Rare or Unreleased 42: Einstürzende Oslo

[Toilet Guppies is abandoning its HQ in Oslo for a trip to Berlin for the weekend. In the meantime, what better way to keep you all satiated than some rare recordings by archetypal Berlin high brow rockers, Einstürzende Neubauten, performing live in Oslo in 2008? I've made a selection from the souvenir live CD documenting the gig, sold by the band at the merch table afterwards, and I'm appending some old ramblings found on my laptop (hastily jotted down upon getting home from the concert). Please bear in mind that there are glitches, surface noise, obvious mixing desk adjustments, &c. on the original CD, which is just a document, not a mixed and mastered product finalised for public consumption.]

They stride determined onto the stage and instantly tear into a power demonstration by charging the crowd in one steadily increasing, expanding wave of sound and thought, new song «Die Wellen»—one of the most powerful songs in their already daunting back catalogue. Alexander Hacke’s black adrenaline stare, fixed on any audience member who’d dare challenge it, leaves you in no doubt as to the band’s intent. They seize the crowd’s attention, not so much commanding as demanding our respect, and getting it.

The first time Blixa Bargeld lets out one of his signature high pitched screams, wild applause erupts and he gives Hacke a wry look that reads something like, «It works every time, the suckers.» In a sense the whole stage is filled with such theatrics, gimmickry. (Neubauten’s live act itself being one big gimmick, in a way.) It’s also a totality constantly avoiding you even as the sound envelops you, as you can only behold parts at a time—an unknown invention here, a tool there, a percussive thrashing about over here, a calm strumming over there, as you try to catch up with what’s going on in front of you, always one step behind as you discover a band member has changed tactic, another his instrument, until you turn and suddenly there’s Jochen Arbeit with a dildo. It’s fascinating, of course, at an Einstürzende Neubauten gig to see what makes which sound, and what that might mean in the context of just this song, and I can’t help but wonder if I shouldn’t reject this spectacle and instead close my eyes to truly absorb these songs. After all, this isn’t Stomp! How could visuals, whatever they are, help or even help but disturb the words and melody and sound and mood of «Ein leichtes leises Säuseln» or «Sabrina»? Doesn’t the instant fascination with their outlandish tools, inventions and instruments lessen or cheapen the impact of the songs, the words, the perspective? The fine sustain of the noise is routinely sabotaged by the audience as the Neubauten waft back and forth between noise and quiet, the crowd ruining the whole point, the dynamic interplay of so many of their songs. The band’s crescendos are turned into gimmicks by the audience as they applaud the blunt show of force and cover up the subtlety that follows it (like on «Unvollständigkeit») with their own thoughtless whoops and claps rising before the song’s even finished (which they may be excused for not knowing, but the point is, are they listening?).

I try to listen, but of course yet another part evades me: The language. So perhaps the reason «Unvollständigkeit»—with its murky, subconscous funk and the near-mystic resignation in the words (I mean, who but this poet of physiology could find an ecstatic state of emptiness in the passing of wind?)—perhaps the reason this song is one of my favourites tonight is because, unlike on the album, Bargeld sings it for us in English (and what a perfect lyric it turns out to be), the climactic build-up of noise not being quite what Michael Gira called the «sound of freedom» (where you can «wash my soul away where it never can be found»), but nonetheless it feels as though that’s where it was going.

Of course it would be wishful thinking to indulge in such romantic reverie and not admit the limitations of this or any other fragmentary din, but that’s precisely the point: The potential barely glimpsed in this noise, the possibility of complete immersion in it and some kind of dissolution, is a wish, sincere as they come. When Blixa lulls us with the final, repeated words, «Finally empty,» he’s voicing the hope and the long shot that some day, although you can’t make yourself fully believe it and you didn’t quite attain it in this barrage of free sound just now, you will in fact be emptied… «Unvollständigkeit» («incompleteness») is like a prayer directed at no one, an imaginary dialogue between the constructive and destructive sides to yourself, agreeing in the end that if you can’t be complete, it’s better to be completely empty than incomplete—riddled with voids and a present absence always at your heel. All the little parts, never the whole.

«Dead Friends (Around the Corner)». It’s not only a great song and a faithful rendition (itself impressive), it’s the very moment it unfolds, with you at the very centre of it, wrapped in the words, the music. «There’s a place around the corner / Where your dead friends live.» Nice idea—comforting—but none of my dead friends are there, here or anywhere. Just some haunting memories and a few fading traces we mistake for «ghosts.» In fact there’s nothing round that corner; as the song concludes, «es ist nichts.»

