Formed in 1980 in the Slovenian industrial city of Trbovije, Laibach (the German name for Ljubljana, the capital of the then Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia, a usage which didn’t fail to provoke the government) set out to revitalize Slovenian culture and create a mythic persona through careful manipulation of the group’s image. As much theater as music, Laibach often appeared in Nazi-like uniforms (Germany occupied Ljubljana during WW II) and has made a point, on record, of highlighting the connection between Western rock and capitalism.
The double-album boxed-set Rekapitulation 1980-84 summarizes Laibach’s first four years of recording and contains some of the band’s most innovative material: strange mixtures of rock, jazz, disco and ambience with occasional Wagnerian overtones. Sieved through an Eastern European consciousness, this combination yields many unique flavors, from astonishing beauty to totalitarian menace. (The 2002 CD reissue slightly revises the artwork and two tracks, “Vade Retro Satanas” and an alternative version of “Smrt Za Smrt (Death for Death).”)
Though released in 1985, most of the material on Laibach was recorded years earlier and is also contained on Rekapitulation. The poorly recorded Through Occupied Europe offers two live performances, adding little to the studio versions of material also found on Rekapitulation.
By the time Laibach recorded Nova Akropola, the band had attracted a following in Western Europe and a lot of attention in the music press. Nova Akropola is more sophisticated than earlier efforts, furthering the group’s music and concept. Wagnerian horns sound over the surging beats of science fiction armies, while singer Milan Fras growls lyrics in a gravelly bass. Two songs use nationalistic speeches by Marshall Tito as lyrics; while the intent is presumably ironic, not the faintest smile is discernible. (The 2002 CD reissue includes an austere black and white performance video of “Drzava” featuring the band and a dancer from the Michael Clark Dance Company.)
Baptism, Laibach’s second double set, is the soundtrack to a play done with the theater branch of the New Slovenian Art (Neue Slowenische Kunst, or NSK) movement, of which Laibach is a part. The album uses tape loops, beats, horns and chants and is far more atmospheric than the group’s more pop-oriented work. With the exception of half a side that sounds to be an “appropriation” of an old, scratchy opera record, this is excellent, innovative music. (Baptism was issued in Belgium as Krst Pod Triglavom: Baptism.) Four of the album’s shorter, livelier tracks are appended to the CD of Opus Dei which was, at the time, Laibach’s poppiest and most conceptually ambitious record. It contains fascist-tinged covers of Queen’s “One Vision” and the Eurodisco hit “Life Is Life,” sung in both German and English with grandiose horns and a marching beat. (Panorama / Die Liebe is a 12-inch containing two tracks from Nova Akropola and two other items.)
Laibach has always maintained that Western pop music is simply an expression of capitalism, that rock stars should be viewed as successful businessmen and that concerts are akin to political rallies for canned rebellion. After Opus Dei, the group took the logical — albeit radical — step of attacking pop icons by parodying them. Laibach’s version of Let It Be (an LP the group has said it considers the Beatles’ worst) realizes the entire album (minus the title track) as melodramatic drinking and fighting songs, with horns, synthesized strings and military beats. The female choir version of “Across the Universe,” deadpan with faint Slovenian accents and tinkling harpsichord, is at once hilarious, chilling and beautiful. The similarly conceived Sympathy for the Devil locks onto that one song, reinterpreting it six times (which is at least two too many), as disco, rock, acid house, etc., including one merciless send-up of its pretensions to evil.
Perhaps realizing that they had painted their pop efforts into a corner, Laibach’s next release was an amazing soundtrack to New Slovenian Art’s version of Macbeth. Combining the better attributes of Baptism with a sense of restraint and atmosphere not heard since the early days, Macbeth is one of the band’s best.
Laibach and the New Slovenian Art movement set the stage for Slovenia’s eventual secession from the disintegrating post-Tito Yugoslavia through provocative flirtations with totalitarian imagery that actually revealed the similarities between fascist and Socialist Realist iconography. With that mission accomplished in 1991, Laibach found itself in search of a new purpose. Kapital was its first statement on the new world order, commenting on the transition of Slovenia’s (and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe’s) economies from command to market. With industrial yet dancefloor-friendly beats, sampled snippets of business newscasts and political speeches and elements derived from traditional Eastern European music, it’s a vital album of entirely original material that shows Laibach remaining topically and aesthetically ahead of the acts they originally inspired.
Laibach added to their oeuvre of wicked covers to score political and cultural points on NATO. Sidesplitting renditions of Eurotrash stompers like “In the Army Now” and “The Final Countdown” highlight and subvert those songs’ respective mild anti-militaristic message or apocalyptic angst-ridden bathos and offer comment on the ramifications of a NATO inviting (annexing?) its former enemies as well as the Alliance’s involvement in the strife afflicting (former) Yugoslavia. But was the formula beginning to wear thin?
