Einstürzende Neubauten's haunting World War I tribute

The only band that needs compressed air

Music Review “We must have the only recording studio with a compressed air supply,” says Blixa Bargeld as he tunes up his band, Einstürzende Neubauten. Three compressed air hoses hiss into life.

String quartet and chains

Here in Utrecht the middle-aged band, plus accompanying string quartet, are performing their World War One concert Lament, part of the city’s Guess Who festival. The venue is a vast, EU-funded arts centre, Tivoli.

There was a perfectly good arts centre here in Utrecht before Tivoli - but arts centres in the Netherlands are like casino hotels in Las Vegas. Every few years they get bored with the one they’ve got, demolish it and build a new one on the site. The 5-theatre Tivoli cost €150m of EU and Dutch money. The architects decreed that nobody should be more than a few yards from the performer – so very Dutch, so very democratic. Which makes the venue a giant, staircased chimney wrapped around a main theatre, which houses 18-tiers of seats. Impressive.

Back in the day I was more a fan of Blixa Bargeld’s guitar – particularly on the Bad Seeds’ From Her To Eternity - than his band. Wasn’t all that notorious stage-destruction and those DIY instruments a bit of a Trustafarian gimmick? (I can hear the stomp of DM boots as industrial music fans beg to differ).

But that was long ago: Einsturzende Neubauten are now respectable composers. All the material bar the crowd-pleasing encore draws from Lament, the collection specially composed to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.

Lament draws deep on archive recordings and written material. Bargeld doesn’t look like a walking cadaver any more – introducing each piece, he's more like an urbane middle-aged art gallery owner, patiently showing a thick rich couple round the paintings. I notice he is barefoot, though.

But the stage is mic’d and the sound system so powerful that even Bargeld tiptoeing barefoot creates an apocalyptic bass rumble that rearranges your internals. The band have their own air-powered instruments (described here) and is backed by a string quartet and helpers - I count a dozen musicians on stage.

Bargeld tells us that recordings of the war itself are scant – they tend to be reconstructions from the 1920s. But he unearthed one which becomes "The Beginning of World War In 1914 (Presented By An Animal Voice Imitator)" which contains lines such as:

The goose goes to sheep: >> WAR <<

There are diplomatic telegrams between cousins Tsar Nikolaj and Kaiser Wilhelm (”Your loving Nicky”) performed as an electro duet. Weltkreig is a percussion piece (played on plastic tubes) where every beat represents a day, and each tube a participant (390 4/4 beats in all) – with the participants and major battles intoned over the top. It was a long war, even at 120bpm.

The centrepiece of the concert is the three part Lament itself – which concludes with the voices of prisoners of war reading from the Bible piped from crackly, hand held music boxes - another find from the Radfunkarchiv. The simple stuff is the most powerful – I think it’s the most haunting thing I’ve heard.

There are also two songs composed by members of the 369th Infantry – a black US Army regiment, which because of segregation was assigned to fight alongside the French rather than other American units. The band survived the carnage of the trenches – and when they got home, the drummer got into an argument with the singer, and shot him dead.

The Lament album is available on Mute. If you buy it through Amazon and choose AutoRip, they send you the CD in the post. It’s worth it for the sound reproduction – and the excellent booklet. ®

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