Dissident sounds from the city of scars

Einstürzende Neubauten's new album offers a bold critique of modern Berlin, says Louise Gray
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The Independent Culture

On the night that the Berlin Wall came down, Blixa Bargeld - co-founder, vocalist, chief architect of Einstürzende Neubauten and, since 1983, guitarist with Nick Cave's Bad Seeds - was a few hundred yards away in a studio putting the finishing touches to the Australian musician's "Ship Song". It was a deadend street, Bargeld remembers, on the edge of an enclosed city, an island whose closest shores - in Hamburg or Hanover - lay four hours' distant.

"By the time we left the studio at about 5am, the whole area was full of people queuing at the banks to get their 40DM welcome money. I met one journalist recently who told me he'd spent his first on Neubauten's [1989 album] Haus der Lüge [House of Lies] and then driving to Hamburg to see us play. Kind of a compliment." Even if it wasn't one that the reunified Germany, saturated with a self-congratulatory "Ode to Joy", really wanted to hear.

Lüge was a blaze of kinetic energy, key songs tearing through subject matter that ranged from the blazing Reichstag to the suicide of God, old and impotent, in an attic ripe for redevelopment. But, as a compliment, it was also entirely apposite, for Einstürzende Neubauten - it translates as "Collapsing New Buildings" - have always had an influence extending well beyond what are usually thought of as the confines of the rock band. Combine the flame of the Sex Pistols, the political teeth of Brecht and the Romanticism of Goethe and one goes some small way towards an understanding of Neubauten's creative conflagration.

To call it an unusual achievement is an understatement. Since their formation in West Berlin 20 years ago and their first, loose concerts around the Dadaist Geniale Dilletanten [Genius-like Dilettantes] underground movement, Neubauten's dissident voice has grown in authority. One reason for their continued pertinence is located in a cultural commentary that unites the smithereens of Germany's fractured art. Schiller, Walter Benjamin ("an old friend to us", says Bargeld), and Else Lasker-Schüler live in the singer's conversation: so, too, does the voice of protest - Lotte Lenya, Berlin punk, even Marlene Dietrich.

In a country where history remains problematic, it is a brave endeavour, and one which involves negotiating the paradoxes of belonging and critical distance. "We are a rock band in uneven years," Bargeld says, addressing the nature of what Neubauten actually might be. "And in 2000, we're not."

This evasive manoeuvre has a truth about it. Born in 1959, Bargeld himself - an imposing dandy whom Nick Cave described once as "the most beautiful man in the world ... a man on the thrashold [sic] of greatness" - is reluctant to make extravagant claims, even though he's clear that the band places itself in an intellectual tradition that doesn't start in 1945.

Their collaborations include such names as controversial Viennese performance artist Hermann Nitsch, East German playwright Heiner Müller and film-maker Wim Wenders. The latest addition is Bargeld's own recording of the "Bilbao Song" accompanied by its original instrumental backing - in Sven Düfer's forthcoming documentary on Kurt Weill. Silence is Sexy, their tenth studio album, released two days after their 20th anniversary concert on Saturday, further affirms their heritage.

Then there's their methods. Early albums created frenzies of abjection and anomie on instruments - concrete blocks, pile-drivers, sheet-metal - collected by percussionists Andrew Unruh and F M Einheit from the blasted Berlin landscape. Bargeld variously sang, screamed and miked his body. For an audience simultaneously enclosed and freed by the Wall - the fact that Berliners were exempt from military service changed the city's whole chemistry - Neubauten were the city's reflection.

"I remember clearly listening to a record - it was before the term 'world music' was invented - of Ethiopian desert nomads," Bargeld says in discussing this meta-music. "It was basically vocals, a bit of clapping, a few sticks. I thought if it's possible for nomads to come to that tear-driving authenticity by just using what's there, it should be possible for me in my own surroundings.