But the crowd will only understand the English chorus—if they’re listening to the words at all—and the German verses are lost on us. Although you can hardly blame the Neubauten for the cultural or linguistic illiteracy of other people, what point, then, is there to this gig if works of art are presented to people unequipped to comprehend them (even literally)? What have we come for, and what has the band come for?

Bargeld puts on a cabaret act, but then again, what can he do? In general with the Neubauten's ongoing project, you get the sense that the fruits of their creative endeavours aren’t the point (like that cliché about the destination and the road). And now that the band has to go through the motions of presenting their songs, promoting them because no lunch is free and they have to contribute something or we certainly won’t fork over money to them (let alone buy their new album), they can only make the best of it.

And they certainly do so tonight. Bargeld—the neutral but piercing observer, the professor who wrote the lyrics—becomes your vaudevillian host for the evening, gesturing with his hands, e-nun-cia-ting with his mouth. There’s a theatrical backdrop and six red, metallic lampshades hanging from the ceiling, one for each member. They do cabaret, they rock out, they show off their unique gear. But can any show or visuals do any of the songs any justice, let alone add anything? When Blixa sings, «It is as black as Malevitch's square / The cold furnace in which we stare / A high pitch on a future scale / It is a starless winternight's tale / It suits you well / It is that black,» there is no amount of set design that can enhance or drive the point home more than it already has been by these sound sculptures coated with deceptively abstract observation—certainly not flooding the stage in red light, as they did.

Don’t get me wrong, it looks great and is perfectly tasteful. But a bigger production nevertheless amounts to a reduction. It’s like the Neubauten’s video for «The Garden»: There’s no way it could do the song justice, but at least the video was subdued and, by being so minimalistic as to barely even exist, it seemed to concede this dilemma. I just can’t help but feel the Neubauten’s work is meant to be created, then left alone for the artist to move on to the next work in progress, leaving the recording as a self-sufficient expression, meant to be heard, not seen. If the song isn’t perfect, then the artist moves on to another creation in his compulsion to attain the perfect expression. If the song is perfect, then it can’t be further perfected by playing it again and again, anyway, whatever the added visuals and gestures. On the contrary.

Not that I don’t appreciate the performance or want the Neubauten to stop touring. Their performances are stunning. But there’s something like a paradox here; the enjoyment of the performance takes something away from the songs, transforms them into some other art work. A bigger, yet lesser one, and I don’t think anyone can say that of their early work (which was exactly the opposite). The Neubauten have gone from being a live band releasing records that couldn’t quite capture their momentous, momentary intensity, to being a studio band playing shows that, however great, cannot expand upon the impact of the recorded songs. Yet what we do see and hear is still astonishing.

But that’s «Sabrina» I'm thinking of here, and they didn’t play that one until later. For now it’s still «Dead Friends (Around the Corner)», which reminds me of the closing monologue in No Country for Old Men, where the main character recounts a dream wherein he saw his deceased father riding away into the night, carrying a fire. This dream is the perfect image of the desperate comfort—the ultimate wishful thought beyond which the mind simply cannot reach, whether you use a superstititous tactic like your friends tending the light at the end of the tunnel, or a no-nonsense and foolhardy (and always unsatisfying) attempt at dismissing such wishful thinking in the face of what we only know as the unknown. The comfort—of the «light at the end of the tunnel» (or «dead friends waiting just round the corner»)—is a sort of pre-emptive expression of sorrow. It anticipates the inevitable loss of everyone and everything (including, perhaps, yourself), and for the brief moment when it’s bearable, it mourns that loss. The expression of the fear of death takes the shape of superstition’s desperate, yet ultimately inadequate reassurance. The superstition pretends to counter this fear, but is actually a channel for it, because deep down we know that we don’t know, only that this whatever-it-is is inevitable. And there’s the distinct possibility that, once it comes, it is «nichts,» nothing. And there cannot be any larger grief than the loss of everything.

Of course, we don’t know that this series of experiences, of miraculous moments of consciousness we call living will end upon «death». It’s just the idea; the gnawing notion that nothing, not even that last hope of love, can do anything in the face of the terror of the end of everything—of not only all that and all those you know and love, but of everything you possibly could know or love. That possibility. And that’s enough. Suddenly we produce—project—a light. Or friends.

