One of the most powerful of last year’s World War One centenary projects came from an unexpected source: legends of industrial music Einstürzende Neubauten.
On 8th November 2014, German industrial visionaries Einstürzende Neubauten took to the stage in the Belgian city of Diksmuide to deliver the premiere of LAMENT. Commissioned as part of the West Flanders GoneWest artistic programme, to commemorate the centenary of the fall of Diksmuide during the First World War, the powerful conceptual work was designed first and foremost as a live performance and installation. However, during the year that Neubauten spent preparing it, they also recorded the 14 songs for future release at andereBaustelle Tonstudio, Berlin.
The creative process involved extensive use of historical research and archive material, while Neubauten’s commitment to repurposing objects as instruments saw them employ such things as a barbed-wire harp, amplified crutches, original ammunition shells, a complex plastic pipe installation and air compressors. A string ensemble was also scored across the album alongside more traditional instrumentation and Neubauten’s characteristically unconventional percussion, encompassing scrap metal, amplified springs, marble plates and N.U. Unruh’s unwieldy “noise-generating devices”.
Once it was agreed that Neubauten would take the commission, the last thing that Blixa Bargeld, Einstürzende Neubauten’s uncompromising frontman and musical director, wanted was to incorporate historical materials that had already been mined by the wider media. Two researchers were, therefore, immediately enlisted onto the project. “We had an historian and a literature scientist working on archives and on materials so we could figure out that [the materials] might not be that well known,” Blixa explains. “I knew that in England — as well as in Germany and probably several other European countries — the remembrance machinery for 2014 was in full swing. I knew that by the time that we would go on stage in November 2014, we would have almost a year behind us of this remembrance machinery. I had to find some aspect, some corners of knowledge that were not so trampled down.”
The decision to record LAMENT as an album was also made early on, and on pragmatic grounds. “[Recording the album] was a purely economical decision,” says Bargeld. “For the work that we had to put into this performance, it was very clear that we could not finance it with the price that comes with the commission. So we had to revive an existing record contract that was originally made with Mute Records and then ended up as EMI and then ended up as BMG because we didn’t want to be bothered with all the work that comes with actually doing the record ourselves. So we revived that record contract and took the advance. It was purely an economical decision.
“I worked on the performance, I did not really work on a record. All the decisions I made were always made on the fact that it was a performance. I was always thinking of the overall sequence of events as they happen on stage, even how things transform on stage from one thing to another. I always thought that the actual record is just a document or the detritus of a performance, and certainly the visual element is missing. I still think it is a good record, but I was working on it as a performance.”
This performance element also necessitated a change in mindset for Blixa when it came to the creative process of actually working on the music. “It makes it different, because usually we somehow work on single pieces or, in the widest sense, on songs,” says Bargeld. “But, in this case, I was working on a whole. I divided it into three sequences of events, basically, that follow each other and they can only follow each other in that way because there is roughly a chronological order going through the whole thing from the pre-First World War to the Second World War.”
Once the sequence of the tracks was etched out and the content decided upon, work on the individual songs could commence. LAMENT was laid down at andereBaustelle Tonstudio in Berlin, originally Einstürzende Neubauten’s own rehearsal space and studio, then called the Bunker. Six years ago, Neubauten’s long-serving front-of-house and recording engineer Boris Wilsdorf bought the premises from the band and has since used it to record projects for other acts such as Swans, Tiger Lillies, Mick Harvey and Princess Superstar. Boris engineered, mixed and co-produced the new long player, and his FOH role for the Diksmuide gig and consequent LAMENT tour was never far from his mind during the recording process.
“Technically, it’s always a challenge to bring all of their stuff on stage,” Boris explains. “You have to use backline thinking like, ‘How are we going to do this live?’ ‘How do we make it possible to have three changeovers so we can get all these weird instruments on and off stage?’”
“It always depends on the song,” says Boris. “Sometimes, it’s a song idea, like piano chords or whatever. Sometimes, it’s an installation, which is basically a machine, like the pneumatic cylinder on ‘The Willy-Nicky Telegrams’ that gave the starting point to the musical backing track there, or it could be just some [physical] material — you know, like ‘Let’s see what we can do with that?’ Then, sometimes it’s just a jam session with improvisation that starts it off. ‘Achterland’ was that type and also ‘Kriegmaschinerie’, which is just noise, basically. On LAMENT, ‘Der 1.Weltkrieg (Percussion Version)’ was a conceptual idea to start with and then, with the cover songs, it was like, ‘OK, we have the songs but what are we going to do with them?’”
