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The Boston Phoenix Neu Noise

Einsturzende Neubauten's Ende game

By Matt Ashare

JANUARY 4, 1999:  There's an old story about the pioneering German techno-industrial band Kraftwerk that goes something like this: back when they were working on tracks for the album that would become 1977's Trans-Europe Express (Capitol), the four members of Kraftwerk set their instruments on auto-pilot, pressed the record button, and went to the movies. They returned several hours later, listened to the results, liked what they heard, and christened the composition "Franz Schubert" because it sounded, well, sorta pretty.

Berlin's Blixa Bargeld, front man of the art project/band Einstürzende Neubauten (who come to the Paradise this Monday, January 4) and Nick Cave's right-hand guitar man in the Bad Seeds, is well acquainted with Trans-Europe Express. The album's noisy "Metal on Metal" was one of the conceptual blueprints that brought Neubauten together in the late '70s, though punk nihilism was the emotional context and musique concrète the formal framework. So when Bargeld recalls the Schubert episode over tea and biscuits at Interscope's New York offices, it's his way of trying to explain how a band whose name means "collapsing new buildings" and who got their start doing their best to live up to that moniker aurally by incorporating actual tools of industry (i.e., industrial machines) in their work have almost two decades later arrived at a point where they're making music that sounds, well, sorta pretty.

"If you record -- as we have -- an Alfa Romeo car engine, you might expect that it would sound very monotonous, mechanical, machine-like," he points out. "In fact, an engine like that is a great drummer -- it misses beats, it plays extra beats, it does things around the beat. And if you slow down the tape to a point where you can really hear what is going on, you find that you can really sink yourself into it and listen to it for quite a long time. And you will hear that it is full of interesting and even beautiful variations. People who work around machines know this. We went to a place where they rent machines for building sites. The man at the site showed us all of his favorite machines, and he didn't at all think that it was strange that we wanted to record the motors."

It's the string section of players drawn from the Brussels Symphony Orchestra, however, not the purring of a well-tuned automobile, that's more likely to have people thinking of Schubert and reaching for words like pretty on the new Neubauten disc Ende Neu (Nothing/Interscope). That, and the fact that one of the orchestrated tunes -- the romantic ballad "Stella Maris" (a duet between Blixa and German actress Meret Becker) -- is the most straightforward pop tune that's ever found its way into the Neubauten repertoire.

"'Stella Maris' is certainly the most normal-sounding song that we have ever done," Bargeld admits. "But if you listen closely to the records that we've done before you will find there has always been a strong dimension of beauty on at least one or two tracks. There are always songs that are less harsh. The proportion is just different on this record. The beauty is more pronounced." And when I suggest that the song, with its underlying sense of tragic romance (it's sung in German, but the lyrics are conveniently translated in the CD booklet), is a bridge between Bargeld's work with Nick Cave and Neubauten, he quips, "It's as much a bridge to Burt Bacharach as it is to Nick Cave," and leaves it at that.

Ende Neu, the group's first release on Trent Reznor's Nothing label, isn't the first time Neubauten have employed a string section or dabbled in wistful pop songwriting. Their last full-length recording, 1993's Tabula Rasa (Mute), was an avant song-cycle with symphonic overtones about the reunification of Germany that featured a rather sad tune sung by Nick Cave associate Anita Lane. And the Neu album doesn't by any means represent an abandonment of the group's original raison d'être, namely the search for music in machines like an Alfa Romeo engine. The disc's title track, as the liner notes detail, "is performed on amplified wires of varying sizes and an air compressor played through the mouth." And the track "Installation No. 1" is a recording of an automated sound installation that Blixa explained this way: "We fitted a metal coin to the cylinder of a simple household drill so it knocked a metal sheet fitted with a pick-up microphone when it rotated. The microphone triggered a noise gate which was hooked up to a bass guitar feeding back through an amp. So every time the trigger signal hit the noise gate you heard the feedback. You also heard the hitting of the metal coin on the metal sheet It was all recorded in one room with no separation, and it was fun because you could actually sit there and watch this machine play its song." In other words, Bargeld didn't feel the need to go to the movies.

Apparently, some of Neubauten's other members felt differently. Between the time the band began work on Ende Neu in 1994 and its release last November, two of the Neubauten five -- Mark Chung and F.M. Einheit -- called it quits, which Blixa says left him freer than usual to "relentlessly wallow in harmonies as much as I liked" without objection from the remaining members, Andrew Chudy and Alexander Hacke. "The majority of this record was made by a nucleus of three people -- actually the same lineup as 1981. And, of course, everybody in this band always has a say in what we are doing, so the sound has changed."

The tools of Neubauten's trade -- Blixa's minimalist guitar, Hacke's bass tones and bowed electric guitars, Chudy's plastic-bucket and metal-can percussion, sound sculptures, and field recordings of engines and power plants -- haven't really changed all that much in 20 years. Indeed, the band has a small turbine engine wired for sound as part of their current tour. Yet even at its most abstract and experimental -- on a track like "Installation No. 1," for example -- Ende Neu somehow seems more accessible than anything the band have released in the past. Bargeld reaches for a philosophical explanation: "The 19th-century European romantics had this idea that 'There sleeps a song in everything,' that in nature there is beautiful music that you will hear if you can train your senses to listen closely enough. I say, 'The song sleeps in the machine,' that the music is in there if you listen."

But if Neubauten's evolution has been a process of searching for melody in machines, then the impact of that search on the sound of popular music, through artists who have been influenced by Neubauten such as Trent Reznor, has been a parallel acceptance of harsher "industrial" sounds in the realm of rock. In other words, even an early Neubauten song doesn't sound as shockingly different as it did 20 years ago, thanks to the popularization of the industrial aesthetic. Not that Bargeld is particularly pleased with the term industrial.

" 'Industrial' meant something different when it was originally used in the early '80s or late '70s," he reasons. "The first time I came across the term it was in an article about Throbbing Gristle, Devo, and Pere Ubu. So it was probably a quite meaningless term from the very beginning. But if people want to shelve our records under 'industrial,' what can I do about it? I guess that means I'm industrial. And if I'm called a rock musician next year then I'll have to deal with that."


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