Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The creepy sound of the quiet - Silence is Sexy

There are three things about our world that I think I would find impossible to explain to an alien, if one was ever to visit here. One is the logic of a monarchy; another is why some words are swear words; and the other is why Einstürzende Neubauten are not the favourite band of everyone on the planet.

Yes, I know this is now my third post on this relatively obscure German industrial noise band in as many weeks and that, in continuing to rave on about them so much, I risk either turning the greater portion of my meagre readership away, or else encouraging them to go and buy the few remaining Einstürzende Neubauten CDs that are still left on the shelves of Melbourne’s Heartland Records, before I can clock up enough credits in my weekly CD-buying ration to be able to get them myself.

But just yesterday I added Silence is Sexy to my collection, the band’s 2000 release, just as fascinatingly original as the debut Kollaps (see 3rd February) and their most recent Jewels (see 7th February), and just as different from both of them and they are from one another.

While Einstürzende Neubauten is most recognisable by its musical use of industrial noise, with its bits of scrap metal being pounded by power tools and by bits of flotsam and jetsam from a long-dead engineering age, the thing that marks this album is, rather, its use of the lack of noise. It mingles silence with near silence, swelling now and then to creepy quietness and only very rarely being interrupted by massive bashes of noise, which only go to make the silence seem more potent, and freakier.

Most of the music here is characterised by creepy crawly bass lines, music that stalks you on one note, while weird and worried sounds tinkle above them behind mournful, mostly spoken, slightly sung, vocals.

The effect is sometimes nightmarishly eerie, like music of the undead, as in ‘Sonnenbarke’ or ‘Alles’. And sometimes it is caressingly lewd, like in the cool and creepy smoothness of ‘Die Befindlichkeit des Landes’, or in the title track with its increasingly evocative chant of the title words, interspersed with stretches of total silence, leaving your heart beating as you wait for the music’s fingers, half hot, half cold, forever erotic, to brush over you again, until eventually its spell is broken when a whole crowd chants the words at you, no longer sensual, but banal and cheap and voyeuristic, and you are left feeling that the lights have been turned on, breaking the darkness, breaking the silence, and you have been caught in the most compromising of compromising positions.

Even the more upbeat moments, like the short and wry ‘Newtons Gravitätlichkeit’, or the brusque ‘Zampano’, punctuated by sharp rapid-fire metal percussion, sound spooked because of what surrounds them.

And when noise does burst in, it bursts in with spectacular grotesquery, like it does in the middle of ‘Redukt’, where the shouts and smashing metal, which burst every now and then into nervous quiet of human self-contemplation, sound like a vile, vicious slave-master whipping his hordes on and on, like a death march that is already dead.

Silence is Sexy is in fact two discs. The first ends with ‘Total Eclipse of the Sun’, which even with its soft, if somewhat barren and empty, string harmonies, still manages to sound eerie, with chilling percussive keyboards that sound like hollow human bones tapping together in the night.

The second is devoted to a single work, the 18 and a half minute ‘Pelikanol’, where a slow vocal chant, repeating the whispered incantation “Nur zur Errinerung: Bittermandel/Marzipan/Pelikanol” (Just for remembering: bitter almonds/marzipan/school glue) over and over, above a sinister ostinato beat from metal strips, breaking glass and a droning electric drill motor, creates a chilling, horrendous world, hideous and hushed like everything else on this album, but conjuring up images of bizarre Kafkaesque insects buzzing around you, of freakish screeching, of a hell that holds you in its grip, like you are dirty dancing with the devil. Here the sexiness of silence has become repulsively seductive. It must surely be one of the most frightening things I have ever heard, and yet I couldn’t, just couldn’t, turn away.

All throughout this album, there is the blend of the conventional with the unconventional, of guitars and drums with television sets and rubbish bins. And then these musicians make it all sound like nothing else you have heard before. Even when the sounds themselves are not that strange, they sound strange.

Silence is Sexy is an incredible testimony to Einstürzende Neubauten’s seemingly bottomless pit of creativity, and of their ability to make the unmusical musical, the ordinary extraordinary.

I'm sorry, but I just don't understand why countries spend millions of their currency on enabling centuries old families to live in opulent palaces where they do little other than make small talk with world leaders and have sex scandals, nor why some words still get bleeped out of TV shows that allow all kinds of violence and human exploitation through the keeper unchallenged, nor why Einstürzende Neubauten are not everyone's favourite band.

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