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2016-09-11

Monoliths and Crosses : a pilgrimage to Bavaria and Slovenia


LAIBACH
with RTV SLOVENIA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
live at Krizanke, Ljubljana (Sept. 2nd 2016)

+

SUNN O))) and BIG|BRAVE
live at the Feierwerk, Munich (Sept. 1st 2016)




Last week I travelled over 1200 kilometres for a concert. People who come to certain festivals from the other side of the world are free to laugh about that, but for me that's a personal record. And of course it was for Laibach. If I believed in the rather unnecessary concept of having a favorite band, Laibach would have extremely good chances to occupy this title. On the other hand they are so different from any other group in so many ways, that I refuse to even put them in any context of rivalry to other artists.

There have been several occasions over the years, where they played special one-off concerts (like "Kohle ist Brot" or "Volkswagner") in their home country Slovenia and I was thinking: damn, if it was just a little bit closer around the corner!
Time, money, work - I just can't go anywhere I want whenever I want, so I always filed the dream of seeing Laibach in Laibach (german name of the slovene capital Ljubljana) under not impossible, yet still unlikely to happen soon.

This time though... I already thought I had passed yet another one-time chance by not seeing them in Brussels, where they had contributed to a celebration of Ljubljana as the "green capital of Europe" with a setlist you wouldn't expect at an official EU event - and of course with the support of an orchestra and a choir!

From the songs and snippets I saw it must have been utterly fantastic. So when they announced a similar show (with a different setlist and an even bigger orchestra) resistance was futile and I ordered my ticket.


Since the distance to Slovenia was too long for the car without at least a second driver and there were no direct flights available within my budget, I opted to use the railway for this journey.

I added one day for tourism after the concert to my stay in Ljubljana and one stop in Munich the day before to see one of the few bands on Earth that can actually live up to Laibach in terms of uniqueness and even beat them in several other respects: the mind-altering drone gods Sunn O))).



 

Thursday / SUNN O))) :


Do you remember me showing you my happy little badly swollen middle toe here last week?

Well, even with the swelling getting much better and thankfully not bothering me physically at all during my trip, it still managed to indirectly annoy me while I was waiting for my first train at the station of Itzehoe. I just wanted to take a fucking selfie with my digital toycam, but the MicroSD card was missing! Still in the slot of my PC of course, which wouldn't have happened - you know it -, if I hadn't taken that damn toe picture the day before.

So now I had to buy a new card. And the worst thing about that was that this had already happened to me once before.
Learning curve: ____________________________
But that applies to me with the whole traveling thing. I don't travel that much, so there are always mistakes, like the new neck cushion I actually only carried with me but never used. Or the fleece jacket which was also only a burden on this hot weekend.

I bought a new card at Hamburg main station, where I had more time than expected, because the Intercity train to Munich had a 15 minute delay had a 25 minute delay was cancelled due to a defect.
Yes, that was when I remembered why May 2007 had been the last time I had travelled a longer distance by train. Something always goes wrong.

As a result the next train was rather crowded and I got a first glimpse of the bullshit that would get much worse during the weekend: reserved seats. How many people spend their ride standing while dozens of seats remain empty with the people who reserved them never showing up?
How about a revolutionary new concept: Have a few wagons which are a bit more expensive, where you can exclusively reserve seats. Let's call these wagons "first class" and the rest of the train "second class"! But this shit with all those empty reservations - or even hidden reservations (you sit down on a seat marked as free until someone shows up with his superior ticket) - just plain sucks.

somewhere in Germany

arrival in Munich

The ride to Munich thankfully went smoothly. Yet with the arrival now at six in the evening there was no time left for any real sightseeing. As soon as I had refreshed myself a little I walked from my hotel to the Feierwerk.

On this way I passed the entry to Therese's Green, where the preparations for the Oktoberfest where already in full bloom. This being my only tourist attraction, paired with lots of advertising for Dirndls and Lederhosen and tons of Brezels and Leberkäs at the station left me with the impression of a city desperately wanting to live up to its stereotypes. Not flattering, but at least amusing.

And it was really warm for the time of the day. I'll give Munich that.

Oktoberfest's coming!

fairground truck arriving at Theresienwiese

dusk over the Feierwerk


This wasn't going to be my first Sunn O))) show.
I've already seen them a year ago at the Kampnagel in Hamburg.

