Between & Beyond: Industrialization

I had the opportunity to listen to Einstürzende Neubauten’s latest album. It’s called Lament. If you don’t know, Neubauten is a long-running German band that has been making cutting-edge experimental music for about 34 years. I have been a fan for a good long while, and I was excited at the announcement of this new material. It’s a little bit different in its form than their past output, or really any band’s output. I mean, that’s almost true of every Neubauten album. They are considered grandfathers of industrial music but even over their long tenure their sound has always changed and evolved. I’m of the mindset that it has aged finely. Either way, Lament is something of a concept album. It’s meant to be a performance piece that delves into the history of World War I.

If you know Neubauten, you kind of know what to expect from this idea. Which is to say, you can understand how utterly brilliant this piece of art is. That was the first thing to hit me really; in a world saturated with music, this stands out as a piece of art, and it’s been a good long while since I have encountered a true work of art. It’s simultaneously intellectual and emotional in its form and content; it’s sardonic and irreverent while simultaneously being genuine and utterly profound.

Neubauten stands as the perfect band to tackle the subject. The lineage of German experimental music is rich, and it’s interesting how Neubauten further solidifies their place in it with this piece. In the late ’60s, a crop of forward thinking bands came out of Germany. The original group of artists includes Amon Duul, Ash Ra Tempel, Neu, and Tangerine Dream. Their loose collective mission centered on the idea of recreating German culture in the shadow of World War II. The devastation both economically and culturally was embedded deep into the climate at the time. The artists sought a rebirth. They wanted to make music not anchored in any past. They wanted a clean start and a chance for redemption.

Neubauten stands firmly in this tradition as they have always been aware of the cultural context in which they operate. One can consider industrial music as a statement in and of itself. The name of the band translates to “Collapsing New Buildings” and their series of boxed sets is titled “Strategies Against Architecture.” If the so-called Krautrock bands of the late ’60s were a response to the post-war devastation in Germany, Neubauten stands as a response to the far reaching global post-war boon that changed the face of human life all over the planet. Industrial music, to me, is about taking the awful and ugly elements of a dehumanized existence and repurposing them for song; song that both exposes and highlights the ugliness and seeks to transcend and transform it back into beauty. Thinking of how World War I saw the mechanization of slaughter and destruction, this project has always been waiting to be conceived.

Much of the conceit of the album is that World War I has never really ended. The same power struggles that caused the war back then have continued throughout history through the wars fought since, large and small. A song early in the album appropriates the letters exchanged between Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia, but the names used as the letters are sung back and forth in a duet are “Willy” and “Nicky.” Again, it’s a moment of irreverence, but it also serves to humanize. In the hindsight of history, we can often over-conceptualize the run-up to a war, but the exchange here reminds us that all events unfold according to the hopes, fears, and whims of the powerful, who just also so happen to be human beings.

So, it’s here that I take away the idea that it’s not just the struggle of nations that has perpetuated itself, but some fundamental aspect of humanity that has perpetuated itself. In our day and age, here and now, we seem on the brink of disaster just as much as Europe did on the brink of World War I. This week two Palestinians attacked a synagogue in Jerusalem. Inside, they slaughtered worshippers with a butcher’s knife and a gun. This is no doubt a tragic and reprehensible incident. Still, on the news I heard President Obama refer to the perpetrators as “extremists.” This title reminded me of Bill Maher and his fight against those who seek to label him as an Islamophobe.

My point is that the problem is dehumanization. When others are labeled as extremists, we put ourselves in the position of sanity and moral superiority. Again, no matter the plight, I oppose violence as a solution. Violence in and of itself is dehumanizing. But, we must remember that American extremism exists. Extreme greed. Extreme arrogance. Extreme exceptionalism. These compose the water of culture in which we swim. These are the elements we are so close to that we become blind to them. These are the byproducts of industrialization. These have been haunting the Earth for too long.