As Boris Wilsdorf explains, Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten often enjoy doing what might be least expected of them. This was a case in point when it came to the GoneWest commission, the LAMENT work and its First World War subject matter.
“One Neubauten approach in recording is always to leave out the obvious,” explains Wilsdorf. “With this project, especially, that made a lot of sense because — dealing with the First World War — there are so many possibilities of how to approach it. With Neubauten, people might expect that they were going to do the sound to the war and, although a track like ‘Kriegmaschinerie’ may have that, they tried not to do that overall.
“It’s always about leaving out the obvious, which means you have the potential of creating something new, but it’s also often not easy, like ‘OK, I don’t do that — so what do I do, then?’ When there’s so much forbidden, the rules of play get a bit more difficult. I generally think that the more minimal the music is, the more interesting and the more powerful it often gets. A song with just three instruments can sound louder than one with 10. It’s a pretty important method of how Neubauten work, I would say, and on this project especially.”
The opening track of LAMENT, ‘Kriegmaschinerie’ (or ‘Machinery Of War’), is five and a half minutes of harrowing, screeching, crashing metallic percussion and strings, an industrial soundscape which evokes Europe’s pre-eminent nations gearing up for war. Indeed, the time signature that is embedded in the track was even derived from pre-war economic statistics.
“I made a little diagram of the defence spending across Europe in the years between, I think, 1905 and 1913,” explains Blixa. “And that diagram made the time signature. You see that it is very similar to what the situation is now. Suddenly it seems to be completely OK again to talk about racing up defence budgets everywhere, as did the majority of nations that were later involved in the First World War. I also wrote a poem in the style of the German expressionism that is meant to accompany the actual audible sensation that is there, but it’s not sung and it’s not spoken. It’s just printed on these signs in the performance which I hold up [and which are also documented within the liner notes of the album] so this is a wordless transformation of a poem and a piece of statistics turned into sound.”
Aside from the string ensemble, which was overdubbed later, everything else on the track was captured live in the studio as a single Neubauten performance. “Everyone was performing,” says Bargeld. “There were some pieces we recorded which made it necessary to clear a lot of space in the studio. This is one of them and ‘[Der 1.Weltkrieg] (Percussion Version)’ was another.”
“It’s not difficult in the Neubauten studio to create noise,” laughs Boris Wilsdorf. “There’s always enough material to create noise, but with [this track] the restriction was not to hit anything: not to make any beat, but just to have continuous sounds. We started it with this one big metal sheet and these very thin aluminium sticks to scratch it. They are screeching and then they build this big monster.”
The Beyerdynamic M88 and the Audio-Technica ATM25 are favoured studio microphones for Neubauten percussion, but Boris Wilsdorf usually uses contact pickups to record Neubauten’s innovative metal constructions. “We use the Barcus Berry Outsider pickups a lot,” says Boris. “Using pickups for the metal things is very nice because then you get the inside reverb of the metal plates or whatever the thing is. It’s also practical live, because they won’t feed back so easily. Sometimes, [an instrument or installation] will only sound the way it does when you do extreme processing to it to make it work in the music. And that’s why they could also never perform live shows with an engineer who doesn’t know the music — because some instruments only work when you add +20dB on 60Hz to it or something.”
The words to LAMENT’s third track, ‘The Willy-Nicky Telegrams’, are sourced from the conciliatory 1914 pre-war telegram exchange between Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his third cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia. Blixa Bargeld and Alexander Hacke sing the lines of these telegrams — alternating sentences in turn when particular telegrams crossed each other in transit — with the aid of an Auto-Tune processor.
“[The Auto-Tune] obviously serves a particular purpose, not so much as tuning the voice as showing the double meaning of everything they say,” explains Blixa. “Both of them, not just them as persons but the whole staff of generals and military people they were surrounded with, had already decided that it was absolutely necessary to have a war so they knew very much that they were actually just sweet-talking to each other.”
“We had so much fun doing the Auto-Tuned vocals in the studio with Blixa and Alex,” adds Wilsdorf. “Some people hate the Auto-Tune but it really works with the context there and it was a big laugh just seeing them in the studio dancing and doing these R&B kind of vocals!”
