Einsturzende Neubauten

at Metro, April 30

Much as I love to thumb through ’em myself, I fear rock encyclopedias exert a pernicious influence on the way people think about music. History isn’t really just a long series of movements and battles and critical moments–it only seems that way when you press it out flat in a book like one of Lady Cottington’s squashed fairies. What good music and good history books do is get the imagination moving in 3-D. The Velvet Underground and Television both broke up more than a quarter century ago, but unless you were there it really matters not a whit when their records were made–certainly not to the 22-year-old who’s just heard them for the first time or the 35-year-old who can tell you exactly where she was when she did.

Imagine being in a band that’s still very much an ongoing concern and having your historical moment established as circa 1983. That was the year Einsturzende Neubauten crept onto a scene that was more ready for them than they knew, scaring people with their aural impressions of social anarchy and crumbling infrastructure. (That is, I guess, the crucial factor in anyone’s timeline placement–whenever it was that you had the power to freak people’s shit.) Einsturzende Neubauten were by no means alone in this moment, nor were they the first to have such a moment–Throbbing Gristle fans were likely not scared. But their version of early industrial music’s riot-at-the-construction-site aesthetic stuck harder than, say, SPK’s. I chalk it up at least partly to the power of pop: their hooks were as unrelenting as any you’d find in the Madonnagum they were ostensibly competing with. If something about their sound made you picture them as street-stalking Teutonic reptiles who’d sneak into the bedrooms of innocent virgins at night and inject them with heroin while they slept, well, that was just your overactive imagination at work–they were just art students, after all.

That’s how they’re fixed in many minds, but they’re nowhere near that now, nor have they been for a long time. Like the older artists they are, bored to the gills with postadolescent drama, over the last several albums they’ve grown cooler, cleaner, and less abrasive, retreating–or is that advancing?–into much softer turf. “The Garden,” from 1996’s Ende Neu, sounded like a manifesto, the tension between Zen austerity and ripening romanticism eliciting the appropriate goose bumps. And though the title of 2000’s Silence Is Sexy might have sounded better in German, it presented an engaging paradox: using sound to explore and celebrate silence.

The new Einsturzende Neubauten do have new fans: that’s partly who paid for their new Perpetuum Mobile (Mute). Fans can become “supporters” at their Web site, www.neubauten.org, where 35 euros buys all sorts of bennies, including recordings of as-yet-unreleased songs, the privilege of watching the band record via web-cam, and, most remarkably, the right to give feedback on the works in progress. Front man Blixa Bargeld claims that a few songs on the new album might not have made it to the final stage at all if fans hadn’t lobbied for them.

Aside from violating the sanctity of the creative cocoon and potentially turning a large segment of the audience into that friend of the drummer’s who won’t get off the leather couch, this opens a delicious can of worms–slippery received notions about who music is made for and who pays for it and how. The discussion forums on the site can get mighty contentious, with fans being quite literally personally invested in the band’s sound, and a class gap of sorts has emerged between supporters and non- .

Sonically, Perpetuum Mobile balances delicately between reflection and aggression, the clanging metallics and various imposing percussion always serving the otherwise understated songs. Most of the album is, as usual, auf deutsch, and if you don’t sprechen you might be intimidated: When Bargeld lapses into English with “life on other planets…is difficult!” at the end of “Selbstportrait mit Kater,” his icy severity had me convinced he was serious. That is, until I went to the translated lyrics and discovered that Kater means “hangover” and that the song contains such delirious pronouncements as “Astronomy has discovered the schnapps in space” and “I commit incest with the stars.”

Maybe the humor comes across better onstage: in front of a packed house at Metro last week (including quite a few supporters, if the sign-up sheet at the front door was any indication) the band was practically jovial, even those members largely hidden behind angular, artistic pieces of noise-producing equipment that wouldn’t look too alien to anyone acquainted with the Blue Man Group. Neubauten these days weight their sets toward the beautiful–I took the way the whole front line performed barefoot as a signal there’d be no dangerous shrapnel. The collection of ingenious instruments (given nicknames like “Pythagoras” and “Bangy Bangy”) still dominates the stage, but it looks more like grandpa’s attic of weird treasures than the dismembered machinery of yore.

Noise takes its place in the lineup as one instrument of many, not a dominating force, and the distorted, enhanced sample of a heartbeat (Bargeld’s) that forms the base of “Neun Arme” (from 1983) is perhaps the most haunting noise of them all. This doesn’t keep the rhythmic interplay of “Haus der Luge” (from ’89) from sending the human sea into a stormy roil, but there was no point in this show where I seriously regretted forgetting my earplugs.

The urban decay and social anxiety that were the center of Neubauten’s aesthetic 20 years ago have given way to, of all things, nature. Their music now aims to echo the complex patterns of cells, perhaps, or particles–the sounds of a universe that is neither benign nor malign but simply a wonderous complexity with its own ends, in which we are rather insignificant. Bargeld notes that the dominant theme of Perpetuum Mobile is the wind, a presence that the band perhaps intends to have blowing through the copious empty spaces in the music, evoked by a hiss or a low electronic moan or the image of a bird flying to a remote mountain top. The world to date has not produced the promised apocalypse of the mid-80s, but Einsturzende Neubauten is playing as if it has, looking out on a blasted landscape and not shedding too many tears over the human structures lost. They’re preoccupied with singing back into existence that which was here before us and hopefully will be long after we’re gone.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.