“A nice melody leading up to a big bang is more effective than just one big bang after the other.”
— Alexander Hacke of Einstuerzende Neubauten
The notion of growing ever more distant from home permeates Perpetuum Mobile, the latest of two just-released albums from Einstuerzende Neubauten.
Both in its tunefulness and emotional nuance, Perpetuum (Mute) is a far cry from the way the German band first materialized 24 years ago. Back then, they epitomized their name (“collapsing new buildings” in their native tongue) via an unholy junk-percussion racket achieved with construction materials and power tools — and almost completely devoid of melody, tonality and structure.
Along with other like-minded artists of the time, Neubauten flouted our cardinal notions of what constituted music, in the process helping to kick off the radical new style that would become “industrial.”
Since then, Neubauten has been on a slow, steady migration toward melody, and even restraint.
“When we started out,” Alexander Hacke, the band’s multi-instrumentalist co-founder, explained in a recent interview, “there was hardly any noise in popular music. A very early Neubauten concern was to expand the term ‘music’ as far [as it could go], until there is no more music left.”
But noise, he suggests, has by now been done to death.
“As the world is changing and the media is expanding, nowadays silence is an offensive or rebellious thing,” proposes Hacke. “We are playful scientists — we research materials, technologies – [and] we use different approaches each time. If you get more experience, you know where to put the punches. A nice melody leading up to a big bang is more effective than just one big bang after the other.”
Whereas 2000’s Silence is Sexy (Mute) expressed the relationship between person and home via band leader and chief lyricist Blixa Bargeld’s sense of mournful disconnection with a changing (read: increasingly commercialized) Berlin, this time it’s Bargeld himself who’s on the move.
In fact, none of the group’s members are based in Berlin anymore, and transit between destinations is Perpetuum‘s recurring preoccupation. The album is a serene study in melancholy that’s both resigned and restless. It is subdued, spacious and — quite literally — full of air: True to spirit, air compressors were used as instruments, and air is referenced in many of the lyrics (which thankfully come included in translation).
In keeping with the air allusions, Perpetuum abounds with references to birds, which have fascinated Bargeld his whole life.
“For me,” he recently told Wire magazine, “the utopian quality of birds is not solely in the fact that they are able to fly; it’s more in how the flying changes their perspective. The ability to look onto something, to see the lay of the land. That is what humans really envy birds for.”
Humans like Andrew Chudy, principal inventor of the band’s unconventional signature instrumentation (which once included a jet engine that’s “too heavy,” reveals Hacke, to transport these days). Chudy is likewise a fan of winged creatures — in fact, he used to be an amateur ornithologist. (Apparently ignorant of Chudy’s elevated status in the bird world, Hacke bursts into laughter when he hears this.)
Perpetuum was culled from a series of sessions Web-cast for paying fans, who were then encouraged to interfere with the process via e-mail. A preceding set of songs was assembled as Suppoter Album #1, the other recent Neubauten release, which was sold exclusively to those fans.
It was an extreme adjustment for a band that had previously always worked in secrecy. Most compelling about this open creative process is that some of the songs made it to completion only because fans insisted.
Perpetuum is the intimacy of that process unveiled in the marketplace — one-third of the record is alternate versions of songs from Supporter Album #1.
Hacke says working under surveillance “changed his life” — though the process, he insists, was “not like a reality show. We had appointments for people to watch us. It’s not like they were watching our 24-hour real life, [though] it definitely changed the working discipline of the band.”
But the impact on Hacke goes even deeper.
“The truth is, I’m very bad when it comes to correspondence,” he explains. “[Now] I find myself in front of the computer screen corresponding with people I’ve never met and talking about all kinds of subjects. Some of these people are really intelligent. One Dutch guy, we knew already he was a biology professor, but he actually teaches class at the university. Whenever he’s got a day off, he [comes to] visit us on tour.
“By these means, I [have] met very interesting people I would have never had the chance to meet.”
Neubauten’s current live set includes older material, selections from both new albums and even-newer stuff crafted in what the band calls “ramps” — improvisational pieces that connect two songs and often later become their own fully developed pieces.
Early reports indicate that some of this newer material is veering back in a chaotic direction — and perhaps it’s just as well. To most American audiences, the claustrophobia of Cold War-era West Berlin, where the band grew up amid the residual rubble of World War II, must have seemed an abstract idea; our own cities since that era have been relentlessly emptied by suburbanization.
But now sprawl, Hacke points out, also eats away at Berlin. This irony is apparently not lost on the members of Neubauten, whom we can count on to bring not only the noise, but also the silence needed to give it maximum impact.
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
Einstuerzende Neubauten plays The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.; 225-5851) at 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 16. Tickets cost $20.