Last night I saw the Slovene-born music group Laibach at the culture hall Nosturi in Helsinki. Seeing the band is automatically one of the highlights of the year. But what is Laibach?
The history of Laibach goes back to the late 1970s, when a band called Salte Morale was formed in Yugoslavia. It was led by a young man named Dejan Knez and its members had many kinds of artistic talent in addition to musical skills. Laibach was built on Salte Morale on 1 June 1980. Knez’ father, the well-known artist Janez Knez was a significant contributor in this process. Unfortunately Janez Knez passed away last month. The different lineups of Salte Morale and early Laibach included at least Tomaž Hostnik, Andrej Lupinc, Marko Košnik, Srecko Bajda, Bine Zerko and of course Dejan Knez. The singer Tomaž Hostnik had a remarkable influence on Laibach’s style although he left the group for good by committing suicide at the age of 21 in December 1982. He was then replaced by Milan Fras. Soon afterwards also Ivan Novak, a relative of Dejan Knez’, joined Laibach. Other notable persons who have worked in or with Laibach are e.g. Ervin Markošek, Nikola Sekulović and Iztok Turk. When people talk about the ”classical Laibach lineup” they usually refer to the quartet of Knez, Fras, Novak and Markošek.
Laibach’s hometown Trbovlje is a traditional mining town. Its atmosphere has been the inspiration for some of Laibach’s early industrial songs. Also Richard Wagner’s music and the artworks of Kazimir Malevich have been important sources for inspiration – it should be underlined here that in the 1980s Laibach was a multimedia group.
The name Laibach is intentionally provocative, for it is the German name for Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. In Socialist Yugoslavia many people associated the band with National Socialism and the usage of the name was officially banned. Therefore the band’s name wasn’t printed on the cover of the first album. It wasn’t until 2003 that Laibach started to receive sponsorship from the Slovenian government.
In Western Europe, however, Laibach has been seen as a group of communists. It’s no wonder that one of the many Laibach films suggests sarcastically that perhaps Laibach can unite Eastern and Western Europe by playing the role of their common enemy.
The message(s) of the group can be understood in several different ways. The way you see them tells more about you than about the band, because people see what they want to see. But instead of just confusing the listeners Laibach also aims to provoke thoughts. In 1996 the spokesperson of the group told the following: ”I wouldn’t say we encourage confusion, we encourage, shall we say, a certain process of awareness, we do provoke questions, and that’s very important. […] It’s a necessary thing that Laibach can’t be easily defined. If we were doing something that was obvious and clear to you then there would be no point.” The band has also said that for them being misunderstood is the only logical way to communicate.
A band like Laibach needs specific circumstances to be formed. The Yugoslavian public officers’ negative stance was ideal fuel for Laibach’s development. It’s important to remember that Yugoslavia was balancing between the East and the West and Tito died just one month before the founding of the band. When Laibach acted like a totalitarian group in an authoritarian country they made their opponents promote democracy and social reforms implicitly without them noticing it. Laibach evoked talk by being something ”more total than totalitarianism” (the quote is the name of Peter Clarke’s thesis). The path that Laibach chose was dangerous, but/although/because the media and authorities reacted just like Laibach had expected. In other words, Laibach was (mis)understood in numerous ways. They were even criticized for idolizing the state, which – considering Laibach’s agenda – is comical.
Richard Wolfson summarized Laibach’s general procedure quite well in 2003: ”Laibach’s method is extremely simple, effective and horribly open to misinterpretation. First of all, they absorb the mannerisms of the enemy, adopting all the seductive trappings and symbols of state power, and then they exaggerate everything to the edge of parody. Next they turn their focus to highly charged issues – the West’s fear of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the power games of the EU, the analogies between Western democracy and totalitarianism.”
Also professor Slavoj Žižek and Ph.D. Alexei Monroe have described Laibach for the media. According to Monroe Laibach is ”postmodern, but it’s also premodern, it’s also archaic, it’s also barbaric, it’s also futuristic, it’s constructivistic, it’s Nazistic, it’s Fascistic, it’s Socialistic… it has always tendencies […] sometimes one predominates and sometimes one stays in the background, but they are all always there”. Further information can be found in Laibach-related movies (of which I prefer the pompous Victory Under the Sun), books and several websites. I’d like to especially mention Donald Campbell’s unofficial Laibach site that went online in 1999.
Laibach used to be the music wing of a larger artist collective called Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK, in English: New Slovenian Art). Laibach co-founded it in 1984 with the painter group IRWIN and the theatre group Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater (nowadays Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung). Since 1992 NSK has been a microstate in time. The NSK State has thousands of citizens, some of whom have crossed three-dimensional national borders with NSK passports. Ivan Novak once said that when Laibach is touring, it represents NSK officially and Slovenia unofficially.
I found out about Laibach in 2003 when I read a review article concerning the album WAT. However, I didn’t really listen to Laibach’s music until 2006. During the past five years I have intensively familiarized myself with their career and works.
The first time I saw Laibach live was three years after the band became one of my favourites. The event took place in Helsinki in February 2009. Laibach played all tracks off the 2008 album LAIBACHKUNSTDERFUGE and nothing else. It was a very peculiar tour. I greatly enjoyed the concert.
Yesterday’s performance at Nosturi was part of the Laibach Revisited tour. My friend and I arrived in Helsinki so early that we were the first people at Nosturi waiting for the doors to be opened. Most of the audience came shortly before the beginning of the show, so it was easy to get to the middle of the front row, even though we spent some time buying band merchandise.
The first half of the concert consisted of new versions of Laibach’s industrial classics that were published before I was even born. This was also the first time for me to see Milan Fras and Mina Špiler. The lineup included also Sašo Vollmaier, Luka Jamnik and Janez Gabrič. I noticed that Ivan Novak was at Nosturi but he wasn’t seen on stage. This has been quite typical for him since the 1990s.
The first two songs weren’t particularly memorable but the other new versions of old tracks made an impression. I especially liked what Laibach had done to the song ”Ti, Ki Izzivaš”. ”Nova Akropola” was very well updated, too.
Judging by the reactions of the audience, the later half of the show was even more desired by most people and that actually includes me. After the old material Laibach played selected songs off the albums WAT, NATO, Volk and Jesus Christ Superstars. ”Tanz Mit Laibach” and ”Alle Gegen Alle” multiplied the enthusiasm of the listeners. Some songs, particularly ”Das Spiel Ist Aus” and ”Francia”, sounded better live in my opinion. Lastly I dare to say that when ”God Is God” was played during the encore, no one at Nosturi was more delighted than I was.
- Mi Kujemo Bodočnost
- Smrt Za Smrt
- Brat Moj
- Krvava Gruda – Plodna Zemlja
- Ti, Ki Izzivaš
- Nova Akropola
- Slovenska Zena
- Tanz Mit Laibach
- Alle Gegen Alle
- Du Bist Unser
- Hell: Symmetry
- Das Spiel Ist Aus
- God Is God
- Laibach Medley (playback)
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