The musical backing to this song is propelled by what the liner notes call a “rhythm machine”. “The ‘rhythm machine” is actually from an old Neubauten recording called ‘Tanzkolben’,” says Boris. “It’s a recording from the ’90s, I think, and it’s a pneumatic machine just like an air compressor moving in and out, like a piston. If you translate it into English, it means ‘Dance Piston’.”
‘In De Loopgraaf’ (‘In The Trenches’) is a stark, minimalistic track, during which Blixa Bargeld reads out a moving poem by Flemish author Paul van den Broeck. Resonating underneath Blixa’s Flemish pronunciations is one of the album’s specially made instruments: a barbed-wire harp, or dulcimer as Bargeld would have it, since it is played with hammers rather than fingers.
“Normally, we spend much more time on researching sound and researching possible strategies to convince a piece of [physical] material to release something that wasn’t heard before,” says Bargeld. “We didn’t do that for this because the time was too short, but we knew this was going to be a performance about the First World War, and I wanted to do something with barbed wire and other famous imagery of the war.”
“I love that thing,” laughs Boris Wilsdorf, referring to the barbed-wire harp/dulcimer. “But it’s funny, because when Blixa said we could do something with barbed wire, Andrew [N.U. Unruh, Neubauten percussionist] just rejected it and said, ‘Nooo, it’s not going to sound good. It has these little things on it and it’s just going to rattle. I know it’s not going to be good!’ but we convinced him to do it and he built the barbed-wire harp. It sounds so cool and was recorded just as a single performance. It has a pickup on it and you also have to put a lot of EQ on it. It does have a natural reverb just because of its wooden construction, but just put some EQ on it and it sounds great.”
Another of the more minimalistic tracks on LAMENT is ‘Achterland’ (‘Hinterland’), which features another of Paul van den Broek’s Flemish war poems, in this case describing the ‘hinterland’ where injured soldiers received medical treatment, men were de-loused en masse and shells and other ammunition were stockpiled. Initially, Blixa Bargeld had planned for there to be several single-instrument ‘vignettes’ during the LAMENT performance, but ‘Achterland’ ended up combining four of these proposed instruments: ammunition shells, amplified crutches, kriegszitterer (literally translated as ‘wartime shaker’) and an air-pressure installation.
“Originally I was thinking about the sequence on stage,” says Blixa. “I wanted to get a couple of vignettes that would work as changeover pieces so when we had a rather large installation on stage, then we could do something very small like ‘In De Loopgraaf’ — which was just the barbed-wire harp and myself — so that stuff behind us could be cleared off the stage. I wanted each one of us to write one vignette. The barbed-wire harp was OK but then the rest didn’t come together as single vignettes, so I combined them all together, and that worked very well with the second Flemish text which describes the hinterland.”
The eventual track was the result of an in-studio jam and was nailed in just a single day. Alexander Hacke ‘played’ the amplified crutches, Rudolph Moser shaped rhythmic patterns utilising a range of variously sized original WWI ammunition shells, Andrew Unruh took up the kriegszitterer role (which involved him uncontrollably tapping his feet as if suffering from shell shock) while Blixa himself used the studio’s air-pressure installation to mimic the sound of gas.
“Our studio is the only studio in the world that has fixed air-pressure lines built in”, laughs Bargeld. “That was built during our work on Perpetuum Mobile in 2003 or something, where there are a lot of things to do with air pressure, so it was easy to get back to that because all the stuff was already there. We bought the ammunition shells on eBay — you meet some strange people through eBay!”
“[The ammunition shells] are clean metal things and they sound really nice, and they’re also in tune, so you get certain notes to them,” explains Boris. “There are six of them, with six different notes. [Rudolph Moser] just played them with a mallet and we used condenser mics to pick that up, but he also just likes having one [Shure SM]58 in his hand, which he uses for a natural fade-in, fade-out. He has the microphone far away, hits the shells and then goes closer with the microphone. He’s doing that live, too, and it gets a really nice harmonic atmosphere.”
The kriegszitterer effect was captured through simply recording a good pair of heeled shoes tapping on a wooden board, while the authentic (albeit not original) crutches were fitted with a pickup and a bass string, and the sound was captured through a bass amp as Alex limped across the studio floor. “It sounds very spooky!” exclaims Wilsdorf.
