Saturday, February 18, 2006

Collapsing into grace
Einstürzende Neubauten rumbles from a roar to a whisper

“There are too many devils in the United States these days,” warns a wary Blixa Bargeld, the caustic voice in command of Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings), one of the most destructive forces in 20th-century music. From wielding power tools to sledge-hammers to their own bodies for nearly 25 years, the Berlin-based deconstructionists have risked life and limb to rally behind Bargeld’s banshee howl. Debuting in America in 1982, the group’s calamitous industrial clatter transcended punk and no-wave to forge a soundtrack to a frenzied avant-garde nightmare.

Over time, the group’s dissonant roar has cooled to a whisper, culminating with the profound spaciousness of its most recent release, Perpetuum Mobile (Mute Records). And in light of decades of experience performing around the globe, touring the United States has not gotten easier.

Perched inside his tour bus at New York City’s Irving Plaza on the second night of Neubauten’s U.S. tour, Bargeld’s curtness is a far cry from his own devilish stage persona. Sporting a timeless black-on-black suit and bare feet, Bargeld takes the time prior to the show to address his own devils: nefarious and unwelcome business associates Clear Channel and Ticketmaster.

“Ticket prices are up like hell and it doesn’t change anything for the artists’ fee,” says Bargeld. “All the money goes to Ticketmaster and we’ve already had a legal dispute with Clear Channel on this tour, and we did win it.”

The dispute was over the group’s right to record and sell its performances at the end of the night; on which Clear Channel claimed to have a patent, but had previously given written permission for Neubauten to do so. It’s a minor victory for the group, but dealing with lawyers and limitations in the shadow of a corporate brute is an immensely discouraging headache. Bargeld confirms the sentiment onstage, declaring that this will most likely be Neubauten’s final U.S. tour, before wafting into Perpetuum Mobile’s opening track, “Ich Gehe Jetzt” (“I’m Going Now”).

Despite its refined nature, Perpetuum Mobile arrives on the heels of a tumultuous time in Neubauten’s career. While recording Ende Neu in 1996, long-standing bassist and publisher Mark Chung, and percussionist FM Einheit left the group, upsetting a 15-year-old lineup.

Chung went on to become the vice president of Sony Records, but Einheit has remained relatively silent. It was Einheit’s absence that posed the greatest threat to the future of Neubauten. For decades he had served as the fiery percussive thrust driving Neubauten’s engine.

But instead of falling apart the group quickly recruited Die Haut guitarist Jochen Arbeit and drummer Rudolf Moser as replacements. Joining the ranks of core multi-instrumentalists Alexander Hacke and Andrew (N.U. Unruh) Chuddy, the group released Silence is Sexy in 2000, laying the foundation for a graceful next step in the band’s evolution.

Furthermore, since 1984, Bargeld had also doubled as guitarist for Australian rough riders Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But when Neubauten convened to assemble Perpetuum Mobile, Bargeld left the Bad Seeds to focus on Neubauten. Working within the Bad Seeds’ songwriter-driven dusky dirge for nearly 20 years -- the polar opposite of Neubauten’s approach -- left a mark on Bargeld’s presence, though to what degree he’s hesitant to say. Judging by his sharpening toungue and and rising volume it’s a sore subject.

“I left the Bad Seeds and I also stopped smoking two-and-a-half years ago. It was much harder to give up smoking,” huffs Bargeld. “If I learned anything from the Bad Seeds its how a particular form reflects contents. They’re coming from an Australia-Anglo-American cover version band back ground and that’s something I’m missing. I come from Kraut rock. I do improvisation and noise and I embrace new ideas and that’s something I brought to the Bad Seeds. It’s hard to say how I would follow in their context.”

With Perpetuum Mobile, Neubauten’s metal-on-metal klang is reduced to a drone. Songs like “Ein Seltener Vogel” (“A Rare Bird”) and “Ozean und Brandung” (“Ocean and Surf”) layer hissing air compressors and a sprinkling of metallic percussion to forge a sound that’s much more at peace than ever before. Bargeld’s delicate vocal tones resonating throughout “Paradiesseits” and “Youme & Meyou” only bolsters the quiet makeover.

“What I did in my 20s is certainly different from what I did in my 30s and from what I’m doing in my 40s,” says Bargeld. “But if you look at the history of Neubauten, it is all genuinely Neubauten and nothing but Neubauten. If I still played like I did when I was 22, I wouldn’t be sitting here anymore. But, nevertheless, because of the way the business is done over here, [this tour] will probably be the last.”

-- Chad Radford

(Published by Creative Loafing on 05.13.04. Re-edited by Chad Radford)