"Then I remembered this highway flyover that a class comrade in basic school had shown me how to get inside. It was basically an empty metal space, about 1.5 metres high - you couldn't stand up in it - and stretching out for some 40 metres. It had a reverberation time of 30 seconds: if you stamped your foot, this sound - bwoooooaw - would travel through the whole bridge and back."

With trucks rumbling above them, Neubauten held their début recording sessions, dragging in car batteries and tape machines. A few days after the release of their first single, "Für den Untergang" [Towards the Decline] in 1980, the German Congress Centre, one of Berlin's newest buildings, collapsed. It leant Bargeld's crew an eerie prescience.

Mutatis mutandis. That Silence has such transformative power is, in part, due to the reconstituted nature of Neubauten - Bargeld, Unruh and long-term guitarist (now bassist) Alexander Hacke have been joined by guitarist Jochen Arbeit and percussionist Rudi Moser. But it's also due to the increasingly delicate subtlety of sound and lyric. As the city which provided their original sound-sources has changed, so have they: one album track credits a pair of Birkenstocks in its instrumentation.

It is also a densely unified work; tied together with a close-fitting alchemy of cross-references and a poetry of word-games designed to jolt. Stress, expressed in the band's early performances by pitting voice against machine, is explored in other ways. The title track took John Cage's "4'33" " as its starting point, until Bargeld realised that what he wanted to do was frame not silence, but tension: "The general feel of absence. It became difficult to record an audible silence. The research process involved a lot of very high grade microphones on very quiet things, such as the touching of the skin. We played some of these things naked in order to minimise sound. In the process, someone smoked a cigarette and we realised we had our metaphor for waiting. The song could then begin."

However, the tension finds its most arresting manifestation in "Die Befindlichkeit des Landes" [The Lay of the Land] and its searing critique of modern Berlin - a city where even Sir Norman Foster's transparent architecture for the new Reichstag falls short. "My basic point is this: Berlin, now the world's biggest building site, is situated in an area of scars. Potsdamer Platz [in central Berlin] - this highly historically charged and pregnant area, where you can see traces from the Weimar Republic, the Second World War, the Cold War, the Berlin Wall - is being covered up by a cake-thick layer of meaningless architecture. And I do understand that it is meant to be meaningless: it is meant to make all this disappear.

"[When] two months ago builders found the remains of the Führer Bunker on Potsdamer Platz, the first thing they did was panic. Then they put a layer of concrete on top of it and continued building, without telling anyone, because they're afraid that it might become a pilgrimage point for neo-Nazis. This is exactly the problem [Germany] should deal with; instead they cover it up, as an old Hollywood star might put an extra layer of make-up on her face to make her wrinkles disappear. The Germans are incredibly afraid of their past".

Bargeld himself favoured architect Daniel Libeskind's Potsdamer solution. "His drawings left the centre totally empty, showing instead a series of directions: Moscow this way, and so on. It was a way of putting Berlin on the map within the context of other places, of showing to the outside world that we are like the remains of an explosion. Instead, Sony and Mercedes Benz bought up the area really cheaply and we got Aldo Rossi and they raised up a city centre which has nothing to do with anywhere outside it."

In tackling state-sanctioned amnesia, Bargeld invokes the allegorical figure of Melancholia. She is, it must be said, a familiar presence in Neubauten's work, a prevalent humour in their strategy of continual reinvention. Bargeld speaks of Dürer's woodcut, Melancolia I, a winged figure, surrounded by architectural implements, her chin on her fist and her eyes fixed on the future. She is - he's emphatic here - a positive force. To leaven the point, the album sleeve reproduces a photo of Neubauten outside a lacklustre café in east Berlin called Melancholie 1. A sly, dry wit.

Bargeld smiles his intense smile. If the presence of Berlin completes Neubauten, then they complete the city. The makers of the new Germany won't be singing out his prediction - "Alles nur künftige Ruinen" [Nothing but future ruins] - but Neubauten are waiting for those first blades of grass to poke up from beneath the Platz. And they'll come.