"Wir brauchen bloss
ein Leitbild fuer die Welt."
Opus Dei (Mute Records, 1987) was Laibach's fourth studio album. It was the first to have a wide international release outside Eastern Europe, and although it did not sell in great quantities, it contains two of the group's most memorable songs. You have probably heard one of them.
Laibach formed in 1980, in Slovenia, although in 1980 it was called the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, and it was part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was called Yugoslavia by you and I. Yugoslavia was a Communist state in Eastern Europe, but it was independent of the USSR. Like all of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia had suffered terribly throughout the Second World War, first at the hands of the Germans, and then at the hands of the Yugoslavians, who formed rival resistance groups to overthrow the Nazis and each other. The goal was to dominate post-war Yugoslavia. In the end, the faction led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito were victorious. No doubt Stalin clapped his hands with glee at the thought of another new puppet state to play with, but he was thwarted. Tito broke from the USSR in 1948, which must have taken some guts. Until 1980 Tito was master of Yugoslavia, and it was his Yugoslavia, not Stalin's. I do not know what it was like, in Yugoslavia. I am not from Yugoslavia, and I have never been there; I cannot go there today because it no longer exists.
Tito died in May 1980, and Laibach formed shortly after. Laibach was the German name of the band's home town, Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. After Tito's death the component parts of Yugoslavia remained united, but that was because there were armed state security agents all over the place. Nonetheless cracks were showing, and Laibach could see a future Yugoslavia splitting into a dozen bitter factions. The band pre-emptively declared themselves an independent state, the NSK. They held art events, where they exhibited posters of their new land. They gave out passports. They dressed in military uniforms, with their own flag and their own badge, and they cropped their hair short. They seemed very intense, and very serious. The authorities were upset with Laibach. I imagine that the authorities were upset with Laibach for being young, and for being a rock band, and for suggesting that the Yugoslavian state was not worth worshipping. The band was not quite prohibited. Laibach was forbidden from using its name in promotional posters and so forth, and instead had to use a symbol, a big + sign. In 1981 the bandmembers were called up to do their national service in the Yugoslavian army, which may in retrospect have been a bad idea. A generation of post-war British conscripts learned to despise authority during the period of Britain's national service. I cannot imagine the effect it had in Yugoslavia, apart from training generations of Yugoslavians to fight with bayonets, and how to keep their boots clean.
Laibach was forbidden from releasing records inside Yugoslavia, and consequently their early work was bounced between small independent European record labels. This changed in 1986, when Laibach came to the attention of Daniel Miller, head of Britain's Mute Records. At that time Mute Records was part of Britain's healthy independent music scene. It was one of those independent labels that had a large roster of unsellable, obscure acts (including Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire), which were funded by the profits of a small number of lucrative, popular acts (in this case Depeche Mode, and also Yazoo and Erasure; which is to say that Mute Records owed everything to Vince Clarke). Miller arranged to release Laibach's work in the UK, and thus Opus Dei became their first international release. It was a break in style from the group's previous album, Nova Akropola. Laibach's early work nowadays sounds like a lot of angry clanging noises, but for Opus Dei they tempered the dark industrial industrial darkness with hummable tunes and slick electric pop production. Laibach did not sell many records in Britain, and the British music press basically ignored them, but the group was sufficiently exotic to win a small following, which has grown over the years to such an extent that, in 2007, Laibach is a very very minor cult that sells a very very few thousand records every year. Nonetheless this is more than can be said for every other early-80s Yugoslavian art project.