In «Dead Friends», Bargeld has pinpointed the only real comfort we can take: not the irresistable wish that there are dead friends waiting for us, but the knowledge that they have turned the corner too, so that when it’s our turn we won’t be the only one. For now, though, I look around and everyone just digs that hypnotic Neubauten groove and it’s like the words could be anything and really, how many Norwegians listen to foreign lyrics, let alone understand German? It's just atmosphere, but that atmosphere is incomplete at best and meaningless at worst without the words, so the songs seem lost.

But fuck it, that’s for sitting in your armchair listening to the CD in 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound in the comfort of your own sterile environment. Up on the stage, the players are clearly enjoying themselves, as are the mesmerised members of the crowd. This is entertainment; Bargeld makes his dramatic gestures and grimaces, twitches his hands and face and is acting up there and it’s not like Michael Gira or Diamanda Galás on a good night (which is a bad night, I guess, like Devendra Banhart says, «bad things in a good way»), but the Neubauten deliver a damn good show.

But it’s more than that, of course. The songs themselves wouldn’t have it any other way. They can’t help it. There’s melancholy and anxiety and the most fundamental questions brought into things so everyday and mundane it takes a Blixa Bargeld to draw our lazy attention to it. Yet there’s this nagging feeling that this is lost on the crowd. (On me, too, as I’m having these distracting thoughts in the middle of it all.) People are joyous that the performance is so good, so deft and committed, that the meaning of the songs is all but cancelled out. Whatever struggle is described, so abstractly but accurately, obscurely yet illuminatingly, is just the joy of sound to the crowd, as it feeds off the creative energy up there on the stage.

Now, I can’t ever recall seeing, in whatever description or review of the Neubauten, the words «fun» or «humour.» But Blixa’s company is called Bargeld Entertainment for a reason. There are the bizarre musical inventions and uses; Hacke and NU Unruh laughing at each other; the repartée gently disarming any hecklers… At one point, while introducing «suseJ», Bargeld describes the song as a dialogue between the «old Blixa and the young Blixa, or the old Blixa and the new Blixa,» which, beyond the clever wordplay, must surely be one of his best aphorisms, with all that it implies about time, identity, impermanence, regret, hope, language…

And then of course there’s Neubauten’s own mischievous Gyro Gearloose, responsible for constructing the most unlikely instruments that you steal glances at, all through the show (wondering and guessing how and what it’ll be used for, and how it’ll sound), randomly dropping small pieces of metal from containers onto the stage, at one point dressing up in what looks like a plastic cone hat whilst reciting Dada sound poetry… («Hawonnnti!»)

Whereas the gig began with the existential uncertainty of «Die Wellen», it ends with improv comedy courtesy of Dave—the band's by now signature card game. For years now, the Neubauten have ended concerts with «Rampen»—improvisations during the encore that often end up as points of departure for future compositions. This strategy has been expanded to include «Dave»: each band member picks around three cards upon which are written key words—anything from a tuning to a type of material to any kind of adverb or adjective—which give loose instructions, guiding each member's contribution to a kind of jam. On this particular night, Australian tour member Ash Wednesday draws a Dave card and, not being able to read German, walks around, seemingly not knowing quite what to do… Soon enough, it transpires his card is blank.

Unfortunately, this extended part of the encore could not fit onto the souvenir CD, even though it was a high point of the gig. In fact, it's in the Dave/Rampen that the audience gets to witness creation, which is really the raison d'être for the current incarnation of the Neubauten. Instead of beholding a rehashing of older ideas (that perhaps work better as fresher, one-off works of art, self-sufficient and complete, repeated not in inadequate attempts at recreating the creative moment but as documentation of that moment, a CD on your stereo, lyric sheet in hand), with the Dave Rampe we see and take part in the spontaneous energy of creativity. The Neubauten are no longer about the explosive, immolating energy of creation-as-destruction, as much as creation as an expansion, a flowering, from consciousness, or from the word, so to speak. The solution to the Neubauten's problem—or my problem with the Neubauten—lies in this kind of performance. Why cater to the expectations of fans?

Not that the Neubauten do that; whatever they choose to play, revered classics from the old Neubauten line-up are not among them. Which is only one of the things separating Neubauten from other showmen. They play on their own terms. Which means I should shut up now, let them get on with it. It's only rock'n'roll.

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