Laibach are an institution, but their heritage is both unique and complex to parse, especially through the limited viewpoint of a musical review. On the one hand they are confrontational protest artists, for whom music just happens to be the medium. On the other, they make an awesome sound. But just sitting back and enjoying the ride is a risky approach to music that is politically primed and liable to blow.
Reproduction Prohibited is a best-of album, the first Laibach have attempted. What’s astonishing is not that a 32-year career is only now being summed up, but that Laibach should have consented to anything this conventional or commercial. The apparent trigger is the release of Iron Sky, for which Laibach has provided the soundtrack. This is a high budget, Finnish, Nazis-invade-from-the-Dark-Side-of-the- Moon movie, and that’s probably all the excuse they need. Certainly anything involving the disconcerting use of Nazi uniforms has always been right up their street.
Laibach are a remarkable outfit, best known for appropriately fascist regalia both to mock the repressive, Communist Tito regime running the Yugoslavia of the 1980s, but also to raise troubling questions for all sorts of implicated parties. The involvement of Balkan countries in support of the Nazis during World War II, the incipient far-right nationalist movements across the region, and the collusion of the UK in helping Tito to take charge, are all drawn into their coruscating narrative.
Named after the occupied version of Ljubljana, Laibach emerged from Slovenia in 1980, the epitome of menacing, exciting protest in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of Yugoslavia. In the process, they invented their own unmistakable sound. It is surely the way pop would have sounded if Hitler had won the war, an industrial, militaristic, highly aggressive sound. It is also very funny, playing the ludicrous, goose-stepping comedy of fascism with an impeccably straight face.
Reproduction Prohibited is just a taster, not least because Laibach specialise in wildly overblown concept albums. Picking tracks from these doesn’t really work. Anyone who likes their covers of, for example, ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Get Back’ from the Beatles’ Let It Be must rush out and obtain the full version, in which Laibach covers the entire album. Nevertheless, these two tracks illustrate beautifully how well Laibach both prick pomposity and expose hidden qualities in music we think we know. ‘Get Back’, shorn of all folksy, McCartney charm, sounds most alarming with the chorus intoned in an incredibly threatening deep voice, probably by the secret police. ‘Across the Universe’, played straight with bell-like female harmonies, sounds very different in this context – like heroin-fuelled, self-centred nonsense that abdicates responsibility in unforgivable fashion with its “Nothing’s going to change my world” refrain.
Perhaps the most famous Laibach track is ‘Gerburt Einer Nation’ (The Birth of the Nation), a German cover of Queen’s ‘One Nation’ which hilariously transforms it into a fascist anthem with deep throat vocals, kettle drums and a ‘Jah! Jah! Jah!” chorus. It is a work of genius in its simplicity, and it also neatly exposes the speciousness of stadium Queen during the era of their apartheid-busting shows in Sun City. ‘The Final Countdown’ is also very funny indeed, and the songs lends itself perfectly to the Laibach sound, which involves a machine-gun drum machine and guttural declarations such as “Ve are living togezzer / but still iss farewell / and maybe ve’ll come back to Eartsz, who can tell”, which in their hands sounds like a suicide pact.
New for this album is ‘Warme Lederhaut’, a cover of ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Normal, who was of course Daniel Miller, boss of Laibach’s label, Mute. It is just as militaristic as you would expect, but with disturbing sexual overtones. The Nazi stuff has familiarity by now, but Laibach in the bedroom is a genuinely horrifying prospect.
Everything on Reproduction Prohibited is special, and there isn’t room to discuss it all. However, a couple more tracks stand out. ‘Anglia’, from the Iron Sky soundtrack but also from their 2006 Volk album, consists of inventive covers of European national albums. ‘Germania’ is also on here, but ‘Anglia’ is particularly funny combining scathing comment on British superiority complexes with acidy dance beats. And there’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, a cover of the Bob Dylan song. Dylan, although not lacking in self-regard, seems a highly unlikely subject for a Laibach cover, but this is simply brilliant. The cover has the trademark SS vocals and firing squad drums, and the treatment turns the song inside out. Dylan’s version mocks the uncool outsider Mr Jones, who just isn’t hip enough to get ‘it’: Laibach turn the mockery into threats, sarcastically growling “You don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr Jones”, and make it very clear how easily victimisation emerges from group ideals of what’s cool and what’s not. It’s a concise and persuasive comment on the 60s, once heard hard to forget.
Anyone who doesn’t know Laibach owes it to themselves to change things fast. Reproduction Prohibited is a convenient halfway house, somewhere to stop by while you get your head together. Soon you’ll be ready for the world – the glorious, terrifying concept album world of Laibach, and nothing will be the same again.