most peculiar commemorative product for the outbreak of World War I. One hundred years after the critical Battle of the Yser, the Belgian town of Diksmuide – which was the site of that battle which reduced it to ruins in October 2014 – commissioned Einstürzende Neubauten for a live performance to mark event. The concept was taken into studio to become their first album in seven years.
The album audition alone gives goose bumps. It was preceded by intensive research and documentation and it is lengthily annotated on Einstürzende Neubauten’s website. Even before going to the show, there are already enough layers upon this masterpiece: the historical facts and the commemoration, the concept, the Diksmuide performance, the story of the studio album. But if you’re really looking for the Einstürzende Neubauten’s distinctive mark then a live audition is a must. Because, as they say, it was created to be a performance not a record.
The live performance
Impressive sets of their self-made instruments are over the stage. Together with the five members, a string quartet and keyboards. Every piece of metal was used to create the monstrous sound of the Kriegsmaschinerie (War Machine) which opened the Einstürzende Neubauten storytelling of how the war started. While unbearable scratches and chains rattling were growing into chaotic dissonance, Blixa Bargeld was silently showing the lyrics written on big panels. To quote only some: ‘War does not break out and it is never caught or chained’ / ‘It moves’ / ‘Rotten debris which must be washed with blood so that it might seem useful again’ / ‘It regains old strengths from debilitating disappointments, shredded hopes, false blame and fatalism’. It ends with a big ‘Hooray’ which becomes nothing but sinister in the context.
The setlist follows the albums order up to a point. Just like they assemble strange metal pieces to build sound, a part of ‘Lament’ is constructed with different art material previously released by others: two pieces inspired by a Flemish writer, Paul van den Broeck, two more from the marching band of the Afro-American troops that fought in Europe, a rework of the pre-war national hymns of Europe’s nations, Marlene Dietrich’s version of Pete Seeger’s anti-war anthem ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’. Their own compositions are pure theatre using facts discovered during the research as foundation for bricolage. We are introduced to it with Hymnen (Hymns). Alexander Hacke and Blixa Bargeld sing together a song whose lyrics change every two line into a different language, evoking the great powers of the times. Also together they will perform one of the smartest narrative songs ever: a vocal duel between the Russian Tsar Nicholas I and German Kaiser Wilhelm. The Willy-Nicky Telegrams is actually based on the before the war epistles’ exchange between the two cousins. The telegrams text adaptation and their vocal interpretation with disco-pop edges imply the political hypocrisy of the diplomatic language while troops were moved all over Europe.
Paul van den Broeck – a Flemish writer
The only time when the big white curtain behind the scene was used to screen something was on In De Loopgraaf (In the Trenches). A minimalist piece, with Blixa reciting in Flemish a text by Paul van den Broeck, accompanied by Andrew Unruh on a barbed wire harp. He’s projection drumming the instrument contributed to a dramatic effect. The second number in Flemish will come a bit later. Achterland brings also its own sound, it’s own concept and it’s own background. Alex Hacke transforms the crutches in which he walked on stage into a playing instrument. An air compressor recalls the deadly routine feature of trench warfare – gas spreading.
A piece of masterpiece
The theatrical performance continued with another smart masterpiece: Der 1. Weltkrieg (Percussion Version) (World War I – percussion version). It is Einstürzende Neubauten’s vision of the war development until it reached 20 nations and 4 years. The nations were represented by 20 pipes of different lengths, horizontally assembled in an installation resembling to a pipe organ, although as they were arranged facing the audience they seemed also threatening cannons. When hit with drumsticks, each pipe was producing a different sound, each sound representing a nation. Before the song, we were exemplified how Austria, Unites States and the Ottoman Empire sounded like. Each beat represented a day of their involvement. Moser, Hacke, and Unruh drummed the pipes while Blixa and voice recordings were announcing the main European powers and players entering the war until the signature of the armistices. Timing was extremely important obviously and Blixa was checking it often to get everything right.
The Armenian genocide
There were also old songs introduced in the setlist. They performed Let’s Do It A Dada but also Ich Gehe Jetzt as the final number. But probably the most subtle allusion of the entire performance was the introduction of Armenia. With another commemoration in the spotlight this year – 100 years from the Armenian genocide – this cannot be just a coincidence. Chapeau.
The Harlem Hellfighters
The United States of America are well represented in the performance through an original historical fact, another of their discoveries during the research for the album. Blixa told us briefly the story of the first African-Americans troops. In times of segregation and racism, the government allowed the Black Americans to join the US forces but put them under French command as they didn’t want to mix them with their white forces. Coming mostly from Harlem, they were called The Harlem Hellfighters and had a marching band responsible for introducing the jazz music in Europe. Two songs on ‘Lament’ are based on their works. On Patrol In No Man’s Land is sang primary by Alex Hacke with an strong American accent. Bargeld intervene in the song with explanations, describing them as fearless men, never captured alive and killing people with a smile on their faces. The Harlem Hellfighters themselves can be heard on a recording, authenticating the performance: ‘Come on boys, let’s get them, let’s get them on the bayonet.’ The second Harlem Hellfighters piece will come in the show later. All Of No Man’s Land Is Ours represents a song composed after the brigade returned home. Blixa Bargeld related that The Harlem Hellfighters band even recorded an album at a French label. This one was performed in a slow tempo cabaret style.
The core part of the show was the three part mini-performance Lament. The lights changed to orange to introduce a frightening elegy. First part – Lament is a crescendo humming passed on from one member to another and whoever is singing it raises their hands. No lyrics, just a grave tonality backed up by atmospheric sound to end with only to words: Macht Krieg (make war). The second part, Abwärstsspirale (Winding Down Spiral) brings a more violent approach with the bass of Hacke making tandem with white thundering lights coming from behind the scene. Pater Peccavi is the most touching moment of the entire performance. You simply cannot escape it. The Einstürzende Neubauten are aligned on stage playing in turn tape-recordings to their microphones. The recordings relate voices of war prisoners who were requested by German linguists to recite the Biblical parable of The Prodigal Son in their mother tongue. The recordings were found during the album research in Berlin’s Humboldt University. On a musical background represented by a religious renaissance song from the 16th century, these voices coming from the past make everything seem colder and absurd. The following number How Did I Die is Blixa questioning different ways of dying. The string quartet’s riffs and the cello part accentuate the dramatic component until the end when the conclusion is “we didn’t die at all’.
The Second World War
Even if they left for a short break, the show was not yet over. On Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind, the stage become all red to welcome Blixa wearing a reconstruction of Marlene Dietrich white feather dress. Pete Seeger’s song was adapted to a minimalistic interpretation. Part of the second encore was Der Beginn des Weltkrieges 1914 (Dargestellt Unter Zuhilfenahme eines Tierstimmenimitators), which translated means The beginning of the world war in 1914 (presented by an animal voice imitator). A mini-play in German enjoyed at maximum by the German speaking audience, but ultimately not only by them as it related a story about the beginning of the war with plenty of historical references and benefiting from Blixa Bargeld’s actor skills. When he ends it by screaming ‘Hitler! Hitler!’ one can only think of the Second World War, putting this master performance into a higher perspective. Remember the silent lyrics hold by Blixa on panels at the beginning of the show? ‘‘War does not break out. It waits/For a singular but thousandfold:/Hurrah’.”
Lament’s annotations – official website
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You can read this report also on Concert Monkey