Slovenian industrial provocateurs Laibach been subverting musical and political clichés for over three decades now, but their latest project, a reworking of The Sound of Music premiered in Pynonyang as North Korea’s first ever rock gig, has brought them their highest attention yet.
The concept is nothing short of genius; famed for their sinister subversion of cover versions, they had to perform music that would be known in the country, and as pace that other most famous Slovenian, Slavoj Zizek, The Sound of Music is an anti-Fascist musical that appeals to Fascist impulses, it’s made for the bill. This isn’t the first time that The Sound of Music has been appropriated as found object of course. It has memorably inspired artists from Johan Grimonprez to John Coltrane – but no one has embraced it in all its absurdity as Laibach have here.
Some bands have a support act – supporting Laibach would probably be a thankless task, so they have what appears to be a field recording of an Alpine pastoral scene to lull us into a false sense of security.
There are no original members of the band onstage here, and it doesn’t matter, as Laibach have always been a conceptual project more than a band, an exploration of collectivism rather than individualism. However, Milan Fras still elicits cheers when he comes onstage, in white robes and customary head gear. And his rasping growl really helps take these songs to darker new places. Well-known songs we’ve learned to take for granted from the musical are subtly distorted to expose their hollowness and bombast, yet can be simultaneously seductive. This reaches a zenith with Sixteen Going on Seventeen, an exemplary example of how Laibach approach a cover version and tease out the potential meanings, the hidden ideologies, without changing a word. Fras’s atavistic growl exposes the sinister, quasi paedophiliac subtext of the song to appallingly comic effect, which couldn’t be more on point for a week which has seen the public disgrace of Michael Jackson and the cancellation of a Ryan Adams tour.
Stunning visuals complement the music to perfection, as on My Favourite Things, an orgy of kitsch imagery, childlike emojis collapsing on Korean imagery, like being trapped in a Jeff Koons come to life.
As the sublime lapses into the ridiculous to be spat out the other end as sublime again, we reminded that while totalitarian regimes’ aesthetics often approach the condition of kitsch, kitsch can be equally oppressive, as on Maria/Korea, which can only be described as uber kitsch.
What is the Problem with Korea? Laibach have no answers, but have engaged with the country on their own terms far more successfully than Donald Trump has.
After an interval, the second half of the gig turns much darker, as the band take on their earliest records recorded as Laibach, sung in German and Slovenian, heavy industrial pieces with angular jazz keyboard flourishes exploring their country’s troubled and contested background.
The imagery turns markedly darker too, primarily reds and blacks playing with Communist and totalitarian motifs.
Things turn lighter though for the encore, where the band finally play one of their ‘hits’, Sympathy For the Devil, one of their straighter covers, and two songs from the upcoming Iron Sky II, a Nazis in space film which they’ve scored.
It all ends hilariously, and most unexpectedly, with Fras in a cowboy hat performing a country and western tune, Surfing Through the Galaxy, to a backdrop of retro space invaders. Then, in a final puncturing of the illusion of spontaneity that surrounds encores, the credits for the encore appear onscreen behind them.
As Europe witnesses a resurgence of neofascism and despots increasingly rule the world, Laibach – unlike most bands from the 80s – only become more, rather than less relevant, by the year. We need them more than ever, if only to provide some laughter amongst the ruins of Western democracy.
Words by Brian Beadie
Photos by Karen Willen