Music's heavy going for industrial rockers Laibach
Industrial rock is about shock and provocation, and the loudest and most unnerving are Slovenian group Laibach, writes Richard Lord
The history of industrial music is littered with some of the most challenging sonic artefacts you'll find. Like some of the extreme sub-genres of heavy metal, or the more wilfully experimental corners of electronica, industrial music is frequently and deliberately very hard to listen to, and has been since the start.
That's because industrial music, with its frequently stated commitment to transgression, has often been more about shock and provocation, challenging people to think for themselves, upsetting their conceptions of what constitutes music, art or culture, than about making music that's pleasant to listen to in any traditional sense. Hence the tendency not only towards challenging, harsh, often borderline upsetting music, but also towards a more rounded idea of the artistic endeavour that often takes in elements of visual and performance art: conceptual movements rather than just bands who make songs.
There is no greater example of this tendency than Laibach. On the face of it, the Slovenian collective, formed in 1980, are a band that make industrial music with martial leanings, sounding like something an army would march to, backed up by unexpected cover versions - Status Quo's In the Army Now, Opus' Live is Life. But to appreciate them only on a musical level would be to miss most of what makes the band interesting: the complex, subtle, contradictory, subversive, disturbing substrata of ideological provocation that lie beneath it.
Laibach will be flexing all of their varied cultural muscles in Hong Kong over the next few weeks: a photographic exhibition taking place at CIA in Kwai Chung until March 20 has been accompanied by a series of screenings of videos of interviews, performances and documentaries, while the band will perform live at The Vine in Wan Chai on March 22, as well as participating in a seminar at City University the previous night.
"Not that we are not interested in other artists, but artists are not something that we compare ourselves with," Laibach member Ivo Saliger (a pseudonym) says. "We see us more as engineers of human souls. And those are usually very rare - and precious."
Forged in the crucible of late-1960s countercultural agitation, industrial music came into existence in the 1970s as a response to societal change, a reaction to individual powerlessness in the face of growing institutional authority and the alienating effects of mass production. Aiming to shock people out of their lethargy, bands took musical influences as diverse as composer John Cage, electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and avant-rock artists such as Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground (and of course Lou Reed's later Metal Machine Music, one of the first truly unlistenable adventures in pure noise), alongside cultural movements such as Dada and writers such as William S. Burroughs to create a dense blend of undertreated noise and apparently wilful experimentation informed by the tools of electronic music, the attitude of punk and the compositional techniques of everything from musique concrète to modern classical music to jazz.
A largely Anglo-Teutonic phenomenon in its early days that became extremely influential in the US, industrial music was pioneered by the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, taken to new extremes by groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Skinny Puppy and Test Dept, and later fused with electronic dance music and rock to score crossover success with bands such as Ministry and Nine Inch Nails.
Laibach, however, have been plugging away doing more or less the same thing for more than three decades. Their music may have evolved from straight-up industrial marching rock to a more diverse, hard-to-classify sonic palette with a growing techno influence, but throughout they have remained anthemic and bombastic, and have consistently provoked with their use of totalitarian, fascist imagery. The group take their name from the German name of Slovenia's capital Ljubljana, used during the period of Nazi occupation, while the band have often worn Nazi uniforms and flaunted swastika-like crosses.
At the heart of Laibach is this contrast between relatively straightforward music and a massive bedrock of subtext. The band don't do anything as simple as satirise totalitarianism - although they ask a few unnerving questions about pop by recasting it as fascistic marching music, with Queen's One Vision particularly sinister as a German-language martial anthem.
"We've never looked for the enemy and certainly not practised parodic protest against 'him'," says Saliger. "Laibach always analysed the relation between ideology and culture, between art and politics, reflected through art, pop, media and politics. To uncover this relation we've used all tactics, including the very language of ideology and culture. We are certainly not obsessed by totalitarianism, but totalitarianism is all-embracing and omnipresent, practically existing in every system and there would be no Laibach without it."
It's unusual that Saliger has even agreed to be named; usually, as part of their collectivist credo, the band remain anonymous in interviews, which "we see as equally important statements as other public appearances, concerts, exhibitions, etc", Saliger says.
"We value anonymity, but not because we would want to stay 'hidden' from the public; within the group we simply give more importance to the collective than to the individual. We believe that the importance of 'individual' is overestimated. Within the collective individuals should be subordinated to the collective needs and desire. Only strong individuals can do that."
The desire for a collective identity has even led to the creation of a virtual state, the Neue Slowenische Kunst, which grew out of the Laibach-associated art movement of the same name. It is based on Laibach's manifestos, and has its own currency, flag and passport. As ever, this is wildly ambitious stuff that ventures far beyond the realms of music. Laibach are a conceptually perfect art project that just happen to make music.
Laibach, March 22, 8pm, The Vine, 29 Burrows St, Wan Chai, HK$690 (advance), HK$780 (door). Inquiries: www.ticketflap.com