So this concert clearly wasn't the initial reason for this trip, but the icing on the cake. In fact I only discovered the tour date in Munich about a week earlier and added the extra night to my bookings.
And of course I didn't risk to come here without a ticket for the show. Several locals did. And waited for the doors to open for an hour only to learn that the event was already sold out.

Guys, if you find yourselves here, please don't read any further! It will just cause regret and pain.
 

Big|Brave


The night began with Big|Brave, a trio from Canada, made of two guitar players and a drummer.

There was no bass guitar, but being labelmates of Sunn O))) on Southern Lord you could be sure that there was still a heavy shitload of deep sizzling going on, so you would never even think of missing it.

Big|Brave's style was a harsh mixture of sludge, drone and no wave antics with alternative noise rock, orbiting early Swans as well as  The White Stripes. It was without a doubt very intense and desperate, but in a way also didn't take itself too serious, especially when you looked at the obvious fun guitarist Mathieu Bernard Ball was having while he tortured his six strings with a carpet knife instead of a plectrum.

Their minimalistic repetitious grooves and non-grooves above all carried a strong spirit of Godflesh's "Streetcleaner" for me, yet with a totally different vocal approach, as singer Robin Wattie combined the slightly off but still captivating incantatory tone of young Yoko Ono / even younger punk Björk with the raging ferocity of Julie Christmas.

When I told her the latter at the merch stand, she didn't know Christmas or her collaborative album with Cult Of Luna, yet another fan who overheard the conversation seconded my impression, so yes, I'm not just making up some random bullshit here.

The other thing I mentioned then and will gladly repeat was that it is indeed brave to open for Sunn O))) and already an accomplishment if the audience still remembers your set after the mind-cleansing headliner.
(I have no serious memories of the support act in Hamburg last year.)

And Big|Brave did even more than that. They left a strong and original impression, and I've listened to their phenomenal debut album "Au De La" several times a day since I'm home again.
Too bad that I bent literally every corner of the LP cover on the following travel day, but in the end it's the inner qualties that count, right?

Great band, great show, great album.








After a short break to remove Big|Brave's equipment, the stage was set up with the familiar multitude of speaker/amplifier stacks for the central rogue moog and the guitars of Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson. But there was also an element I didn't know from Hamburg, as there were also keys and a trombone waiting to be played.

But before that there was smoke. And more smoke. And even more smoke.
 


Sunn O)))

The whole room was drowned in fog which didn't leave anything on stage visible. And that's not an exaggaration! I stood in the first row and could see absolutely nothing, not even my own hand on my outstretched arm. When I looked behind me I could at best guess the sillhouettes of maybe five people. Only the chattering noises gave away that this night was sold out.

All conversations soon stopped when out of the void a single guttural voices chanted otherworldy invocations. For several minutes there was only blindness and the haunting voice of Attila Csihar. That was the part of the performance you could still put into the context of what you normally know to be a musical live performance.

But then came the full drone of the whole band. While the veil of smoke was never lifted entirely but thinned out just enough to let you recognize the five Sunn O))) members in their iconic cowls, the universe with all its mortal beings therein was dwarfed, while time became a distant memory of the far away future.

At a point the only connection to the chronometry of the outer world seemed to be when a single drop of sweat dropped from the tip of the almost motionless singer's spread fingers.

While they are able to vary their performance to a form where songs are recognizable (just listen to their live album "Domkirke"), on their current tours Sunn O))) are about a different experience. Try to find the complete setlist of a Sunn O))) show on setlist.fm and you'll see that it's very rare that a user dares to guess the songs.
This time I could  detect sounds from "Kannon", but I can't even say at what point that happened. If there has been anything else I would normally know it must have been buried from my perception by the sheer relentless volume.

A Sunn O))) show is one uninterrupted, sonically overwhelming flow of deep and dark noises that engulf your senses, your mind and your body, a psychological and physical experience and challenge.

In Hamburg I had endured the whole two hours(?) in the front row, but this time the brutal intensity of it all beat me. The room here was much lower and smaller, the humidity so high that it was hard to hold a bottle in your hands. I actually dropped mine and didn't even hear it hit on the ground.
At some point I suddenly felt a pressure on my throat which forced me to sit down, so I literally kneeled in front of the stage, which at most other concert would have felt weird to me, but here it obviously was just another day at the office.

