Original Issue: 1994 Mute Records (CDSTUMM121) Buy it here!!!
Margot-meter: 4,5 moons / 5
Following the 1992's "Kapital" and the launch of their new republic (don't ask), Laibach are back. You may remember their reinvention of Queen's "One Vision" as stirring Volk anthem, which somehow managed to highlight some peculiarly common ground between Nuremberg and Freddie Mercury ("Ein Fleisch!/Ein Mensch..."). You may even remember their slow detonation of "Sympathy For The Devil", reinvented as a funereal postcard from hell. Laibach have always been scary and hilarious - mostly at the same time. "NATO", I'm delighted to say, exceeds even their most burlesque moments.
Apparently, "NATO" is inspired by the state of flux gripping Eastern Europe. But don't let that put you off the fact that Laibach's penchant for dignying silly pop songs like Status Quo's "In The Army Now" with absurdly operatic pomp and Teutonic portent, reveals them to be more akin to a kind of solemn Slovenian Frank Sidebottom. On Europe's "The Final Countdown" Milan scarily intones, "We're heading for Venus/But still we stand tall", and immediately the poodle-permed rockers become ashen-faced harbringers of the apocalypse. Elsewhere, the album's theme of changing world orders takes the Holst ("The Planets"), Pink Floyd ("Dogs Of War") and Edwin Star ("War"), relocated within Laibach's grand vision of a Europe in flux at the of the millennium. Nostradamus, Wagner, Giorgio Moroder and the Warsaw Pact make ideal bedfellows. Quite how Laibach have kept a straight face for so long, is something I'll never understand. I wouldn't have them any other way though.
Peter Paphides, Time Out, 19 - 26 October 1994
It's always been very difficult to pin Laibach down to a particular style. Certain ingredients of their sound (a dark orchestral feel, heavily accented, sepulchral vocals) have remained relatively constant, and allowed the easy identification of their work. However, the context within which those characteristic features are used has varified widely. They've done everything from stage-related concept albums such as "Macbeth" to all - cover releases like "Let It Be" and "Sympathy For The Devil".
"NATO" fuses both of these extremes into a seamless whole, an album with a consistent theme that is implemented entirely through cover versions. Rather than stick with a single artist, the group have selected material from a number of sources and fed it through the Laibach mincer. Not all of the songs chosen were originally on the theme of war, but given their talent for making almost anything sound like it was recorded at a Red Army requiem disco, this isn't important.
First up is "NATO" itself. At some time in the dim distant past this track was Gustav Holst's "Mars" but Laibach have, in typically awkward fashion, taken the most intrinsically warlike piece of music on the album, and added a dance beat and assorted electronic burbles to produce a bizarre cross of full orchestra and lightweight techno that updates Holst's pre - First World War piece to an age of electronic warfare and laser - guided munitions. It works, but Laibach's interpretation is rather less doom - laden than the original, allowing it to meet the other metamorphosed covers here halfway.
Edwin Starr's "War" is equally unconventional. Part contemporary techno, part Laibach theatrics, the lyrics here have been cleverly altered so that Starr's original rhetorical question of "War - what is good for?" is for once actually answered. Science, religion, domination and communication, according to Laibach. More specifically, they list (among others) GM, IBM, Newsweek, CNN, Universal, Siemens, Sony... the list goes on. Very cleverly done, both musically and lyrically, even if Laibach's list of martial benefactors seems a little odd at times. Sony? Aren't they purely a consumer electronics firm? Or did I somehow miss the launch of the Bombman?
The first single taken from this album, a cover of Europe's "The Final Countdown", was a highly commercial mixture of lightweight Euro - disco and the usual Laibach ingredients. When I heard the single, I suspected the album version would be rather less explicitly dancefloor friendly.
I was right, but not to be expected degree. The version here does indeed suggest that the Pet Shop Boys have run off to a remote Balkan castle and begun experimenting with a pipe organ the size of a house and a heavily accented choir, but it's still rather more poppy and rather less overblown and pompous than I'd hoped. Still, it's pretty good and would certainly have Joey Tempest turning in his grave if he was dead in anything but a musical sense.
