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No Great War: Einstürzende Neubauten - Lament

Posted on Tuesday, 18 November 2014 | No Comments

"War does not break out. It waits for a singular but thousandfold: hurrah."
In the promotional material for Lament, Einstürzende Neubauten have been insistent on describing it as "a studio reconstruction of a work primarily designed to be performed live, rather than an official new Einstürzende Neubauten LP proper." It never sits well when an artist gets their excuses in early: why not spend that time creating something more worthwhile instead? But - and this is a significant 'but' - no excuses are needed here. A studio recreation of a commission for a new live piece commemorating the centenary of World War One, Lament inevitably lacks some of the visual drama Neubauten have long infused their performances with (opener Kriegsmaschinerie contains lyrics that go unsung but are instead shown as signs: here, the piece is featured in purely instrumental form), but Neubauten's musical response to this challenge needs no qualification or justification. This is a work of exceptional diversity and fragile beauty, the machinery of Andrew Unruh evoking the senseless waste of mechanised warfare. This is not a record of industry, but of humanity.

Of course, had this commission landed at the desk of Blixa Bargeld and his associates thirty years earlier, the less attentive listener might have expected a tediously literal 'sound of war' response - the massed stomp of assorted appropriated percussion, violent guitar sounds and agonised wails of their early work might have been a suitable answer to the war as a nihilistic fuck off to the absurd political (and, given the almost incestuous nature of European royalty at this point, familial) machinations that culminated in the waste of millions of lives. But then, Einstürzende Neubauten have long thrived on defying cliche and expectation. Each move they have made has been a step away from the popular conception of the band, another challenge to both their audience and themselves. Their post-millennial work since Silence is Sexy has been rightly contemptuous of the idea of mature work. As such, the Lament that Neubauten deliver comes from a fervent desire to avoid official lines of thought and communication, and to instead track down the side-narratives, sub-plots and hidden history of the war, and indeed to demolish the concept of World War One as historical fact. Bargeld's argument that war does not begin and end but merely ebbs and flows, hiding then re-emerging across the planet, becomes a very persuasive one the further the listener grapple with this astonishingly deep and thoughtful work. If not an explicitly political work, the stance that Neubauten take, one of disgusted pacifism and a noble refusal to consider any of this as having ever been necessary, feeds into their judgement on the War as a whole. This is a Lament not only for four years of bloodshed, but also the possibilities left behind, for the chances that could have been taken to bring about a better world afterwards.

(Before we go further, it is worth considering the other major recent release on this subject, Ypres by Tindersticks. In all the ways Tindersticks have pushed themselves since the artistic revival of The Something Rain - the alternative best-of Across Six Leap Years, the murky electronics of their Les Saluds soundtrack - this is by far the most untypical or expected. Based on commissioned work for the In Flanders Fields World War One museum, calling this a Tindersticks work seems somewhat inaccurate: Stuart Staples and Dan McKinna handled the work of composing a series of themes that could be seamlessly looped and mixed together within the exhibition, before turning it over to orchestra leader Lucy Wilkins. The performances found on Ypres are the result of additional sessions held to produce a releasable, 'complete' work. A slow-moving, bleakly meditative mood is retained throughout - staying within the key of F, the six completed tracks found within are an elegy to the devastation of natural beauty, the relentless destruction of life. The beauty of Sunset Glow is pock-marked with sorrow, undercut by discomforting string swoops, Gueules Cassées a short, de-militarized fanfare, The Third Battle of Ypres a twenty-minute long composition that threatens at climax but never arrives, matching the experience of those in the trenches on either side fighting and dying in pain and squalor to shift no man's land by a couple of inches. It does not aim for a statement in the way Lament does, but rather carves out a space of haunted reflection far more apt to the cause than any minutes of silence. Inevitably, the work feels slightly incomplete without the exhibition that accompanies it, but it remains a successful, affecting release that stands up to the brutality of Ypres with respectful quietude.)

Frequently on this record, Bargeld sets aside his pen to instead deliver the writings of those who were there, aware that the experiences and truths of those who bore witness to events supersede his own musings. Indeed, whilst Neubauten's work has always thrived on the constant research and experimentation of the group as a whole, this might be their most selfless work yet, Neubauten often working more as researchers or actors than musicians. Much of Lament consists of surprising interpretations of contemporary songs and writing, a barbed and ironic strain of pitch-black comedy sometimes bleeding into proceedings. The long-term dada enthusiasts (it is hardly accident that Let's Do It a Dada is one of only three previous songs appearing in the Lament tour set-list) seize upon the absurd satirical potential of performing a 1920s music hall take on the start of the war in Der Beginn des Weltkrieges 1914 (Dargestellt Unter Zuhilfenahme eines Tierstimmenimitators), complete with animal noises. Dada was always a reaction of outrage to the non-sense of war, a deliberate act of obstinacy and chaos against a world gone wrong - enacting the build-up to war as a child's play fits neatly into this tradition of artistic protest.

