Part deadly earnest post-musical composers, part boys- with-toys goofballs whipping up a ruckus for the pure joy of making noise, Berlin’s Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) have built a distinctive, challenging and extremely imaginative sonic career out of implements generally intended for other utilitarian purposes: power drills, humming power lines, water towers, air-conditioning ducts, plate steel, glass, boulders and various large metal objects beaten with sledgehammers, pipes, wrenches and axes. Even traditional tools receive similarly brutal mistreatment — Blixa Bargeld’s pained vocals and guitar are often blurred to the point of abstraction. While Einstürzende Neubauten occasionally veers into song form with intriguing, even attractive, results, the group’s output more typically resembles a bunch of highly amplified (or, in some cases, barely audible) industrial sound-effects records being played at each other with little concern for anything but the raising of blood pressure and artistic hackles. Good shit.
The five-man troupe roared into action on the German avant-garde underground scene via the 1980 “Fuer den Untergang” single and Schwarz (the following year’s double-pack 7-inch). But these records are products of the group’s creative infancy. Several of the EP’s five tracks have a haphazard, aimless quality far removed from the exquisitely controlled noise that was to follow. The precocious “Kalte Sterne,” however, is a wholly realized song (comparable to the Gang of Four’s “Anthrax”), one of the best they’ve ever recorded.
Kollaps combines guitar and bass drones with a barrage of metallic pounding, both rhythmic and random. Topped off with tortured howls (and titles like “Hear with Pain”), it is one of the most shocking visions ever committed to vinyl. Not recommended for dancing or romantic interludes.
Einsturzende became the darlings of the UK press. In 1983, they signed to Some Bizzare and reached escape velocity from nearly random chaos on the carefully produced, dynamically textured Drawings of Patient O.T.. While no more melodic than Kollaps, the production is less primeval and the band shows a wider degree of textural variety. At times the sound is rather stripped down, and a few of the cuts are actually songs. (The title track even has a chord progression!) Two years later, the record was released in the US, adding four non-LP items on a bonus EP.
Strategies Against Architecture is a compilation of five tracks from Kollaps, two from Schwarz, the B-side of “Fuer den Untergang” and some brilliant previously unreleased works, three of them live. The itemization of instrumentation is amusing, including as it does an air conditioning duct, smashing glass, an amplified spring and a bridge. For more live material, the cassette-only 2 X 4 is an admirable attempt to capture the mood of Neubauten on stage, recorded throughout Europe between 1980 and 1983. Like Drawings, it leaves more space in the sound, which makes the shock effects that much more shocking. “Armenisch Bitter” is, by their standards, a ballad, with plaintive sax warbling along with Bargeld’s voice in a quasi-Middle Eastern style.
1/2 Mensch (aka Halber Mensch or Half Man) is the band’s strongest record, displaying a wide range of creative compositional technique. Putting some of the junkyard orchestration aside, the title track is a cappella, sounding like some avant-garde opera; “Letztes Biest (am Himmel)” uses quiet bass harmonics as its only pitched instrument. Add such things as grand piano, inside- out dance beats and Neubauten’s characteristic thunder, and Halber Mensch is truly remarkable.
The band temporarily broke up in 1986, then reformed to record Fuenf auf der Nach Oben Offenen Richterskala (Five on the Open-Ended Richter Scale), a shockingly low-key (despite its earthquake-noting title) album. Vocals, often almost at a whisper, frequently predominate. A whole plethora of instruments (or whatever) are plunked, strummed and smashed way down in the mix, almost as though Neubauten was trying not to wake up the old lady next door. Ultimately, the effect suggests a hypothetical soundtrack for a Marxist vampire movie; Fuenf‘s quiet intensity leaves one waiting for noise which never comes.
After another lengthy sabbatical, during which Bargeld concentrated on his work with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and other members played in Crime and the City Solution and Sprung aus den Wolken, Neubauten re-emerged with Haus der Luege (House of Lies), a much stronger album than Fuenf. Though the volume is still restrained, the higher intensity level makes all the difference; the semi-ballad “Der Kuss” is quietly explosive, while the opening “Prolog” demands an acceptance of the band’s sometimes schizophrenic approach (it’s hard to avoid jumping out of your skin whenever the naked recitative is punctuated by colossal bursts of crashing noise). Their experimentation with heartbeat dance pulses continues to good effect on “Feurio!”
Einstürzende Neubauten’s intermittent group exertions were further curtailed in the ’90s. Bargeld released a 1995 solo album, Auftragsmusik (Commissioned Music) on Ego, a label Einstürzende set up for their scoring endeavors in theater and film. (The group’s own issue on the imprint includes Die Hamletmaschine, composed for the stage, and Faustmusik.) Percussionist F.M. Einheit has made albums under his own name, with German guitarist Caspar Brötzmann (Merry Christmas) and Andreas Ammer (Radio Inferno is an adaptation of Dante’s poetry that also involves Bargeld, Brötzmann and British DJ John Peel) and as Stein, a group with Ulrike Haage and Katharina Franck of the Rainbirds. Guitarist Alexander Hacke has also done film music and leads Jever Mountain Boys, a country (!) group with Roland Wolf of the Bad Seeds and Die Haut guitarist Jochen Arbeit.
Still, there was plenty of material clattering around to fill Strategies Against Architecture II, an annotated two-CD compilation (1984-1990) that picks up where the first one left off. As on that record, only some of the cuts come from the period’s albums; live matter and previously unreleased recordings flesh out the typically bizarre and far-reaching program. There’s a clanging, snarling, dramatic version of “Haus der Lüge” (long before it became the title track of an album) from a 1984 Los Angeles concert at which the band accidentally set fire to the stage, a delightfully bent but respectful 1985 rendition of Lee Hazlewood’s “Sand,” the ominous mystery of 1989’s “Armenia II,” “Ich Bin’s” (an edgy 1987 chant accompanied by drumming on a plastic garbage can) and the truly daft “Bildbeschreibung,” a droning, creaking piece — complete with electric shopping cart — done to accompany a dramatic reading on German radio. And that’s without mentioning the group’s jingle for Jordache jeans.
Tabula Rasa is, as billed, the quintet’s blank- slate new beginning, a fully realized and refined song cycle about the reunification of Germany in which the group’s metallic clangor and witty noises affect, rather than dominate, the musical designs. Drawing against Fuenf auf der Nach Oben Offenen Richterskala as if it were a sketch-pad for this work, Bargeld’s melodic singing and a few of the rhythmic arrangements resemble Peter Gabriel’s German translations; the central committee of instruments does a convincing imitation of “normal” — until something starts buzzing, or having the shit whacked out of it. The fifteen-minute “Headcleaner” unleashes an old-fashioned barrage of feedback, screams and banging, but-between occasional bursts of riveting mechanics — the folky “Zebulon” actually has a catchy, Velvet Undergrounded chorus. The lovely “Blume,” wanly sung in English by Cave associate Anita Lane, doesn’t register more than a quiet, baroque breeze. With the band’s ability to make garish noise so fully developed, its inverted music- first blueprint is a stupendous revelation, a gripping blend of stately seduction and brutality that sounds like the masterpiece Einstürzende Neubauten was born to make.