Whatever your opinion on Laibach, it is perhaps hard to disagree that even after over thirty years active, anything they release is at least worth talking about. Over their career they have cast their critical eye over mainstream pop music, covering fixtures in the pop canon with, er, surprising results, uncovered hitherto unnoticed totalitarian leanings in other pop hits, examined their balkan heritage, classical reinterpretations, reworkings of national anthems and even, once in a while, joining the herd and making a better and more enduring industrial anthem than any of their peers. So in this time of apparent political instability in Europe, it cannot be a surprise that this most politically vocal (as opposed to active, the distinction is important) band have turned their attention to recent events.
To understand the album, though, I think it is vitally important to understand what has been going on here – something a few mainstream reviews in the US media in particular utterly failed to do.
I can’t help but think that rather than being an album celebrating political fightback and whistleblowing (as some suggested prior to release, and a view that has been perpetuated in the press), this is an album that reflects on the European experience from a certain perspective. I read it as a reflection on thirty years or more of Europe (as in the EU). For Slovenes (and other Eastern Europeans) like Laibach, they spent years agitating to become part of the wider Europe – first with the fall of the iron curtain, then as moves to joining the EU panned out – only to find the “project” now facing considerable growing pains, with severe recessions and significant unrest and discourse. In just the last five years, there have been protests and unrest in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo, the rise of deeply right wing governments in Hungary and Poland, the very serious issues in Ukraine very recently, not to mention the desperate economic troubles of Greece, Portugal and others.
Hence the chorus of the key track here, Eurovision. ‘Europe is falling apart‘, intones Milan Fras over the stately electronics and beats, and with the travails detailed above, it is hard for a committed European like myself to avoid agreeing, and wondering what exactly the future holds for something that should hold so much promise.
Aside from the chorus, Milan also refers to the various recent street protests, seeing in them a reflection of the protests that saw the fall of the Iron Curtain, also noting that in a broadly peaceful time, suddenly it is that peace that is questioned rather than war. An absurd notion? Sadly I think not.
A rather more positive outlook comes in the striking opener The Whistleblowers, a track that I defy you to avoid being earwormed by the whistling refrain. This is the celebration of the likes of Edward Snowden, that’s for sure, people who have done so much in recent years to push the debate over surveillance and national security forward (indeed as I write this, it has been announced by Obama that the NSA will be stopping it’s mass surveillance of personal telephone communications). Musically, though, this is a slight track, the soft tones of the electronics utterly dominated by the whistling and the harmonised vocals.
The slow motion, heavy electronic stomp of No History conveys something of a sense of anger in the acquiescence of the people to their governments and media as they are told what is best for them, with no dissent tolerated and rights ever diminishing. And just for once, Laibach offer some of their own views, suggesting the creation of our own movements, our own politics to make a better society and rid ourselves of barely disguised tyranny.
Leaving aside politics for a moment, the other thing that this track and the following Eat Liver! showcase is an increasing role for recently joined vocalist Mina Špiler (she was the astonishing focal point of various moments of the Tate show in 2012, particularly the version of Across The Universe). Her softer, more melodic voice offers a useful counterpoint to Milan’s vocals, and certainly offers more variation in style than before.
Not that Laibach could ever be accused of sticking with one sound, either, but this album is also notable for the areas it strays into. We Are Millions and Millions Are One stands out for this reason, taking a rousing, almost showtune backing for Mina to sing a glorious message of hope and love for those who might choose to rise up.
Also quite a departure is the album highlight Resistance is Futile, where the band mesh together the idea of homogenization of cultures with quotes from The Borg (yes, Star Trek: The Next Generation!) with an awesome, robotic electro-funk backing. I also can’t help but think that hidden between the lines here is an implicit criticism of the EU and organisations like the IMF, with the imposition of ‘one size fits all’ economic solutions that have proved to be anything but, and particularly in the case of Greece, almost certainly made things worse. There, for sure, resistance did prove to be futile, indeed ruinous for many, and a side effect was to unleash a rather unpleasant seam of populist far right politics in the form of Golden Dawn.
Broadly, this is an album that poses far more questions than answers, and the overriding theme is one of gloom. That is of an uncertain future for Europeans, with a stuttering project of integration that hasn’t ever reached the utopian ideals that some thought it might, and indeed in some ways has caused more harm than it should have done. But saying that, the hostile view to Europe that seems to be the pervading view in my own home country of the UK is no more helpful, and maybe that is the crux of the issue – the various vested interests and entrenched positions in the European debate make positive moves forward so difficult.
This makes the final track Koran all the more surprising at first listen. Over a minimal, piano-led backing, Mina offers a hope of a better world, one of equality and happiness, and then Milan takes over with a more realistic take, perhaps, one where words and proclamations are one thing, but are nothing without action.
This is borne from their and their fellow Europeans experience, of course. In so many countries across the continent in the past few decades, there have been countless instances of a new leader sweeping into power, with promise after promise of ways to revitalize the country and thus their place in the world, before reality sets in and little is delivered, before the cycle starts again as disillusionment sets in. Similarly the recent ‘Arab Spring’ has gone through something like this in an even shorter space of time.
So, then, this is Laibach offering a typically oblique take on proceedings. There aren’t a great deal of solutions, but by asking quite a few difficult questions they might just assist in the with that needs to go into forging a more positive outlook for the future. And with that, musically they aren’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but frankly this is an unusual album nowadays in that the message is far more important than the music – although if you can, get the deluxe edition, just for their stellar covers of Love on the Beat and See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.
Eleven or twelve years ago, Laibach made clear ‘we are no ordinary type of group / we are no humble pop musicians‘. Only now has it become clear what they meant.