Laibach - The Sound of Music

A Closer Listen

By now, you probably know this album’s story: avant-garde collective Laibach go to North Korea in 2015 and become the first Western band to play there ever since the country split in two. What they play is a variation on their regular praxis: The Sound of Music, the soundtrack of a movie which is apparently most commonly used in North Korea as a resource to learn the English language. What is at stake here, as in pretty much all of Laibach’s work, is the idea of an essence in the political aesthetic of any and all media: appropriation is the tool with which to return materiality (and plasticity) to said aesthetic. In this case, a narrative of exile from totalitarianism, accompanied by an equation of musicality and peace with the true nature of the Austrian landscape, becomes the starting point for an insertion into the trappings of other oppressions not so distant in kind and quality from the ones that are being opposed. Whether it’s the disturbingly dark rendition of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” or the sheer threat of the phrase “Bless my homeland forever” from the “Edelweiss” ballad, the conventional positivity of their image is laid bare as a horror lurking at the edges of sunrays, simply a shiny mirror of endless, terrible night.

The form of that appropriation is here relatively subtle in comparison to the industrialized, military-march variations of Laibach’s best-known works, aptly reflected by the Valnoir socialist realist album cover. The heroic domesticity of the scene is quietly subverted by both the uniformity of the children and the out-of-placeness of Laibach singer Milan Fras at the center, his generic Western-ness flipping a coin between being unique and being a stand-in for the idea that this is how our contemporary authoritarians look like. He fits perfectly, and yet he doesn’t: that’s the core of many a Laibach project, up to and including this one. After all, how has the original, purportedly anti-authoritarian movie been utilized in an authoritarian context? The girls’ choir present in “Lonely Goatherd”, as well as its pop re-structuring, offer a hint: re-envisioning the movie as a pedagogical tool openly fulfills the purpose that it has for more than fifty years inherently fulfilled and yet obscured… as a mere piece of propaganda. The Sound of Music reveals what was already there but we’ve refused to see (just look at the video of the aforementioned track, below). Like Fras emphasizing the word “hate” in “So Long, Farewell”, what seems at first an innocent lullaby turns smoothly into a weirdly powerful hyper-nationalistic hymn, with the children’s choir following along, like so many a school Monday in different countries all across the West.

The band doesn’t lose the opportunity, however, to do their thing with North Korean pieces of popular culture, and the album closes with “Arirang” and “The Sound of Gayageum”, which take folk music to process it through the aesthetic lens of an exaggerated socialist realism. The result is exemplary kitsch, the kind of songs you’d imagine you’d hear late in the 1980s in Soviet radio, modernity deviated, another route to the failed promises of a better future the entire world is quite familiar with by now. The very last track, Laibach’s “Welcome Speech” to the concert, shows their tactical hand – inversion as a means of provocation and revelation. What we thought was the essence of The Sound of Music (just like we thought about the essence of, say, “Across the Universe” or “Live is Life”) flips over to reveal a horror not too dissimilar from the one it is supposed to fight; the appropriations of Korean folk muddle the ‘isolation’ of the country to show how it, too, withholds the Western horrors it opposes. “How do you solve a problem like Korea?”, Laibach parodically sing, but the question is framed in terms of an abusive relationship, the following line of the lyrics, “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” underlined as the erotically violent thoughts of a hyper-masculine figure. The question, in short, reveals a lot more about us than its initial posing seems to present: we are often unwilling participants in the spread of authoritarian thinking.

Perhaps with very apt timing, Laibach once again throw to any and all listeners the question once raised by Walter Benjamin when he wrote a text expressly dedicated to develop ideas and arguments that could not be used by fascism. When Laibach runs out of material to appropriate, that’ll be when their job is done, but it doesn’t seem like that horizon is close at all, in fact, it is moving rapidly farther away. The question, then, dear readers, is precisely that: how do we create, how do we express, how do we do things that cannot be used for the purposes of authoritarianism and fascism? Or, to crassly divert the way in which Laibach put it: how do you solve a problem like Hungary, Brazil, the United States, Ukraine, the Philippines, Venezuela, Turkey, India, Italy, Thailand, Poland, Guatemala, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the streets of Mexico, China, and so, so on? We might not manage it in time for the world to become a better place, but I do think that we should at least try. (David Murrieta Flores)




Available here.