The album’s central work is a three-part suite of songs entitled ‘Lament’. The first part (‘Lament’) is a compelling six-minute vocal harmony piece, the second ‘Abw rtsspirale’ (translated: ‘Downward Spiral’) is an atmospheric instrumental which once again utilises a war-derived time-signature map, while the third part, ‘Pater Peccavi’, is a string octet arrangement of a 16th Century motet, ‘The Prodigal Son’, composed by Clemens non Papa, who was allegedly buried in Diksmuide. Over the music, wax cylinder recordings of German-held WWI prisoners of war reciting the parable of the prodigal son from the Bible in their native languages are presented through individual speakers by the members of Einstürzende Neubauten. These recordings, captured as part of an extensive linguistic study, are some of few to survive from the First World War period.
“The performance was always growing all from there,” explains Blixa. “It was already planned as the centrepiece, but I originally wanted to write it all as a three-fold vocal piece, and all that is left of that is the first part. ‘The Downward Spiral’ is basically a downward spiral with a delayed, detuning loop, and [the time signature] slowly goes down and down and down and down and down and down between the brackets 1-9-1-4 and 1-9-1-8.”
The crackly wax-cylinder recordings, tracked down by the band’s research team, were an astounding find. The problem for Blixa was working out how to incorporate these archived voices in a tasteful and respectful fashion. “These voices are obviously not there for their audiophile greatness,” says Bargeld, “and I did not think it was fair to choose any of them for their audible content. I thought we should not change the sound in any way, like de-crackle it or anything like that. Technically, there is a lot possible, but I thought that it was not fair to actually judge this by anything like taste. That’s why it’s a performance that is played on small cubic speakers in our hands. We just release some of the words and hold these cubes like endangered birds. Otherwise you get into a territory where they become a sound effect — which would not be a good idea — or your personal taste actually gets involved. It’s about a particular amount of respect and in that case the respect is in losing control of the material. It’s a bit of a Cageian attitude, in not controlling the material.”
In both the performances and the studio recordings, each involved Neubauten member took turns presenting sections of the wax cylinder recordings utilising these miniature speaker cubes and a set of microphones. “It’s the same principle again as the [ammunition] shells,” says Boris Wilsdorf. “The four of them just moved in and out to the microphone with these speakers, doing their own fade-in and fade-out, letting these voices appear on and off.”
As well as capturing Neubauten’s inventive custom-built instruments on LAMENT, Boris Wilsdorf also needed to record more familiar sources. “For bass, I just DI’d and I put a [Sennheiser MD]421 on the nice Ampeg bass amp. On guitars I use [Shure SM]57s, but also a ribbon sometimes on the guitar is good. Mostly I mic close and I’ll usually have three amps, with one clean and two for kind of like ‘hysteria’ effects. If I have the luxury to do overdubs, then I’ll also have a stereo pair a couple of metres away. They can make a big difference sometimes.”
Vocals are always recorded using a Brauner VM1. What about LAMENT’s beautiful string sounds? “We recorded them also in my studio and I’m glad they turned out so nice!” Boris quips. “I had a Neumann U87, two AKG 414s and the Audio-Technica 4033, and then the Brauner [VM1] is like a far mic. With the overheads, I do it like they did it in the old days when you were still recording on tape and didn’t have so many tracks. It’s a very nice method of recording strings. You let them play four times and use only one microphone, which is the Brauner again. The first time you point it to the first violin, and so on — so you just make four positions of that mic across the tracks. You can then balance between violin and cello by raising the [relevant] track on the desk. It’s a very track-efficient way of getting a big string sound. We learnt that in Belgium when we were recording Ende Neu .
“The mixing process starts in the recording. We always record in the way that we want it to sound and with the processing that it needs. The first rough mixes are mostly almost there. When the mixing process starts, Blixa is mostly just saying, ‘Yeah, don’t change anything any more!’ so in most cases it stays pretty close to the recording. That’s also why they often record everything together in the same room, playing together so you have a lot of spill on all the microphones and stuff. That’s kept and that’s why it sounds so authentic sometimes too. There’s always exceptions but mostly it is like that.”
LAMENT is such an extraordinary and committed musical work that it’s hard to believe it almost didn’t happen. When Blixa Bargeld first heard about the proposed commission from Diksmuide, he nearly turned it down flat. “I was very sceptical if I should do this at all. I was not overly enthusiastic to spend a year with a mindset on the First World War — or, for that matter, on any war. I just presented the idea to the rest of the band and I told them that I’d keep out of the decision. I didn’t care if we were going to do this or not going to do this but they wanted to do it. Initially, once we started working on it, I wanted to quit again. I didn’t feel that this was going to be a very good time for me to work on it.