And even though I knew that Csihar would change into his spectacular mirror costume for the finale I ditched the opportunity to take a good picture of that. I just had to give up and get something to drink (and buy my Big|Brave record) in the next room.

But I'm not mad. So Sunn O))) beat me, there's no shame in that. In a way it was part of the experience, which I am still recommending to anyone who wants to widen his knowledge about what music can be or do. Next time I'll rise harder and stronger!


And how did the trombone sound?

Well, it was deep, dark and droning.
















When orientating yourself in a strange city with the copy of a Google map (nope, I still don't use a smartphone), make sure that the resolution is at least high enough to show the name of every street you pass.

Being reminded of this old lesson I returned to my hotel room a few minutes later than necessary, took a very much needed shower and dropped into bed like a stone.


after-Sunn O)))-self portrait




Friday / LAIBACH:


With my hotel room looking out on an important street near the main station getting up early was no problem at all.

Breakfast was fine and the following train ride from Munich to Villach near the Austrian-Slovenian border was the best of the whole weekend. Not too crowded, a window seat with enough legroom, slumbering in the sun, waking up and watching landscapes go by, closing the eyes again... Just relaxing sleepy lazy vacation mode.


morning in Munich

Austrian mountains

Austrian rivers

Austrian castles

Austrian trees

Austrian valleys

But all good things must end and so came the change to another much bumpier train. All windows and cabin doors were open - and they had to be, so noone would melt.
Found a seat against the driving direction, facing the passenger type intellectual manspreader, who reads his Reclam book while giving his probably medicine ball sized testicles room to breathe. The Austrian outlooks were preferable.

Slovenia itself seemed to be a very beautiful country though:  








I arrived in the Slovenian capital in the middle of the afternoon.

The first thing I realized was that the climate was obviously even more mediterranean than in Munich - and the shorts and hot pants in some cases got ridiculously short and hot. Well, I'm not complaining.

The second thing was the greatest danger to tourists in this place which is very low on crime: the two-wheeled traffic. Ljubljana is a very cyclist-friendly city, but that doesn't mean that the cyclists are moving very pedestrian-friendly themselves.

The beds in my room were very narrow, because much space was occupied by a giant air conditioning system which dominated the room. But since I was not going to do sports in here I could do without it and just left the window wide open.

To my surprise there also was a computer, so I decided to take a break from my online abstinence and check my facebook account. Yet the Firefox version was so antique - and an earlier visitor still logged in and apparantly unable to log out - that I quickly ditched this distraction and returned to my regular plan of showering, eating, shopping beverages for the fridge and taking a first stroll in the beautiful center of Ljubljana.










In the early evening I had a quite sudden moment of realisation, when it finally dawned to me, that it would really happen: In about two hours I was going to see Laibach in Laibach! With an orchestra!


Laibach
Laibach

The summer theater Križanke is an outdoor stage located inside an old monastary of the Order of Teutonic Knights, a phantastic amphitheatre-like location in the heart of the historic city.

The only thing I didn't like that much was that there was a two-class division of the audience with reserved seats (yes, I'm starting with that topic again!) in the front and standing places in the back, behind the line of TV cameras which were filming the event. So even standing in one of the first rows this was still by far the greatest distance to the stage I've ever experienced on one of my now eleven Laibach concerts. That felt a little bit odd. And besides a few lead vocals not being loud enough this is probably the only criticism I can give about the whole concert.


The band's line-up was the same as on the last tours, with Luka Jamnik (synth), iconic singer Milan Fras, the stern and always praise-worthy Mina Špiler (vocals, synth) and Rok Lopatič (synth) building a kraftwerkian front row, backed up by drummer Janez Gabrič.

I didn't even try to count how big the orchestra was, but every square meter of the stage behind conductor Simon Dvoršak seemed to be filled with musicians and singers. This was not some egotistic rock band passing off a handful of cellists as an orchestra, this was the real thing in every respect.


The set was split into two acts, which has been common for Laibach shows for a long time. This time though Act I only consisted of two compositions.

