Graded on a Curve: Laibach,
Jesus Christ Superstars

Kameraden! Totalitarian fellow travelers! Red diaper babies! Join me in praising Laibach, the Slovenian avant-garde band that has given hope to those of us still mourning the fall of our respective favorite fascist states. Laibach has been banned from performing and even forbidden to use their name, forced into dissident status, and condemned for their use of fascist iconography (including the wearing of very Nazi-looking uniforms), but here’s the good part: Everything they’ve done is tongue in cheek—Laibach has said, “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter”—and they never break character. And they’ve been doing it, namely offending delicate sensibilities, for well over three decades.

They began their career in now-defunct Yugoslavia the same year Josef Tito died, as part of an avant-garde collective including painting and theater groups, and since that time have dabbled in more types of music than there were casualties at the battle of Stalingrad. Martial industrial, neoclassical dark wave, electro-industrial—the list of niche genres goes on and on. Their flirting with fascist signifiers is a straight-faced prank that many people don’t find funny, but you have to hand it to them—over the years they’ve produced plenty of excellent albums, some more incendiary than others. I was going to review their cover of The Beatles’ Let It Be LP, but I happen not to like the album much, and when it comes to the bottom line my favorite of their oeuvre is 1996’s Jesus Christ Superstars, on which they lay off the provocative rhetoric of their more political LPs to concentrate on Christianity. It also rocks harder than many of their other efforts.

Laibach’s members never use their real names, and finding out who plays what on which LP is tough, but it’s enough to note that their lead vocalist sings like a hammer scraping a sickle and reminds me some of a Slovenian version of Michael Gerald of the defunct Killdozer, another band that made hay by flirting with a dissident philosophy, in their case Trotskyite socialism. I could go into a fuller history of the band, which met with hostility almost everywhere it went, but I simply don’t have the time. Suffice it to say Yugoslavia banned them from using their name, from performing in public, and from using public restrooms. This led the group to move to London, where they paid their rent in part by working as extras in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket.

Jesus Christ Superstars opens with “God Is God,” which commences with a soldier’s choir then opens up into a metallic but funky number in which lead vocalist Elk Eber sings in a deep voice with a thick accent. The sound pounds and pounds, and the title is often repeated, and the male choir is joined by female vocalists, because in socialist states everyone is equal. Laibach follows “God Is God” with a wonderfully funny cover of Webber and Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which could be a Killdozer cover except for Eber’s accent. “Don’t get me wrong,” croaks Eber, echoed by a massive choir, while an organ and some pummeling drums keep this King Tiger tank of a song moving over the corpse of the original tune. It’s a standout track and I can only wish Laibach had covered the entire album, because I think it would have been totally brilliant.

“Kingdom of God” opens with a Middle Eastern feel, then kicks into a funky, bass-heavy groove (complete with choir) over which Eber sings about the Kingdom of God, which he sees coming only after every city goes the way of Sodom and “nothing of man remains.” “Abuse and Confession” opens on a big symphonic and Wagnerian note, with strings and a choir made up of every citizen of Slovenia crying out to Heaven, at which juncture there’s a great guitar riff, then Eber, playing Judas Iscariot sings, “Why give me desire/Just to prove I’m depraved?” and wonders whether Christ himself wasn’t similarly tempted. “Here I am/Damned/Shamed/Destroyed,” sings Eber, before some fancy choral singing and kettle drums lead him to sing, “Why me?/Was it because I was Judas baptized?” before repeating, “Your mission has failed,” implying that Christ was crucified in vain.

“Declaration of Freedom” is a wonderful industrial metal rave-up, with the guitars pounding out a titanic riff while an organ comes in to accompany Eber as he sings, “I set you free,” and “Your deeds mean nothing/On the day of reckoning.” As for the guitar solo I love it, as it descends into scratching feedback, just as I love the way Eber sings, “Death is the final relief/From the circle of misery.” Life is slavery, in other words, and whether Eber believes this or is just playing Christ is the million-dollar question. “Message From the Black Star” is another rave-up, with the guitars playing fantastic power chords as Eber declares himself the builder of the stairway to Hell, singing, “Welcome to Hell/You already know my name,” before declaring Christ his “greatest creation.” I love this shit, eat it right up.

“The Cross” is a crushingly heavy cover of the devotional Prince song, with Eber making salvation sound threatening by singing, “Don’t die/Without knowing the cross” over and over as a keyboard figure is repeated, a mass choir sings, and a guitar adds to the menace. Be saved or be sorry, seems to be the gist of it, and Eber’s Old Testament prophet vocals reinforce the message. “To the New Light” is a slow and atmospheric tune, with minimal support for Eber’s vocals, and I can’t say I care for it much. “Brother of mine,” speak-sings Eber, “Open your eyes/And rise to us/To the new light.” Meanwhile the backing grows more ominous, with squiggles and whale sounds and distant explosions of guitar noise and who knows what else. Then a caterwaul briefly takes over, and the tune is over. As for the closer “Deux Ex Machina,” it’s also slow and atmospheric but also symphonic, with strings and brass and all that rigmarole. Oh, and Eber doesn’t make an appearance, although that choir shows up again, sounding portentous amidst the Wagnerian trappings. The tune fades in and out, you can hear the sound of marching, charging feet boys, and then the song goes into soaring symphonic overdrive, and this one would be a good song to invade Poland to.

Laibach isn’t for everybody; take 2006’s Volk, which dedicates songs to various nations of the world, including one called “America” that opens with some end-of-the-world noise before the band breaks into a delicate version of our national anthem, at which point Eber talks over some funky beats about how America kinda sucks. I like it but you may not, just as you may not care for the Star Wars symphonics of “Nazi Expedition to Earth” off 2012’s over-the-top wacky Iron Sky (OST), which should answer the question “Are these guys for real fascists?” once and for all. But even when I don’t like them I love them, because they’re funny and like nobody else and frankly don’t give a damn who they happen to offend. And isn’t that what rock and roll is all about? Upsetting the apple cart? Undermining the status quo? Épater le bourgeois, motherfuckers!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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