Opus Dei contains two of Laibach's most famous songs. They are covers of contemporary rock tunes, and were both released as singles. The first to go under the knife was Queen's "One Vision", which became "Geburt Einer Nation" ("Birth of a Nation"). Queen's song had been a hit in 1986. It was a vaguely-worded plea for global unity, taken from the band's soundtrack album for Highlander, a film about immortal swordsmen. Even when sung in English by cuddly Freddie Mercury, the lyrics sounded a little bit odd, to whit:
"One flesh, one bone, one true religion
One voice, one hope, one real decision"
Laibach transformed the song into a fascist march. They slowed the tempo, added booming drums and horns, and brought out the true meaning of Queen's song by singing it - growling it, shouting it - in German. I shall demonstrate:
"Ein Fleisch, ein Blut, ein wahrer Glaube
Ein Ruf, ein Traum, ein starker Wille"
Laibach was not the first band to point out a connection between rock music, blind obedience, fascism, politicial extremism and so forth. Pink Floyd had done something very similar a few years earlier, with The Wall, an album which argued that alienation and disconnection from society made people vulnerable to extremist madmen. It was an album that also made a convincing case against women, and is perhaps to blame for the subsequent rise in divorce rates. David Bowie had made some confused, pro-fascist comments during his Thin White Duke period of the mid 1970s, and it was a common theme of 1960s science fiction that pop music and pop culture were a new religion, based on the thoughtless worship of good looks, money, and fashion. But Laibach were unlike Pink Floyd, and for that matter actual fascist or nationalist bands such as Skrewdriver or Brutal Assault, in that they had emerged from a genuine, bona fide totalitarian state, one that was in 1986 still a repressive oligarchy. Yugoslavia during the 1980s was a nation blundering in the dark, about to fall through rotten floorboards. When everything came crashing down, Slovenia emerged relatively unscathed, but the wolves were right at the door. Laibach had seen the beast, they had grown up with it.
On a musical level, "Geburt Einer Nation" was a fairly faithful cover of Queen's original, but with a radically different arrangement. It was released as a single in January 1987, accompanied by a video which resembled an interpretative stage production of Triumph of the Will. The single did not chart anywhere in the world, which is a shame, because it is awesome. The video was astounding and is probably the first thing people in Britain saw of Laibach. It was filmed on a stage, with a plain backdrop, and the band mimed playing the drums in a symbolic Hitler Youth-style way, and they looked as if they were dispassionately contemplating the deaths of millions. Large wooden models of deer were lowered onto the stage, and the backdrop glowed with light. The group's lead singer seemed too small to possess such a bottomless voice.
Milan Fras, that's his name. He was not a founder member of Laibach. The original vocalist and founding conceptualist was a man called Tomaz Hostnik, who committed suicide in 1982, at the age of 21. Milan joined at some unspecified date thereafter. Apart from the band's military clothes and military manner, Milan's deep, sneering, guttural voice was, and remains, Laibach's most recognisable thing. His unearthy, booming growl was widely imitated by subsequent black metal groups, and by the German dance band Rammstein, whose simpler take on Laibach's style brought them great commercial success in the 1990s. Milan's voice was a miracle of nature, perhaps of the devil. He had a vocal range of minus nine octaves, starting at low C. On a visual level, the 1987 version of Milan Fras resembled an Eastern European synthesis of Ming the Merciless and Fu Manchu. He was scrawny and hairy, and performed stripped to the waist, whilst striking epic poses, hands on hips, gazing into the distance, etc. Nowadays he looks much more normal. He has been to the gym, and has a square jaw. He could easily start a parallel career in action thrillers, as a characterful background extra, the kind that is shot dead by James Bond. Back in 1987, the rest of Laibach dressed in brown shirts, with braces, Hitler Youth-style haircuts, short trousers, army boots. They were sinister and camp at the same time. They are much the same nowadays, although they do not look so unusual, because society has changed. It is hard to know whether the laugh at Laibach, or with them, or not to laugh.
On a visual level, therefore, the Laibach of Opus Dei was unique and scary. In the 1980s, plenty of Western bands frowned and dressed up in gothic clothes, but Laibach were different because they actually were from Eastern Europe and they really did speak German, and they looked sincere when they frowed. They looked ill-fed, they looked as if they had a reason to frown. At the same time, they were so outlandish as to foster a suspicion that, like Gilbert and George, Laibach were really just a big, deadpan joke. In "Geburt Einer Nation", Milan substituted Freddy Mercury's whoah-whoah-whoahs with orgiastic exclamations of JA! JA! JAWOHL!. Where "One Vision" had a guitar solo, "Geburt" had comical marching horns; where "One Vision" had a soothing middle eight, "Geburt" had a mystic sermon. The song was unsubtle, with thudding drums, and artificial-sounding synthesisers. Judging by the rest of the album, Laibach intended to use a real brass arrangement, but for budgetary reasons had to settle for a Roland D-50's "brass" patch. They say that humour derives from the subversion of expectations, in which case "Geburt Einer Nation" is one of the best jokes ever, an outlandish combination of Nazi imagery and pop-metal.
