The Sound of Music by Laibach

Release date: November 23, 2018
Label: Mute

Laibach sing songs from The Sound Of Music. On the one hand, it’s as direct and straightforwardly appealing as that. On the other there’s probably a whole book to be written unpicking the complex intertextual layers of inference and interpretation this project throws up. Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. In 2015 much to the surprise of just about everybody Laibach were invited to perform in North Korea, becoming the first western act to do so. This historic trip was recorded in the remarkable, if sometimes understandably cautious, Liberation Day a music documentary unlike any other and well worth your time.

Among the things the film shows is the establishment anxiety over what might be considered suitable for Laibach to perform and the continual negotiations/vetting with regard to their setlist. The band chose several songs from The Sound Of Music as the film is popular and well known in the country, the songs often being used to teach English to schoolchildren. This extraordinary chain of events having played out with a fair degree of success the eventual appearance of this album was as sure a thing as La is a note to follow Sew.

The result is a glorious thing to behold. Laibach’s approach to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs is restrained and respectful. They must be almost indestructible anyway, if not yet songs that have been sung for a thousand years they have been for almost 60, and their popularity in North Korea suggests they must be among the best known in the world. This is not a brash industrial march through Broadway, alert to the danger of producing a gaudy blast of high camp Laibach tone it down and create sensitive arrangements in supple electronic settings. There are lyrical edits and many musical changes but the songs are still immediately recognisable. They are joined on vocals by Marina Mårtensson and Boris Benko whose voice introduces the album with ‘The Sound Of Music’. It’s a couple of minutes before Milan Fras’ distinctive bass voice drops in bringing a broad smile to my face.

The artwork is a masterstroke folding the films bright lit sweetness into totalitarian kitsch as Milan, part Maria, part glorious leader, is surrounded by adoring uniformed children armed with musical instruments. A children’s choir reappears throughout the album. The general tone, certainly for the first half of the record, is a kind of majestic Alpine sweep, it’s almost elegiac. The perky rhymes of ‘Do-Re-Mi’ are slowed to a steady mnemonic, it’s even repeated by a robot voice that’s then joined by a growing choir as the track builds in momentum and intensity before ending on the sweet unaccompanied voice of a child. To hear Milan Fras sing “Cream coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels, Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles” is an absolute joy. Laibach drop the sections explaining the song as a self motivation mantra and just create a list of ‘Favourite Things’ over a joyous swaying backing.

“How do you solve a problem like Korea?” At last we come to their magnificent reimagining of ‘Maria’ which somehow gets to the heart of this whole project simply by switching out Maria for Korea. Apparently they couldn’t convince the DPRK to let them do it in Pyongyang, which is a pity. The final section of the album is given over to their trip to Korea, a shift of focus which brings something of the feel of old releases to mark state visits. ‘Arirang’ is their version of a traditional song held to be the unofficial national anthem of both North and South Korea. There’s a recording of students from the Kum Song Music School in Pyongyang performing a Laibach created piece for the Gayageum, a traditional instrument similar to a zither. The album closes on the extraordinary “welcome” speech given by Mr. Ryu of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Committee for Cultural Relations in which he lists in blunt terms the concerns expressed to him about allowing Laibach into the country concluding “So without trust… we cannot invite you here”

Laibach likewise invite us in on trust as they have always done. For a band from neighbouring Slovenia whose name is taken from the historical German name for their capital Ljubljana there are surely resonances that we can only guess at in the story of the Von Trapps fleeing the Nazi invasion of Austria. It’s never struck me before how little of that circumstance makes it into these actual songs, which generally traffic in a ‘keep your chin up’ denial of the oncoming darkness. Perhaps that’s why they’re so popular. Songs about Nazis that aren’t songs about Nazis, how Laibach is that? They do not feel the need to point this history out explicitly, as with the inherent humour of the enterprise they trust you to find it without letting it unbalance their work.

It’s worth noting also that there is no rock ‘n’ roll here, these are show tunes retooled as European electronica and presented as a form of late twentieth century folk music. It quite literally plays out the idea of music of a universal language, if only through the outsized cultural might of Hollywood. I find myself wondering if it’s slipping away, is The Sound Of Music still a film that everyone watches with their family or is it fading from the common cultural language, a brash technicolor relic? For many of us it is an embedded touchstone, it sits alongside The Wizard Of Oz as a film everyone would gather together and watch over Christmas. I’ve long held the belief that Laibach will one day make an incredible Christmas album but I’d be selling this short to take it as only that. This is an extraordinary record, a project of remarkable scope, ambition and deep humanity that makes everything else seem a bit small and inward looking. Their mission is blessed.

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