The pre-amble for Lament suggests that it is not so much an album, but a representation of a forthcoming live performance that was commissioned by the city Diksmuide to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. Of course this being Einstürzende Neubauten, they’ve taken the idea a few steps further by blending in Blixa Bargeld’s contention that the war never really ended and that it’s been fought in various forms across the globe for the last 100 years.
Regardless of how Lament is supposed to be experienced, this album is an extraordinary piece of work and documentation. Painstakingly researched, musically creative and phenomenally emotive, Lament is perfectly effective as a recording in its own right. The sheer depth on offer here is quite daunting Neubauten have not just created instrumentation and articulate sonic landscapes, but have reached back into history to address political manoeuvrings and the human effects of war, and in doing so have unearthed some truly fascinating stories.
The industrial metal noise of Kriegsmaschinerie (machines of war) opens the album and is as hellish and unsettling as might be expected. Created using Neubauten’s bespoke instruments, it is a cacophony of metallic terror that reflects the rumbling of tanks and artillery. The wonderfully satirical Hymnen follows with what many would recognise as the English National Anthem, but in singing the words in German and English, they not only draw attention to the song’s international history, but also the relationship between the rulers of two of the conflict’s main adversaries. The Willy – Nicky Telegrams continues in a similar vein by utilising adapted telegrams of Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas to show dialogue of war as utterly ridiculous. Voicing both parties with auto-tuned vocals highlights the dishonest nature of the over-familiar communiqués.
Away from the politics, it is the unearthed stories that make Lament so interesting. Two of the songs relate to The Harlem Hellfighters, a marching band for the US Army’s first ever African American regiment who were sent to fight, and made something of a name for themselves as a formidable unit. Neubauten’s take on their story begins in with electro-industrial intent before segueing into something not unlike vaudeville, fortunately it’s handled deftly enough to avoid falling into parody. The last few moments feature a recording of the Hellfighters themselves, it’s an evocative moment.
Perhaps more telling though is All Of No Man’s Land, which completes their story and finds the returning heroes shunned in their racially divided homeland. The centre piece of the album is the title track, which itself is split into three parts, the third of which is utterly fascinating. Pater Peccavi is a classical piece populated with the voices of prisoners of war reciting versions of The Prodigal Son that Neubauten took from old wax cylinders. Hearing these voices of the past set against such a poignant backing is a haunting experience.
If this all sounds a little too intense, there is a little light relief on offer with Der Beginn des Weltkrieges 1914 (Dargestellt Unter Zuhilfenahme Eines Tierstimmenimitators). As unlikely as it sounds, this track finds Bargeld “covering” a cabaret performance which tells the story of the beginning of the 1st World War utilising animal imitations. The ridiculous nature of the performance is offset by EN incorporating ominous percussion just as a peacock begins yelping “Hitler”.
A more conventional cover version can be found with Where Have All The Flowers Gone, the band’s take on Marlene Dietrich’s version of the Pete Seeger song. Her anti-Nazi stance made her something of a pariah in Germany, and the song’s inclusion here, serves to highlight the personal choices made in the shadow of war. Choices which are so often swept away by the enormity of the actions of entire nations, as incidental as they may seem in the grand scheme of things, it is these stories and the complexities of personal politics that bring home the trauma of conflict.
Lament is a deep and complex album. It is not so much a piece of music, as a work of art. In this format, it lacks the intensity of live performance, but time spent unpicking the stories and layers of its content is every bit as rewarding and fascinating. This is one of this year’s most impressive and thought provoking albums.