“But, as you can see, I did not quit. I continued...”
Boris Wilsdorf, who was formally an assistant at Berlin’s famous Hansa Tonstudios, has been working with Einstürzende Neubauten since 1992 both as front-of-house and recording engineer and co-producer. Six years ago, Boris purchased the band’s Bunker studio and rehearsal rooms, and the recording gear therein, and renamed the facility andereBaustelle Tonstudio. Boris’s pride and joy is his customised Soundcraft 2400 desk, which he redeveloped towards the end of 2013.
“I had that original desk, and then I bought two other desks of the same brand, and the transport to Berlin was costing more than the desks themselves!” says Wilsdorf. “And then I discovered that my old desk has transformers in all the inputs and outputs, and I wanted to keep that across the whole desk. I had to make one desk out of three, and that was a really big challenge, but in the end I knew every cable! It was nice but it took me a couple of weeks. Now I have a patchbay, a meterbridge, more inputs, 16 multitrack returns and transformers in all inputs and outputs. I took the best parts of all three desks.”
Wilsdorf records to Pro Tools, but still uses hardware outboard processors. “I am endorsed by Eventide and I got an H8000FW, which is like the latest model of multi-processing device and that is really, really nice. I took it on [the LAMENT] tour especially because we used one effect on the album which I wanted to have live too, which is kind of a distorted tremolo reverb. It’s in the vocal thing, ‘Lament’. It’s also especially good for pitch-shifting harmony, and I use that live too.
“The other thing I got from that company was an Empirical Labs Distressor and that’s also pretty much ‘Wow!’ It’s like, ‘There’s no red light any more!’ so I know it works very well. I use that on vocals mainly too. I’m also a really big fan of the Ensoniq DP/4 effects processor, which is from the ‘90s, but I really like it. It’s a nice trashy device but there’s some good musical ideas in there too, you know — it’s very easy to use musically!”
One of LAMENT’s stand-out tracks is the hypnotic ‘Der 1. Weltkrieg (Percussion Version)’, a 13-minute “statistical dance music” piece, which comprises a vast construction of plastic pipes being played percussively by band members N.U. Unruh, Alexander Hacke and Rudolf Moser. As the album liner notes explain, “Each country is represented by one pipe. The colonial powers including their colonies and dependencies are represented by a whole set of pipes, starting along the time-line of entering the war until ending their military engagement. Each day is one beat within a bar.”
Originally, Blixa Bargeld planned to utilise an altogether different set of materials for the track. “When I wrote this, I knew that every nation would be represented by one percussion instrument and then I had the notes underneath, saying what bar they join at and what bar they leave the war again,” he explains. “But I first thought that we were going to do it with polystyrene plates, probably on a cymbal stand. It’s very interesting, because if you mike them up very closely they have a sound that is more reminiscent of congas with a little bit of additional squeaking — they are like a squeaking conga! But the funny thing is that while you play them, they of course shrink and they go like snow. They crumble away, so you could do the whole war day-by-day and the actual instruments would get smaller and smaller. That would have been a great picture but, in the end, we just tried it out with plastic pipes and it worked. We would have had to travel with a truck of polystyrene plates across Europe because you would need new polystyrene plates every evening [of the tour]. We have a storage space next to the recording studio where we keep all these things from the 35 years of Neubauten history, and we had these plastic pipes in there.”
Although the immense plastic tube construct proved relatively simple to record in the studio, the prospect of actually taking the installation out on the road and setting it up every night was initially a big concern for Boris Wilsdorf.
“The recording was just made using [Shure SM]57s in front of the pipes while they all played them live,” says Wilsdorf. “You know, there was nothing particularly special to it, just a little bit of EQ’ing and that was it, you know but there were so many tubes so it was a nightmare as a setup! The whole studio was just full of these tubes, and nobody could move any more. As soon as they came up with the idea, I thought ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do that live?’ But I found a practical solution, because they have these tubes on different songs, and so we just integrated every song in this same setup so we don’t have to change the tubes all the time. We don’t need a whole system of tube add-ons any more. It really was too complicated.”