Hymnen meanwhile is an early-doors show-stopper: noting that at the time of World War One the same anthem music was in use across Europe just with different lyrics - in Britain, it's still in use as God Save The Queen - the band play the anthem straight, but jump between languages and lyrics as if playing pass the parcel, before using a final, defiantly anti-monarch verse composed by Heinrich Hoffmann. It's a three-minute punchline at the expense of those who still believe the official line, a final rebuke to the pathetic power games that resulted in such horror. The theme continues in The Willy - Nicky Telegrams, one of the most direct and conventional songs here with lyrics coming from the telegrams of Wilhelm II of Germany and Nicholas II of Russia that detail the ridiculous duality of private intimacy and public hostility. Millions were sent to agonising deaths and millions more profoundly scarred both mentally and physically because a few related monarchs were unable to solve their quarrels: if the rest of the conversation around the centenary has been a base promotion of blind patriotism and other right-wing values, Neubauten refuse to let us forget why these events happened.

Other interpretations though stare directly into the darkness. How Did I Die? is much as the name suggests, a Kurt Tucholsky lyric delivered with appropriate terror and anger as Bargeld adopts the role of a dead soldier, their soul roaming no man's land and cursing the generals that he ultimately blames for his death. Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind is a German translation of Where Have All The Flowers Gone, originally performed by Marlene Dietrich, whose fervent anti-Nazi position led her to eventually join the American war effort in World War Two. For a song all too often reduced to a tired campfire workout, the Neubauten take is sparse, tragic, and another assertion of Bargeld's conclusion that war never truly ends but merely changes form into different conflicts. Most powerful of all is the three-part title track. Starting as a role call not for lost soldiers but for the entire war - each battle represented as the human loss it will always be - the final section contains a move that could so easily have lapsed into mawkishness but, for the delicacy with which Neubauten handle it, makes for an outstandingly sensitive and powerful statement.

Over the solemn drone of a slowed-down composition by Jacobus Clemens non Papa, the band release the voices of thirty-six prisoners of war, all reciting the Biblical story of The Prodigal Son (live, they play the voices from small, egg-shaped devices held up to microphones, as if letting their souls back into the world of the living). The effect is overwhelming, a mass of voices speaking in different tongues, united by their fate, their fear, their remaining dignity, sons who were not lost but utterly abandoned reading a tale of redemption they cannon hope for. The music sits only as a bed for these voices, and rightly so: these are those who were not listened to, who were given orders, who faced such ordeals on the command of others. Two minutes of silence or wearing a poppy might be a way to remember, but it still falls too closely to an official take on the war, one where the generals were right, one where we are expected to delude ourselves that the slaughter of millions of people can ever be justified. This, to me, strikes as a real tribute: actually listening to those involved, letting their story reverberate.

The final words of Lament come from another group of soldiers, drawing on the little-known story of The Harlem Hellfighters, the marching band of the first Africa-American regiment to serve in the US Army. Two of their songs appear on Lament, one of them a jingoistic marching song (On Patrol in No Man's Land), the second the closing piece All Of No Man's Land Is Ours. The Harlem Hellfighters recorded this just after the close of hostilities, and the Neubauten performance draws on the many ironies this song now presents. The Harlem Hellfighters returned to America in glory, but very quickly the ongoing realities of racism and segregation overpowered the notion of the hero's return - their conquest of no man's land still left them with a land that refused them basic human dignity, and beneath the surface of ceasefire would bubble under the fissures and untreated scars that would eventually erupt as World War Two. What began is 1914 as The Great War, a final airing of grievances, turned into four years of trauma that ultimately solved nothing, and so Neubauten sing the song of returning soldiers who were shunned by the country they were sent to serve, honouring their sacrifice and struggle. It's the theme music of a world that refuses to learn any lessons or to know any better, the curtain call on a sick, sad tragic-comedy, the Lament of Neubauten ultimately a tribute to all those trapped within the atrocities instigated by careless authorities and futile divisions.

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