Industrial strength

Few bands inspire as many different reactions as Slovenian collective Laibach

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Filmed during their 2004 US tour, Laibach's Divided States of America DVD (Mute) gives a good idea of the freak show that comes out of the woodwork to see the group's rare performances.

The DVD focuses on the tense political climate and general ugliness of America during the weeks following George W. Bush's reelection, and there's enough sardonic anti-American sentiment in it to satisfy anyone who contemplated moving to Canada on Nov. 3, 2004. Much of the documentary involves interviews with Laibach concertgoers: a motley assortment that includes a self-proclaimed Church of Satan representative, a man who identifies himself as a fascist (Laibach's "political orientation," he confesses, "is perhaps different than mine"), and an ordinary-looking father with his two young daughters in tow.

"The beat was totally infectious," recounts another interviewee. "My body couldn't help but move."

Few bands inspire as many different reactions as the Slovenian collective, who are touring the States for the first time since 2004 and have been around since 1980, when Slovenia was, of course, still part of Yugoslavia. Are they fascist sympathizers? Is Laibach communist? Or is it all just a big joke? At one point during the DVD, an interviewer asks the outfit about the apparent Nazi-esque garb in one of their tour posters (a Laibach member replies that it's actually American dress the person is wearing). Another journalist asks them why they promote Jesus and Christianity (one of their albums is titled Jesus Christ Superstars [Mute, 1996]). And as the fan quoted above proves, some people just like those "infectious" beats.

I imagine Laibach enjoy seeing the confusion they create, although there have been times when it's caused legitimate problems for them — including a ban against playing in their hometown of Ljubljana in the early 1980s and several bomb threats at concerts during the '90s.

Just what are Laibach trying to say, though? I don't think there's a clear-cut answer, but all you have to do is spend a little time with their back catalog to notice recurring themes: religion, fascism, war, patriotism and nationalism, and pop music itself. They've spent their career mocking these institutions and -isms, largely by turning them inward on themselves, exploiting and sullying them at the same time — after all, what could be more totalitarian than those nonstop techno beats? Yet they mock in such a straight-faced manner that many people seem to miss the wit. In the largely humorless landscape of industrial music, that sensibility is perhaps Laibach's biggest saving grace.

Last year's Volk (Mute) resurrects many of these themes. The disc consists of electro-symphonic renderings of various national anthems, topped off by Milan Fras's inimitable spoken-word vocals. (Anyone who thinks it's a celebration of cultural diversity or patriotism need only refer to the liner notes, where they quote a repugnant passage from a US foreign policy memo titled "In Praise of Cultural Imperialism.") They've taken on the Beatles and the Stones before (1988's Let It Be and 1990's Sympathy for the Devil, both on Mute), but the sly message here is that these national anthems are our ultimate pop songs. Or something like that.

As usual with Laibach, much of the interest lies in Fras's ominous-sounding, often darkly funny vocals and lyrics. But the arrangements here are among the most stirring ones they've come up with since Opus Dei (Mute, 1987), although admittedly, some of their intervening work suffered from gaudy production and instantly dated electronic sounds. Best of all is "Rossiya (Russia)," with its children's choir, wiggly synthesizers, and gently sweeping strings.

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