Jesus Christ Superstars and its take on organized religion, Christianity, faith and false prophets seemed like a logical next step. But the death metal arrangements of the show tune and other tracks incorporating Star Wars imagery and Christian motifs of damnation and salvation sound better on paper: the album is at best heavy-handed, at worst unlistenable.
After a seven-year silence — interrupted only by sporadic live releases, compilations and side projects — that only magnified Laibach’s mystique, the band returned in 2003 with WAT, an album of (almost) all original material. The generally accepted interpretation of the album’s cryptic acronymic title is “We Are Time”; Laibach credited the Pop Group with inspiring the sublime, self-referential (and critical?) title track. Otherwise, the album is a timely if uneven rumination on the Iraq War, anti-Semitism, terrorism and the general instability of the modern world, sung in German and English. Highlights include the majestic, doom-laden opener “B Mashina,” the killer homage to DAF’s “Der Mussolini” “Tanz mit Laibach” (a minor hit single), “Hell: Symmetry” which introduces a malevolent force (Satan? the media? Laibach themselves?) that “will take your anger and demonize it until it multiplies” while grafting an intonation (and chorus of “Love me, love me not”) reminiscent of “Justify My Love”-period Madonna onto Laibach’s trademark industrial beats and “Now Will You Pay,” which graphically addresses both Western civilization’s hysteria towards other cultures and their grievances against the West. The CD also includes the brilliant agitp(r)op video for “Tanz mit Laibach.”
Beyond the official releases of new material, Laibach’s discography includes overlapping compilations, live recordings and reissues. M.B. December 21, 1984 and Laibach Live are essentially identical, only with different artwork. Ljubljana-Zagreb-Beograd assembles Laibach’s first live and studio recordings from 1981 and 1982, essentially covering the same ground as Rekapitulation. The 1999 Laibach reprises the 1985 release of the same name with three additional tracks and different artwork, dumping the misunderstood John Heartfield cover image for an NSK-created assemblage that resembles charred flesh nailed to a black cross. The John Peel Sessions were recorded 1986 and 1987 and feature material from Baptism (including “KRST”) and early versions of songs like “Life Is Life” from Opus Dei. Neu Konservatiw is a CD re-release of a 1985 bootleg; Slovenska Akropola collects mid-’80s rarities.
Laibach has been involved in a myriad of collaborations, side projects, pseudonymous one-offs, etc. 300.000 Verschiedene Krawalle (German for “300,000 different riots”) first surfaced on the Sympathy for the Devil EP and other recordings and contributed a version of “Kometenmelodie Part 1” to the Kraftwerk tribute Trans Slowenien Express, on which various Slovenian bands with varying degrees of proximity to Laibach offer interpretations of the electronic pioneers (who apparently inspired much Slovenian postpunk). The renditions range from faithful (“Trans Europe Express” as performed by The One That You Love, April Nine’s “Radioactivity”) to radically reimagined (Mitja V.S. and Enzo Fabiani Quartet’s reworking of “Neonlicht” as a melancholy, folksy waltz, Demolition Group’s hard rocking “The Model”). The renditions demonstrate both the essential strength of the originals and the inventiveness and wit of the bands covering them, which also include Borghesia and Strelnikoff. Laibach themselves contribute two non-Kraftwerk pieces (quasi-liturgical under their own moniker and frenetically sampledelic as Kraftbach) which open and close the album, setting it in the broader framework of Slovenian vs. Trans-European cultural identity.
Trans Slowenien Express also marked the birth of the post-independence Slovenian electronica scene, as some of the acts on it (Random Logic; Iztok Turk, formerly of Videosex and later Laibach’s producer) went on to record in various guises on Laibach mastermind Ivan Novak’s techno label Tehnika, which is also home to protean Slovenian DJ Umek, a central figure in the homegrown electronica scene and highly in demand as a club DJ and remixer abroad. His 2002 release Neuro is a collection of elegant electronic suitable for both listening and dancing pleasure. “Libido” (and the accompanying found footage conspiracy theory video) received considerable airplay in western Europe. Incidentally, the unbilled guest vocalist on “Neuropa Humbug” sounds suspiciously like Milan Fras. Umek returned the favor, his composition and production support on WAT augmenting the trademark Laibach stormtrooping industrial-symphonic beats with a contemporary dancefloor sensibility. Tehnika 1, a re-release of a sampler originally given away to subscribers of British music magazine The Wire, is a handy introduction to the label’s output.
In 1996, 300.000 V.K. released a bizarre companion piece to Jesus Christ Superstars called Also Sprach Johann Paul II. An amalgam of Christianity, Nietzsche and Zoroastrianism (hence the interpolation of Strauss), the album starts out veering dangerously close to those portentous synthesized symphonic renditions of classical music but then throws some curves like sampling Pope John Paul’s voice and children’s choirs to disturbing effect . Harddrive: Also Sprach Bill Gates gives similar treatment to the man associated with another concept that shaped — for better or worse — contemporary civilization’s collective mind.