Perfect Sound Forever

Einstürzende Neubauten

Neubauten live
Photos courtesy of Nina, Neubauten archive- © Chardonne Photography

The Song's Sleeping in the Machine
By Meg Wise-Lawrence
(March 1999)

Founded in 1980 by current members Blixa Bargeld and Andrew Chudy (sometimes known as N.U. Unruh), German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten played three nights at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City (December 26-28, 1998), their first Stateside tour in five years. More people are probably familiar with Bargeld's work as the brooding guitarist, since 1984, for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. As front man for his own band, Bargeld's style is more theatrical; he was upstaged only once during his current shows when he sat for a few moments to allow Chudy to dump gravel down an amplified metal chute simulating the sound of a sandstorm for "Wüste" ("Desert").

Live, the much mythologized "drum kit," consisting of metal pipes, sheet metal, wires and something like circular saws as cymbals is a phenomenal sight. The only actual piece of conventional percussion that I could see was the bass drum, which at various times throughout the show was replaced by a large metal box with a hinged door and a small mike stand inside. To play this monolith of modern rock and roll required not one but two percussionists, Chudy and Rudolf Moser (who recently replaced longtime member F.M. Einheit).

New guitarist Jochen Arbeit (like Moser, he has also worked with Die Haut) kept up with the pitch and passion as if he'd been raised in the band. Original guitarist Alexander Hacke, who indeed did come of age in the band, has moved to bass, replacing Mark Chung (Chung is now managing director of 'Friebank' and 'Play It Again Sam Records.'). Hacke has become the rocker incarnate, flashing a mischievous smile at the audience and at one point playing his bass with a dildo. The tour also included various sound engineers, German roadies, and Ash Wednesday on keyboards.

As Bargeld said recently in an interview with MTV, "the biggest misconception is that we do work with all these materials to find something incredibly painful and incredibly harmful to the ears. Anyone that has ever seen a Neubauten concert or really listened to our record more than once must have noticed that there is such an enormous quantity of beauty in what we are doing and so much fragility."

The beauty of Einstürzende Neubauten was immediately apparent when they began their set, as they've often done this tour, with "The Garden" (from their most recent release, Ende Neu, 1996, recently released in the U.S. by Trent Reznor's Nothing label). "The Garden" is nothing short of lovely, beginning like a low tide rising on the shore with the repeated words, "You will find me if you want me in the garden/ unless it's pouring down with rain." The music builds slowly toward an orchestrated arch worthy of the great classicists (Arvo Part is admittedly an influence on them).

For the record, this is one of their only songs done purely in English (although there are many other languages presented within Bargeld's predominately German text, from Latin and Spanish to Hebrew and obviously English*). The single message that could be found within all Einstürzende Neubauten songs is: the song's sleeping in the machine ("NNNAAAMMM," Ende Neu).

Einstürzende Neubauten translates to "collapsing new buildings," which could be misunderstood as a desire to get a wreaking ball and set about town. In fact the name refers to buildings built in Germany after the Second World War that were so poorly constructed, they literally just collapsed.

The criticism some find with the band is that their sound has mellowed. It's true that their craft has become more honed, but it is no less unwavering in its vision of "collapsing (or imploding) new buildings."

"Installation #1" and even "Headcleaner" were better live, which might surprise some fans who consider their sound too difficult to recreate onstage. But many of their songs originate as live performances, often based on simple ideas and developed over time. Bargeld is also a writer of great complexity, at other times graphing out lyrics in a seemingly nonlinearfashion to create a Gestalt reaction.

There is something both organic and orgasmic about their songs. Whether Bargeld is writing about schizophrenia (ZEICHNUNGEN DES PATIENTEN O.T. -DRAWINGS BY THE PATIENT O.T.- 1983), Berlin's political dichotomy (Haus Der Luge, 1989) or love (TABULA RASA 1993), the music is at once highly controlled and frenetic. It's about silence and noise. Drilling sounds from constructions sites are turned into ambient, if intense, melodic loops. Actual tapes from the annual Berlin riots (in this case then President Reagan was visiting Germany) were used as a backdrop to the second half of Haus Der Luge. Juxtaposed with the guttural German lyrics, one needn't even know the language to catch the drift.

In concert, Bargeld could be death, the doctor or Dandy ("Death is a dandy on a horse," he sings on Halber Mensch, 1985): a lanky figure with lanky hair, a black three piece suit, who dances around the stage and sings toward something unseen with his intense, black rimmed, greenish-blue eyes, like a man who has never been comfortable with the living but has decided to let go just the same. The set list included the standards such as "Ich Bin's" ("It's Me") and "Salamandrina," to Ende Neu favorites like "Die Explosion im Festspielhaus"("The Explosion in the Festival Hall") to the seminal-new improvisations of "Rampe" and "Sun Barge."

The stories he told between songs, when he wasn't sipping his tea (he had a cold) or bumming a cigarette, were quixotic and full of dry German wit. One story ended with the warning: don't open the door if someone says, "It's me," because that's a trick the police use (the band then went into "Ich bin's").

Bargeld once remarked that until he met Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Mick Harvey, he really hadn't been exposed to the Anglo-American musical traditions. Possibly influenced by them, "Billi Rubin" is in many ways a traditional drinking song: "We drink ourselves together/ and drunk we clash on the subject..." The music is rousingly dance hall, replete with the scientifically correct chorus, "Billi Rubin is low/ Billi Rubin is disappearing/ Billi Rubin is on the run." No, Billi Rubin is not his drinking buddy (at least not literally). Billi Rubin is the level one reads to measure liver disease.

Like the best music, from "The Rites of Spring" to "Anarchy in the U.K," Einstürzende Neubauten isn't always pleasing-- but it's always seminal. Singing about Billi Rubin levels, diseases or destroyed cells (Funf Auf Der Nach Oben Offenen Richtorskala (Five on the Open Ended Richtor Scale), 1987) is not everyone's idea of a good time, but then I remember the reaction to Patti Smith when she first emerged on the scene.

As many of their songs deconstruct just to reconstruct, so do Bargeld's lyrics (although the connections are not always logically clear). He once said that because art before Hitler led to the Holocaust, Germany needed to re-create itself and in so doing create a new avant garde. Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten have succeeded.

No other post-industrial age artist (or specifically no post-industrial style rock band), has found the music in the machine of modern life as Einstürzende Neubauten has. With their turbo charged jet engine and industrial dinosaurs such as the enormous plastic garbage bin that Moser pounds upon (which Bargeld remarked had been around the world three times-- not bad for a second life), Einstürzende Neubauten looks for music in machinery in the same way that a sculptor looks for the shape within the stone. In that way, they are truly alchemists.

*Almost all Bargeld's lyrics are available internationally in the book "Headcleaner," with a wonderful glow-in-the-dark cover. (Text für Einstürzende Neubauten Blixa Bargeld: Headcleaner text for collapsing new buildings. Die Gestalten Verlag, Berlin.)

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