Title: The Sound Of Music
Release Date: 23rd November 2018
Label: Mute Records
Where the hell is Mina Špiler? This is the first thing that came to my mind when I listened to the new LAIBACH album for the first time, and it’s in fact a question that lingered in my head since the Slovenian singer, who became an integral part of the band over years, was remarkably absent from the LAIBACH shows since last summer. Of course the Slovenian art collective does not comment on changes of their staff and insist to refer to the fictitious foursome of Keller, Dachauer, Eber and Saliger as their line-up, even though when there are clearly more people involved (and on stage) than just Vier Personen.
I’m sure you all heard the story behind LAIBACH’s ‘The Sound Of Music’ already. In August 2015 they landed the publicity stunt to perform as the “first western Rock band” in the most totalitarian, most seclusive nation of today, North Korea, as part of the country’s celebrations to mark 70 years of independence from Japan. LAIBACH got quite a lot of press for this perplexing operation, and the first joke was that most cribbers didn’t realize that LAIBACH, with their roots in Eastern-Bloc Yugoslavia, are not exactly a “western” band in the strict sense. And arguably not too much of a Rock band, either. LAIBACH weren’t even the first foreign music group to play in North Korea! As rumour has it, some unknown Swedish Metal band allegedly performed a show there some 20 years ago, and in 1999 the band of Roger Clinton - yes, President Bill Clinton’s brother - played in Pyongyang. Not to mention the handful of South Korean Pop acts who entertained North Korean audiences! If they count as “foreign”, that is.
But the copyists with their hunger for lurid headlines were happy to adopt the story of LAIBACH being the “first western Rock band” and by now it’s almost part of the lore and, with the album’s release, all over the place again. A publicity stunt, indeed! But there was so much more to LAIBACH’s bizarre appearance in the enigmatic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For their performance they picked songs from ‘The Sound Of Music’, a 1950s Broadway musical written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, with a film version from 1965. On the face of it, LAIBACH made this choice because ‘The Sound Of Music’ is highly popular in North Korea, and one of the very few things of Western culture the totalitarian regime obviously doesn’t mind. But LAIBACH wouldn’t be LAIBACH if there wasn’t an seditious subtext to the whole thing: ‘The Sound Of Music’ tells the real story of the Trapp family from Austria, who opposed the Nazis in the Third Reich and eventually managed to escape to the USA as travelling musicians under the name “Trapp Family Singers”.
Playing music to tell the historic tale of people opposing, and eventually escaping, a totalitarian regime by the means of music, performed live in the most totalitarian state of today! Now that’s pure genius: LAIBACH kidnapped a whole nation to deliver their uber-subversive meisterwerk!
But can the album release live up to all this? To begin with, it simply comes a bit too late. Three years passed by since the infamous Pyongyang gig, and the whole affair lost a bit of momentum since then. LAIBACH trying to serve the same dish a second time that feels rather un-laibachian. Musically it’s a co-production with the fellow Slovenians of SILENCE, whose singer Boris Benko was also part of the North Korea adventure back then and who is heavily featured on the album, showcasing a clean-vocal counterpart to Milan Fras’ iconic deep growling voice. The female vocals are delivered by a certain Marina Mårtensson, replacing Mina Špiler who did most of the vocals (including some of Benko’s parts) on the “Sound Of Music” European tour a few months after the Pyongyang gig. Mårtensson’s singing is fine but she doesn’t have the range and expressive force of Špiler, who always seemed like a trained musical singer to me (perhaps she is one?) and thus was simply perfect for LAIBACH’s adaptation of the ‘Sound Of Music’ material. As one of the many LAIBACH fans who just fell in love with Špiler’s voice and commanding stage persona, her striking absence on the new album is in fact a downer. After all, Špiler managed to add a previously unthinkable female element to the erstwhile testosterone-driven, muscle-flexing all-male Industrial incarnation of LAIBACH. Like a missing piece of a puzzle which we didn’t know it was missing before it actually appeared. Now we miss it again!
The original ‘Sound of Music’ is, as you might expect from a 1950s musical, often very cheesy and pure kitsch, and LAIBACH love to take this to an extreme and contrast it with their gnarling synths and symphonic doom. The purity and innocence of the originals gets a sinister twist and the results are often comical, in a creepy way. Back in the days of ‘NATO’ or ‘WAT’ I would never had imagined Milan Fras singing along with a children’s choir about cream-colored ponies and schnitzel with noodles, but here we go! LAIBACH treat the source material respectfully and stay rather close to the originals, at least in LAIBACH terms. We all remember the total deconstruction of stuff like QUEEN’s ‘One Vision’, ROLLING STONES’ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ or OPUS’ ‘Life is Live’, don’t we? On ‘The Sound Of Music’ LAIBACH are a lot tamer and more benignant with the originals.
The album is closed with three tracks not written by Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Korean traditional ‘Arirang’, ‘The Sound of Gayageum’ performed students of the Kum Song Music School Pyongyang - gayageum is a traditional Korean zither-like string instrument. Surprisingly not featured is ‘We Will Go To Mount Paektu’, a song from the North Korean Pop act [yes, there is such a thing!] MORANBONG BAND, which LAIBACH prepared for their show in Pyongyang but officials asked them not to play it, for whatever reason. Instead we get as the closing track the hilarious ‘Welcome Speech’, which isn’t a song but the address by a representative of the Committee For Cultural Relations at the welcome dinner for the band in Pyongyang. It’s not so much a honorific speech but a really harsh stick for LAIBACH, saying “this band basically jokes and laughs about what they call dictatorships around the world - and their music is terrible” and that LAIBACH would do harm to the socialist system of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea if they would be invited to the country. LAIBACH played there anyway, and it turns out that the North Korean administration knew perfectly what they are doing when they allowed LAIBACH to enter their enigmatic, reclusive country.
With this album and the forthcoming DVD release of the documentary ‘Liberation Day’ the North Korean chapter of LAIBACH should be closed. After ‘The Sound Of Music’ project, and the theatrical soundtrack ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ from last year, it is perhaps about time for LAIBACH to go back to their (musically) more straight-forward moments, or the seductive Wagnerian Synth Pop of ‘Spectre’ from 2014. As great as ‘The Sound Of Music’ is, I for one had enough sugar-coating by now and I like my LAIBACH best when they are mean, menacing and in-yer-face. It’s not as if these days of Trump, Brexit, fake news, anti-science movements and rising authoritarian parties in Western democracies wouldn’t be the perfect invitation for LAIBACH to show their darkest and grimmest side again. So bring it on!
01. The Sound of Music
02. Climb Ev’ry Mountain
05. Favorite Things
06. Lonely Goatherd
07. Sixteen Going On Seventeen
08. So Long, Farewell
09. Maria / Korea
11. The Sound of Gayageum
12. Welcome Speech
Milan Fras - Vocals
Boris Benko - Vocals
Marina Mårtensson - Vocals
Ivan Novak - Synths, programming, production
Janez Gabrič - Drums
Luka Jamnik - Synths
Rok Lopatič - Synths
Igor Vicentić - Piano
Primož Hladnik - Arrangement, production
Choir: Linda Uran, Lorena Krstić, Marija-Katarina Jukić, Mirta Borovac
Children’s choir: Alisa Tenzer, Ana Damij, Camie Ohain, Lotta Zimmermann, Ole Zimmermann, Tabea Tenzer
www.laibach.org / http://www.facebook.com/Laibach
Total: 9 / 10