Of all of the industrial “legends”, if you will – aside from now deceased bands like Throbbing Gristle, that I’ll never see now of course anyway – Laibach have for a while been the one band that I’ve never seen live. It hasn’t been for the want of trying – there has been at least one cancelled show, and a few gigs I was unable to attend, over the years – but in some respects I am glad that when I finally got the chance, it was in a location as grandiose as the Tate Modern.
[Note: I didn’t take any photos of the gig, but Katja Ogrin did, and they are well worth seeing]
And if you don’t really know much about Laibach, perhaps that might help to serve as an indicator that they aren’t quite like any other band. Yeah, so there are quite a few bands who have been hugely influenced by them (Rammstein, for a start), but no-one has ever quite nailed the sheer oddness, and wide musical and artistic reach, of Laibach.
Hence a day like today. The Tate Modern built a day around the Neue Slowenische Kunst art movement, the grouping that Laibach are the musical arm of, with symposiums and discussions across the day on the various movements. Other plans meant that I was unable to make either of the two sessions, but obviously enough there was no way in the world I was missing the gig.
A note on the organisation of the show should also be made, as pretty much a textbook example of how a gig should be done. Tickets were made available at a reasonable price, with a token booking fee (even for a gig that was in such demand), and when the start time was shifted forward in the week before the show, great efforts were made to contact ticketholders to inform them (I had both an e-mail and a ‘phonecall to tell me), and then on the night, tickets were exchanged for wristbands in advance of the start time, allowing everyone to make it into the venue in good time.
So that was great. Less great – and something, sadly, no venue can do a lot about – was other gig-goers talking. Really, folks – if you are asked to (politely) shut up, you are talking too loudly. Funnily enough we’ve paid money to see the band, not hear your conversations. At least one case last night really did affect our enjoyment of the gig – insulting someone and jabbing them in the back because they have asked you to be less loud is not on.
But anyway – the gig started bang-on time, and there was no fanfare or introductions as the band started up. And to begin with, there was as a fifteen-minute, instrumental movement that ebbed and flowed impressively, with moments full of drama and foreboding. What was really intriguing was that the crowd happily let the band get on with it, without applauding or cheering until there was actually a break. This was something of a pattern that followed through the show, with songs aired pretty much split into longer movements, at least until the Iron Sky material was finished with.
Ah yes, Iron Sky. The black comedy/sci-fi film that has been in the works for some years, that is about to be released at last, and Laibach have done the soundtrack. And this was ostensibly the real reason for this tour, to promote it. And it would appear that a fair proportion of the first half of the set was a collection of tracks from the soundtrack, but by no means all of it. From the first seventy-minutes or so, there was some jaw-dropping standouts in it.
And some of those standouts were very old songs. Like the early-eighties slowly-grinding, industrial clank of Brat Moj, and the rather harder work of Die Liebe – brutal rhythms and harsh electronics with a lightshow to match. Remarkably, though, the standout of the whole show was a most unexpected moment – and one that while it thematically works with Iron Sky, isn’t to my knowledge part of the soundtrack. This was one of Laibach’s older covers, the old Beatles song Across The Universe from Let It Be. And it saw usual vocalist Milan Fras take a backseat, allowing it to be a glorious showcase for MELoDROM singer Mina Špiler. Otherwise broadly providing backing vocals and keyboards, here she gained centre-stage, her voice soaring over a minimal backing, with the visuals becoming a galaxy of stars.
mi kujemo bodočnost
Smrt za smrt
Ti, Ki Izzivaš
Le Privilege Des Morts
Across the Universe
Under the Iron Sky
Tanz mit Laibach
Alle Gegen Alle
Du bist unser
Love on the Beat
Leben Heißt Leben
Geburt einer Nation
Ballad of a Thin Man
This was pretty-much a lift-off into the remainder of the show, where it could perhaps be said that the patience of the crowd (having dealt with an hour of mainly unfamiliar material) was rewarded spectacularly. A grandiose, sweeping B Mashina (complete with various bits of footage from Iron Sky on the screens) was astonishing, and was the first demonstration of just how brilliant vocally the band is – everyone except the drummer contributing to the near-operatic climax.
The final contribution from Iron Sky was Under the Iron Sky – another vocal performance from Mina, and cleverly using the end-credits as the video, pretty much marking a line in the sand for the set. This song is, pretty much, Laibach doing what might be expected with a film soundtrack – a big, rousing closing ballad.
And indeed, the following Tanz mit Laibach – probably the band’s best-known song by miles nowadays – was another example of Laibach confirming to norms. After the various covers and subverting of western values (of which more in a moment), the album WAT was pretty much a case of Laibach going “we can do this”, and effortlessly produced their most listenable, accessible and popular album in a long time – with Tanz mit Laibach being the dancefloor stormer that still hasn’t got old nearly ten years on. Needless to say, the crowd went nuts for it. And in a knowing nod, perhaps, it was followed by their cover of Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft‘s Alle Gegen Alle – not surprisingly to a similar template.
Most of the remainder of the set was devoted to their various covers – and looking at the original composers, it is one hell of a diverse list. Queen, The Normal, Serge Gainsbourg, Opus, Bob Dylan…! All were utterly transformed, with the exception of the proto-industrial classic Warm Leatherette, for which the only real change was to switch it into German. The one that really stumped us until later was Love on the Beat, partly because I never actually knew that Gainsbourg had done an oh-so-eighties electro-pop album. The Laibach version was slowed down, and made much…sleazier. Somehow. Mina contributed a piercing shriek “on the beat” during the chorus, and Milan’s vocals seemed to drop even deeper. Let’s be honest – Laibach don’t really cover songs, they reinterpret, reimagine. Something far cleverer than just doing a straight cover, instead finding deeper meanings not immediately obvious to us in the first place.
And as their deeply odd Dylan cover (Ballad of a Thin Man) closed off the evening – a full two-hour set – few people moved very far until they were absolutely sure that the lights were going up, and that was it. I don’t think any of us wanted to believe that this was it, that we were leaving the world of Laibach and heading back into the night. An utterly enthralling, fascinating, challenging evening of live music, from a band who realise that those who seek them out are intelligent enough to make their own conclusions and theories from their music, rather than simply spoonfeeding ideas into their head.
Put more simply – a Laibach show is better than most other bands could ever hope to be.