The next single from Opus Dei remains Laibach's most famous work. It was a cover of Live is Life by the German one-hit wonders Opus. The song had reached the top ten in Britain in 1985, and Opus had not been heard of since then. Laibach first covered the song in 1986, for a John Peel session. For Opus Dei they recorded two versions, one in English, and one in German. In both cases the arrangement was to the same pattern as "Geburt Einer Nation", with thumping drums and unsubtle brass, plus a choral arrangement. The German version, "Leben Heisst Leben", slowed the tempo even further, and added a horrible guitar solo. I do not need to describe the English version, you have heard it. Laibach transformed the song from a limp, meaningless plea for peace and understanding into a loud, hilarious, mocking lament for a failed national revolution.
"When we all feel the power
when we all feel the pain
it's the feeling of the people
it's the feeling of the land"
The video for "Opus Dei" featured the group posing in the Triglav mountains in Slovenia, wearing traditional Austro-Hungarian outdoors clobber. You have seen it on the internet. "Opus Dei" remains a concert staple and is Laibach's most famous work.
There was more to Opus Dei album than those two songs, although not much more, as the album presented Laibach in transition. They started as a serious, angry bunch of noisemaking upsetters, but their early work is hard to appreciate outside the context of Yugoslavia circa 1983. The group was coming to the realisation that no-one would be interested in their message, it if did not have wit and a good beat and something to hum. The other tracks on Opus Dei were neither as clever or catchy as their subsequent work nor as doom-laden and oppressive as their earlier work. Perhaps they were in a rush to finish the album. "F.I.A.T." was industrial noodling topped with words derived from the works of Ezra Pound. "How The West Was Won" and "Leben Tod" were reiterations of the group's unmelodic rhythmic assault, whilst "The Great Seal" was yet another meandering quasi-symphonic work let down by dated electronic production.
Laibach continued producing perverse cover versions, and have repeated the experiment so often that their original compositions have been overshadowed. Their next release was the Let It Be LP in 1988, which transformed The Beatles' dismal swansong into a bombastic industrial rock opera. In 1990 they released an EP containing thumping eurodance cover versions of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", and in 1994 they released NATO, an album that covered songs about war and chaos, including Status Quo's "In the Army Now", Edwin Starr's "War", and Zager and Evan's "2525". The album was released at the height of Yugoslavia's apocalypse, and remains the band's most popular and enduring release. During this period their non-cover albums, 1992's Kapital and 1996's mostly original Jesus Christ Superstars, were major disappointments, the former a set of anonymous Euro-dance tunes, the latter a dull and obvious return to guitar-based rock.
Since the fall of Yugoslavia Laibach has made a comeback with some more original albums, 2003's superior WAT and the excellent 2006 release Volk. With Volk the group hit on a new concept - the album took a blowtorch to Europe's national anthems, reworking portions of them into a set of songs co-written with the industrial band Silence. During this time the band became a fairly popular live draw, with big multi-media screens and lots of flashing lights. Compared to their previous work, Volk was devoid of camp and humour, but possessed of a strange beauty.
Opus Dei is currently available on Compact Disc with four bonus tracks of turgid theatricals from the group's Baptism under Triglav theatre piece. Opus Dei itself translates as "work of God" or "God's work", and is the name of a subset of the Catholic Church. It is odd that Laibach would name their album after this group; the band is least effective when it parodies religion, because the topic is hard to take seriously.
"We're glad that it's over
we thought it would last
every minute of the future
is a memory of the past
'cause we gave all the power
we gave all the best
and everyone lost everything
with the rest"