Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Laibach - Opus Dei (1987)

I first heard this at the home of my friend Anders one new year's eve, and I was kind of shocked. I'd heard of Laibach and seen things mentioned in Sounds, but had assumed them to be one of those groups beloved of David Tibet, therefore featuring bells, monks chanting, windy noises and probably something being read out from some dense philosophical text amounting to a record which would be fine providing no-one expected you to sit down and listen to the thing. Opus Dei was conversely over the top, ludicrously stern, funny, and difficult to resist; and the funny part lay in the possibility that maybe they actually meant it. Anders, one of the most sardonic people I've ever known, was endlessly amused. He waved the inner sleeve at me so I could see the massive swastika formed from four axes bound together much like the Italian fasces symbol beloved of Mussolini.

'What's that about, eh lads?' Anders chortled at the sleeve, as though speaking through it to directly address Laibach in person.

So are they or aren't they?

Ignoring more recent material on the grounds of my not having heard much of it - recent here meaning everything since 1992's Kapital, which never really grabbed me - Laibach represents a satire of totalitarian and authoritarian politics utilising pseudo-classical images and sounds pushed to a Teutonic extreme which borders on parody, without ever quite fully crossing over into Mel Brooks or Freddie Starr territory. This, as one or two of you will have noticed, leaves room for ambiguity, because their satire is more or less indistinguishable from the real thing. I suspect this is on purpose, unless we allow for the possibility that it actually is the real thing playing the get out of jail free card in the name of art. Opus Dei in particular attempts to stir the listener with the same classical pomp which worked so well for Elgar and others, essentially forcing us to gaze into what amounts to Third Reich propaganda, appealing to our primitive patriotism - as Orwell called it - and daring us to deny that we too are moved, daring us to remain unstirred, and to dispute with a straight face that just a little bit came out of the end. Laibach represent a study in the appeal of Fascist and Nationalist imagery, because that's what they set forth for our consideration, stone faced and without any obvious trace of irony.

I console myself with the idea that the point of this is just how deeply fucking ludicrous am I, asking are they or aren't they as they recreate the Nuremberg rallies in a rock video.

Nevertheless, despite everything, despite the repurposed art of Werner Peiner - a favourite of both Hitler and Der Blutharsch - despite Queen's One Vision seemingly rewritten as One Race, despite those troubling in-character interviews - not least the dark mutterings of supposed Jewish infiltration of the music industry which hopefully I imagined because I don't seem to be able to find any reference to them now - I genuinely don't believe that they are. Interviewed by Peek-a-Boo magazine, Laibach's spokesman reports:

You can find Nietzsche all over our work, although we are in principle not Nietzscheans, we consider ourselves Duchampians.

This squares with the axe-swastika I mentioned being nicked from one of John Heartfield's anti-Nazi posters - no longer a symbol of an ideology so much as of an ideology revealed as a brutal, corrupting influence; but of course this aspect only becomes clear under close scrutiny, doubtless so as to preserve the ambiguity; and there's ambiguity everywhere you look on this record. In fact, it's the one thing which is stated openly, as on F.I.A.T., itself seemingly titled so as to hold back from its most obvious suggestion of shedding light upon things we don't understand.

You are in black darkness and confusion.
You have been hugger-muggered, and carom-shotted into a war, and you know nothing about it.
You know nothing about the forces that caused it...
...For you know next to nothing.
You ought not to be in this war.
You cannot win this war.

The darkness and confusion is reiterated in How the West Was Won in which the dumb can only guess and gaze on, which seems significant in regard to what Laibach are actually saying. It isn't that they don't actually say anything, but their overpowering authoritarian neoclassicism transmits none of the content which traditionally comes with the form. There's no actual nationalism, no racism, no dubious invocation of any lost golden age, indeed none of the stuff with which the lyrics of Death in June are positively dripping, and the closest we come are neutered quotations bearing no more resemblance to the original source than do the covers of Queen or power-balladeers Opus.

Where the sort of nationalism to which Laibach alludes tends to occur as a social phenomenon, populist yet often on the fringes of the mainstream as with Skrewdriver, Von Thronstahl or any other actual fans of Adolf Hitler you care to mention, Laibach are a definitively post-modern repurposing of authoritarian archetypes and as such, for better or worse, are best understood as a living breathing art installation. It's satire like Jeff Koons is satire because it makes no bones about presenting the appearance of the actual thing it purports to present. It's the appeal of jackboots on the march, flags in the breeze, chests bursting with pride at the sound of drums and trumpets, and you're free to respond as it expects you to respond, which must surely reflect the question back at the listener, asking what does your response say about you?

Nova Akropola, the previous one, was a little less easily decoded, being very much a Slovenian thing, and as I've discovered, Yugoslavian humour seems to be an unusually layered and complex deal which doesn't always make sense to outsiders such as myself. Opus Dei however sets its sights firmly on the west, and the hypocrisy of the west, drawing parallels between the mass psychology of Fascism and the cult of rock and celebrity, then closing with a Churchill speech cut from the exact same cloth as everything else which has spent the last thirty minutes performing blitzkrieg on our lugholes.

Of course, as we've seen, such subtleties are generally beyond the comprehension of your average Tom, Dick or Tony, and as Tom Hawking of Flavourwire writes regarding what he terms Laibach's use of shock imagery:

It's an entirely self-indulgent, narrow-minded form of "protest" as performance (not the other way around), showing off a pretence of subversiveness at the expense of the feelings of actual oppressed groups. Really, what this means doing is using real tragedies as a springboard for your own self-serving needs. For a gaggle of white gentiles from a country whose Jewish population hovers somewhere around five hundred, it isn't a good look.

He has a point, although it refers to how Laibach are perceived more than it does to whatever the hell they may be trying to say; but then how they say it must surely be informed by a concern for the fidelity of the transmitted signal, beyond which I suppose we get into all sorts of circular debates about what an artist should be able to say - in which case Laibach still leave us looking like craven wankers, and maybe that is the point.

It's a wonderful album, and that's why it's terrible.

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