ROCK / Apocalypse then, and even more so now: Einsturzende Neubauten, the original building-site band, are back. With several bangs. Ben Thompson meets their leader

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'THERE ARE a lot of stones on this record,' says Blixa Bargeld of the new album by his group Einsturzende Neubauten. This is not idle rock chatter. There are stones, and sand, and burning oil, and the sounds of them are extraordinary. Bargeld himself - an urbane guerrilla in his black suit with blacker pinstripes, bootlace tie drooping above a high-buttoned waistcoat - is Germany's only real pop star. An old folk devil, he now gets faxes from lifestyle magazines demanding to know the name of his favourite aftershave. The tinkling tea-cups of a London hotel lounge provide the ideal backdrop for a meeting with a man renowned for orchestrating destructive forces. Blixa's brew of choice is Darjeeling.

Neubauten first played here a decade ago. Metal was bashed, a piano was sawn in half, and a new musical form was born. This was not a garage band: it was a building-site band. The rhythmic pounding and clanking of power-tools and hammers, and the brave new sounds of the home-made instruments left the crowd at the Lyceum suffering from shock. And then there was Bargeld's unearthly Teutonic yowl. The Neubauten idea - that as music was made more and more by machines, it might be possible to make a new music by taking machines apart and hitting them - was made flesh.

At the ICA, a year later, the band took their pneumatic drill to the stage, and were set fair for Australia by the time the police arrived to quell the ensuing mini-riot. The evening's most cherished sight was the hulking figure of Neubauten's FM Einheit advancing into the crowd with a fully operational chainsaw. This action - long before the Archaos circus had made such antics a cabaret staple - sent the leather-clad cream of London's counter-culture scurrying to the back of the hall, their faces struggling to convey the message: 'I just want to get a look at this from another perspective.'

After that, Neubauten never got the attention they deserved in this country: too European, perhaps, too arty. When they did make records or appearances, they were memorable - if not always, as in the double-bill show with Showaddywaddy, for the right reasons. Bargeld became better known for playing guitar with Nick Cave than for his own endeavours. 'I had to find a way to react to the whole symbolism of the guitar, which I hated; so I built a repertoire for myself - 50 ways of playing guitar without playing guitar.'

Now Einsturzende Neubauten are back, with a proper record deal and an album, Tabula Rasa, which captures their savage splendour more clearly than any other. Meanwhile the 'industrial rock' of bands such as Ministry and Nine Inch Nails - watered-down Neubauten, basically - is catching on. But commercial considerations have never weighed heavily on this band. 'A lot of what happened in the avant-garde in earlier times has appeared in popular music,' Bargeld says, 'but somehow, it stopped. Sorry for not being too modest, but I think that Neubauten are the first musical group that have taken a bit of conceptual wisdom into popular fields.'

If the art trappings put some people off, you can't argue with the album covers. Tabula Rasa and the accompanying singles 'Interim' and 'Malediction' are wrapped in exquisite reproductions of 17th-century still lifes. There is beauty inside as well as violence. Bargeld writes with great precision, and the words ('One half of my dreams is shaved bald') are a match for many with loftier reputations.

The thrill of semantic exploration starts in the studio. 'If we want to talk about the instruments we have constructed, we can't keep saying 'Hit this thing]' - it gets too complicated. So we start naming them, and that is the beginning of the process.' Just as this was going on for Tabula Rasa, the Gulf war broke out. So the names and materials began to take on a martial character. Hence also the stones and sand and oil. The last of these, Bargeld says, 'didn't make a very interesting noise until we lit it, and then the dripping, burning oil made a fantastic sound.' It can be heard at the end of the chillingly beautiful 'Wuste' (Desert). 'About one month later the oil really was burning in the desert. It was bizarre for us.'

Life imitating art to ghoulish effect is nothing new to Einsturzende Neubauten. In the first months of their existence, when their name - translated as Collapsing New Buildings - had begun to be dropped in their hometown of Berlin, the Kongresshalle, the city's highest-profile new building, duly collapsed. Small wonder that the band should be of a resolutely conceptual turn of mind. Tabula Rasa's climax - the infernal 15 minutes of 'Headcleaner' - includes the most brutally constructive cover version ever, in which the Beatles' 'All You Need Is Love' is taken apart piece by piece and rebuilt as a tank. It also wrestles bravely with the German post-war experience and the spectre of Fascism. It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.

'Tabula Rasa' is out on 8 Feb (Mute/Beton 106). The band will tour in the spring.

(Photograph omitted)