The thought of Laibach covering Status Quo is strange enough in itself but the blunt reality of it is stranger still. Their rendition of "In The Army Now" is recognizable, but reshapes the song in Laibach's own image as a blend of grandiose choral sequences and a dance beat. It works well but there's really not more I can say about it. Pink Floyd's "Dogs Of War" gets a similar treatment. I'm not familiar with the original, but regardless of how it originally sounded it's now a high BPM techno track with a choir and those gravelly Slovenian tones over the top. Again, it works well although it's difficult to say exactly why.
Probably the most faithful cover here is that of DAF's "Alle Gegen Alle". This is perhaps due to the stark minimalism of the original - there was so little to it to begin with that you can't really add all that much if you want it to remain recognizable. On the top of this, let's face it, even Shirley Temple would sound like DAF if she were to bark German lyrics over a stripped - down militaristic dance beat. Musically, it's very close to the original, but adds the inevitable Laibach vocals and choir, plus an odd choral bridge that suggests Laibach are considering adding the track to a 30s musical spectacular about the Nuremberg rallies.
The next track finds Laibach indulging in a little lyrical meddling, metamorphosing "Indian Reservation" into "National Reservation" with appropriate lyrical changes to slant the song towards the situation of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. It's perhaps not entirely fair to liken the current situation of the Eastern European states to that of native Americans, but musically the track's interesting enough and trundles along nicely.
Their interpretation of the old Zagen And Evans hit "In The Year 2525" hits some rather more firmly. The song was always rather more suited musically to their current approach than most of the material here, but Laibach have done some very interesting things to the track lyrically, replacing the umpteen - thousand years of future history chronicled by the original by a gloomy and decidedly apocalyptic history of the period 1994 - 1999. Those dark Slovenian vocals are perfect here, and manage to convey an incredible sense of world weariness, cynicism and sadness. The minimalist backing track of a thunderous heartbeat works well too.
The album is rounded off by the song I couldn't trace the original of. I know that it was originally "March On River Drina" (read: The War God Mars on River Drina, read: March On River Drina - which is a Serbian military marching anthem from the First World War) but that's about it - the credits for the original versions are, alas, printed rather illegibly on the disc itself rather than in the booklet. It looks like it was composed by Stanislav Binicki, but I'm unsure of the spelling of that surname and with my musical encyclopedia inaccessible can't confirm it. Anyway, regardless of the composer, Laibach's arrangement of the track is excellent. It begins in a dark and warlike vein, punctuated by male and female choirs, eerie moans and groans and a militaristic drumbeat before veering into a more contemporary vein. The slightly cheesy brass is a little odd - one picture Captain Kirk fighting a man in a lizard suit for the hand of a woman with green hair rather than anything military, and the choir sometimes suggests the flying monkeys from the Wizard Of Oz, but there you have it. Very enjoyable, even if it doesn't quite have the desired effect.
Overall, I'm very impressed. As always, it's difficult to compare this to any prior Laibach releases since they never seem to head in quite the same direction twice in succession. However, it's more likely to appeal to those who're into the group's cover material such as "Let It Be" than those who like "Macbeth" or their early work.
The interest here lies less in Laibach's distinctive take - no - prisoners approach to covering other people's material than in what their reinterpretations actually say. There's less parody here than before, with Laibach apparently focusing less on a demolition job of the artists covered than on using their material to get Laibach's own point across.
Of course, that's not to say that the material here couldn't be enjoyed in a parodic sense - "Final Countdown" is, for example, a fine example of the total war approach to cover versions that Laibach have used in the past. There's more to this on though, and it's by turns beautiful and terrible, although not quite to the same degree as their best material. Definitely worth a listen though, and as good an introduction to their more recent sound as anything they've put out in the past few years.
Al Crawford - email@example.com