In February, even as Russia’s war against Ukraine completed a year, the four-decade-old Slovenian avant-garde band, Laibach, announced that they would play a gig in Kyiv, Ukraine’s war-impinged capital city. The gig, scheduled for spring this year, would have made Laibach the first band to play a formal concert in Ukraine since the war began. But that didn’t happen. The gig got cancelled. Not because of the uncertainties of war but because of Laibach’s singular political beliefs.
Laibach, whose core members include Dejan Knez, Milan Fras, Ervin Markošek and Ivan “Jani” Novak, was formed in the mid-1980s. Throughout, they have dealt with controversies, primarily because of their extremely subversive beliefs and actions.
The Kyiv gig was cancelled by the Ukrainian organisers because the band claims they were asked to explicitly state that they denounced everything Russian, which they could not agree to. According to a report in Slovenia Times, they were asked to say that “all Russians are bad and that all Russian art is worthless”. The band said that while they were against Russia’s war in Ukraine, they admired Russian art, literature and music and respected the Russian people. The Guardian quoted the group as saying the conflict in Ukraine was “a cynical proxy war for the geostrategic interests of the superpowers and financial capital (of the military industry, etc)”.
Many Ukrainian commentators likened this to the Russian position that its “special military operation” was a conflict with Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), which was making Ukraine a puppet of the West.
Laibach have always courted such wrangles. In 2015, the band held a concert in North Korea, the country’s first rock gig, where they played songs from the soundtrack of The Sound Of Music as well as their own compositions, also covering songs by Queen, The Beatles, Europe and Opus Dei in their own distinctive style, using Nazi uniforms, Soviet flags, religious symbols. Videos of the North Korea gig show rows of people in the audience completely bemused by the goings-on.
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Laibach’s use of such references is meant to be satirical but it has attracted much criticism. Their interpretations of classic songs have often been subversive—their take on The Sound Of Music alludes to paedophilia and fascism. In their early days, when Slovenia was still part of communist Yugoslavia, they would play at concerts against a backdrop of images of Josip Broz Tito, the revered former leader of Yugoslavia, next to a drooping penis.
On a map of Europe, Slovenia can look like a dot. Heavily forested and mountainous, it is ensconced between Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the north-east, Croatia to the south-east, and the Adriatic Sea to the south-west. When Laibach was formed, the region was part of Yugoslavia and their music was spurned by the authorities. Their name itself was a source of controversy: Laibach is the name the Nazis gave Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, during World War II, when Germany, Hungary and Italy annexed the region.
Laibach sought audiences internationally. Their music, a unique amalgamation of industrial rock, aggressive martial music, cabaret and neo-classical genres, has been influential for many bands, including Rammstein, the German band considered to be the world’s biggest industrial rock outfit.
After the fall of the socialist regime in Yugoslavia and the country’s division into smaller states, including Slovenia, Laibach found approval in their home country and, globally, are now considered one of the most innovative acts in rock’s history. They have also recorded film soundtracks, theatre music and produced works of visual arts.
Laibach’s early 1980s’ albums were undiluted industrial-sounding music, with harsh and roaring vocals and heavy rhythms. Later, their music became more richly textured, featuring samples from pop and classical music. But the idiom of darkness and, often, doom has never been eschewed by the band. They turn light melodies into sinister-sounding Gothic songs. Their 1988 album, Let It Be, is a twist on The Beatles’ final studio album of the same name. Laibach incorporated military rhythms, choirs and samples of other songs.
Laibach’s lyrics are written in Slovene, English and German and sung mainly in the baritone voice of lead singer Fras, but also in frequent collaborations with other singers. In the beginning, the themes were about war and the military, reflecting Slovenia’s history of invasion and occupation, and of once being part of the Soviet bloc. Later, they turned their focus to other political issues, often making their references deliberately provocative and ambiguous. They use iconography and symbols from political and social ideologies such as fascism, communism and capitalism; without endorsing any, they appear to challenge audience beliefs.
Laibach are not just a band; they are also the founders of the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) collective, a political art collective that started as an underground movement when Slovenia was part of socialist Yugoslavia. The band is also steadfastly anti-individual—these days many of the core members, now in their 60s, relegate themselves to roles such as lighting and sound mixing, making way for younger musicians.
Laibach are a band with a diverse style of music, innovating constantly and expanding their range of genres. Besides industrial, heavy rock and neo-classical styles, they use operatic singing, synthesisers and electronic sounds. In covers, it is the interpretation that is most interesting: Their take on The Beatles’ Let It Be, for instance, is a critique of the British monarchy; their reworking of Europe’s The Final Countdown is a take on the end of the Cold War; last year, they did a version of Leonard Cohen’s The Future that was even more apocalyptic than the original.
Laibach’s music reflects their political vision and attitude, both of which challenge listeners with ambiguous messages and symbols, raising questions about ideology, politics and popular beliefs. They are a unique phenomenon in rock music.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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