Sat Jan 19 01:01:07 CET 2019


The Guardian


Following their versions of 14 national anthems, seven takes on Sympathy for the Devil, and cod-fascistic covers of Queen and others, the industrial troupe alight on their kitschiest reinterpretations yet: songs from The Sound of Music, amusingly rendered in stentorian synthpop and the guttural vocals of Milas Fras. This already high concept was sent into the ionosphere by their decision to debut it in North Korea in 2015, making them the first western rock band to play the country. The notion that isolated North Korean culture vultures would presume western rock bands are typified by gruff, bearded Slovenians declaring their love for cream-coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels is hilarious, and Laibach get points for this masterful bit of culture jamming alone.

On record, their covers are stirring, funny and thought provoking. The arrangements offer moments of beauty, like the haze of harmony that conjures Edelweiss’s field of flowers under a growing shadow of violence, while Lonely Goatherd has every ounce of its catchiness wrung out of it via a glam-rock stomp.

Related: Liberation Day review – the hills are alive as North Korea embraces rock'n'roll

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Fri Nov 23 09:15:04 CET 2018


Drowned In Sound

The roots of Slovenia’s chief avant-garde agitators take on the most precious and well-loved of musicals are as absurd as the outcome. Well, as absurd as it might first appear. In 2015 Laibach became the first Western rock group to perform in North Korea as part of the country’s celebrations to mark 70 years of independence from Japan following World War II. During the shows, the band chose to perform a number of songs from 1965’s The Sound Of Music as it was a favourite of the DPRK and often used to teach schoolchildren English.

Having previously been charged with flirting with totalitarian and military iconography, the perversity of tackling a soundtrack to a film that tells the story of a family fleeing Nazi invasion is presumably not lost on them. The album is also footnoted with 'Arirang', a traditional Korean folk song considered the unofficial national anthem of both North and South Korea, which Laibach chose to release when Donald Trump met Kim Jong-un. The stark yet labyrinthine satire they have created thrives before you even hit play on The Sound Of Music.

Yet, listening to Laibach’s interpretations it’s hard to imagine they are coming from a place of irreverence towards the music they are covering… however preposterous it might at first appear. In whatever way they choose to twist and colour the original compositions a sense of admiration for the music bubbles up, as the title track illustrates. The minor key lilt does little to dampen its inherently hopeful heart as its transformative soar is exchanged for no-less-affecting inky power-balladry/low-pitched sprechgesang.

Equally, ’My Favourite Things’ is one of the albums very best re-imaginings. Laibach turns the song into a gothic waltz, at its centre Milan Fras’s bass vocal rumbles through the famed beloved objects ("Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes"). The inspired addition of an angelic children’s choir in the background proves that rather than destroy the film’s sugary legacy they liberate the music from the preconceived purity of its star and its family-friendly reputation to repurpose the music for the twenty-first century.

The album is charged with contrasts of light and dark throughout. The innocent ode 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ is lent a sinister air as Fras’s predacious vocal is horrifyingly paired with Marina Mårtensson on her purest form. In their hands' lyrics like “Your life little girl is an empty page/That men will want to write on” make you shudder. Similarly, ‘Climb Ev'ry Mountain’ is lent a predatory gait and ‘Lonely Goatherd’ the band's signature industrial stomp.

For all the murk that Laibach layer these covers with the response it often triggers is an often wry, and sometimes wide, smile. ‘Edelweiss’ lies at the heart of the film, warms the cockles and brings a tear to the eye; not so much Laibach’s version. When Fras sings “You look happy/to me/to me” or “bless my homeland forever” well, it’s pretty creepy and threatening (in a darkly comic way of course). And the newly dubbed ‘Maria/Korea’ recycles lyrics once meant for an exasperating nun to a totalitarian state, “Many a thing you like to tell her/many a thing she ought to understand,” for one of the many, slightly guilty, belly laughs of the record.

Laibach aren’t strangers to the absurd, and while there’s certainly a healthy amount of irony about a lot of what they do, they are enigmatic provocateurs nonetheless. Interpret it how you will. Nevertheless, that their re-imagining is offered at a time when factions of the far right are rearing their ugly heads the world over makes their timing prescient, to say the least. The story of the Von Trapp family is based, after all, in an era on the cusp one of the darkest moments of recent human history, and the film’s songs a tool to transcend the horror. And my god what tunes they are. Laibach has done little to diminish their brilliance on a loaded, thought-provoking, and immeasurably entertaining release.


Fri Nov 23 17:25:46 CET 2018