Does anyone remember that Russian hair-metal band Gorky Park? No? Well, people will never forget Laibach, the Slovenian art-prank “band” and really the only musicians from socialist Eastern Europe to ever make it in the West. Gorky Park just barely broke through in the United States with “Bang” in 1989 but were never heard from again west of Moscow. Conversely, Laibach’s notoriety was based not on their music but on their Warholian manipulation of mass media as a spectacle-creating tool. For them, publicity became an outlet of self-mythologizing. Theirs was one of several spin-offs (music, visual art and “other”) of the Neu Sloweniche Kunst movement in Slovenia. Shortly after their inception they were banned from performing publicly in their socialist homeland for donning Yugoslavian army uniforms emblazoned with Russian Suprematist logos. What did this mean? No one really knew, but the level of confusion that gestures like this inspired was an affront to a nation trained to think and act as a collective body.
Laibach formed in 1980; their recording career began with their self-titled 1985 album, and they continued to release records until 1994. After a hiatus, they re-emerged last year with the crushingly intense WAT. Anthems is a two disc collection of songs that capture the band at, well, their most anthemic. Which is pretty subjective, since their music constantly lampoons socialist power and mimics governmental tools of brainwashing; essentially, they’re always anthemic. The second disc includes fourteen remixes of various Laibach songs, and although their interpretation as pure electronica occasionally works, it mostly drains the originals of their organic spontaneity and would probably be best appreciated by techno fans, not Laibach ones.
Anthems is a nice primer into some of Laibach’s most theatrical and ludicrous moments, and indicative of their impressive versatility. They sound like Queen as often as they do Einstürzende Neubauten, the constants being advanced electronic/industrial beats and brutish grunting in the place of singing. Discernible influences: prog, hair metal, heavy industry, futurism, and — especially — fascist politics. The album is sequenced in reverse chronology, beginning with two songs from WAT that represent the most hardcore techno songs on the album. Generally, the songs from ’90s and late-’80s albums like NATO and Opus Dei show the band at their quintessential “peak,” if you can call it that. Songs like “God is God,” “Final Countdown” (yes, a cover of that “Final Countdown”), “Wirthschaft ist Tot,” and a cover of “Get Back” are simultaneously insane, theatrical, grating, catchy and transcendent. The earlier material is less maximalist than these opuses and will probably go down easier to fans of a less ironic brand of experimental music.
Conceptually, Laibach walks a tightrope that divides ironic music from regular music and, to Western ears, doesn’t really emerge with any clarity on one side or the other. Sure, a straight-faced techno cover of “Final Countdown” will elicit a chuckle from most Americans, but the radically reconfigured German traditional songs and much of the early material is culturally specific enough that the irony can be lost overseas. But Laibach’s success has always depended on ambiguity. In contrast to British kindred spirits Throbbing Gristle, a band that cultivated a personality of abjectness, Laibach’s music sounds pretty much like “real music” if you’re not in on the joke.
So what’s the point, then? As American performance artist Allan Kaprow wrote in 1971, “it is not hard to assert as matters of fact: that the Lunar Module mooncraft is patently superior to all contemporary sculptural efforts … that the random, trancelike movements of shoppers in a supermarket are richer than anything done in the modern dance … that the Southeast Asian theater of war in Vietnam is better than any play,” and so on. By mimicking a systematized making of meaning in both music and politics, Laibach exposes those systems and reverses the implicit values of their own production, which could easily be (mis-)interpreted as fitting those systems. And even we complacent Westerners can see how that’s pretty witty.