The first one was "Olav Tryggvason", Laibach's interpretation of an unfinished opera of Edvard Grieg. Wholly sung in norwegian this 25-minute-piece has been opening a lot of concerts since its premiere in Oslo 2014 now. I've known the advantgarde/industrial/electro heavy composition, whose only official recording is a limited download from last year's US tour, from the Kampnagel concert in Hamburg last year.
It has also been featured in the Brussels orchestra show.

Unsurprisingly the addition of the RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra along with its choir added a lot of dynamic layers and epic grandeur to the piece. Even though there were several changes and additions to the instrumental and vocal arrangements, all in all it stayed very recognizable, at least for the majority of its two main parts.
The clerical epilogue which concluded the known version however was cut away and replaced by the most stereotype thing you can play when you have an orchestra at hand for your use: The "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
On one hand this was probably an expression of Laibach's weird humour, on the other hand you just can't deny that Ludwig van's signature tune just still is extremely good and effective.

It also set a rare positive counterpoint to the show as a whole and the dark piece, which was following immediately afterwards.


I cannot go too deep into specific content-related details due to my Slovene being a bit rusty non-existing, but I definitely know that I was deeply impressed by the premiere of the half-hour-long suite "Krst pro Savici" ("Baptism By The savica").
A moving and rousing piece dealing with historic events set in the times of the conversion of the slovene pagans to Christianity (which lead to the cultural seperation of the Slovenes from the other South Slavs and a thousand year-long Austrian hegemony), this was also an anniversary celebration of the thematically close "Krst pod Triglavom", a Neue Slowenische Kunst stage play from thirty years ago, to which Laibach had contributed the soundtrack. It's also one of the more obscure works in Laibach's discography.


The performace was stunning and I really hope that these two pieces (or this concert as a whole) will get a proper release one day. Along with "Smrt Za Smrt" I consider "Krst pro Savici" the musical heart of this night.

But I also need to address the visual aspect, which worked especially great in this part of the show.
The band and the orchestra / choir were seperated by a half-transparent curtain, which mostly served as a projection surface for video effects. Combined with the second screen in the back of the stage this lead to some pretty impressive 3D-like effects. The great visuals were accompanied by a clever light show which often either highlighted or hid the band / orchestra half of the stage.


The twenty-minute intermission after this spectacular premiere went by painfully slow.











Act II was the more accessable part of the show for the casual Laibach listener and was mostly made out of material known from the current tours. To my surprise the "Sound of Music" songs from the band's visit to North Korea, which will be featured in a documentary musical to premiere later this year, were not incorporated at all. This may be because there has already been at least one special event dedicated to them in Slovenia.

As I had heard those tunes being performed on tour in January, I wasn't too disappointed by them not being around now.

With the orchestra elevating every song to goose bumps educing spheres, there had to be classics and recent songs missing, which you would have loved to hear in this immensely mighty fashion. Ask hundred Laibach fans and you'll probably get two hundred more wishes.
But all in all I was happy with the set as it was.

Thematically it was build around the refugee crisis and the current European disunity, starting off right with "Eurovision". The "Europe is falling apart" chorus never sounded so convincing.
The resurrected "WAT" song "Now You Will Pay" hit hard on drums and percussions, starting only with minimal strings, winds and voices, yet in the end it was swirling with unsettling noises.

"Smrt Za Smrt" ("Death For Death") even icreased the intensity. These eight minutes of epochal magnitude alone were worth the effort to come here.Live music doesn't get greater.

The rest of the set was made of "Spectre" songs with the exception of the Mina Spiler spotlight "Vor Sonnen-Aufgang" which was the most surpring addition and served well as substitute for familiar ballads like "Across The Universe".


The encore was the only part of the show where Laibach tapped into greatest hits territory with the medley of "Opus Dei" / "Leben heißt Leben". And especially the brutal german rendition of "Life Is Life" still gets its point across very successful.


What can say about this whole show with my limited vocabulary?
Bliss, just bliss.


Setlist:
  • Olav Tryggvason
  • Krst pri Savici
       
  • Eurovison
  • Now You Will Pay
  • Smrt Za Smrt
  • We Are Millions And Millions Are One
  • Vor Sonnen-Aufgang
  • The Whistleblowers
  • Resistance Is Futile
           
  • Opus Dei / Leben Heißt Leben


I had to buy a T-shirt, because I didn't bring enough for the weekend. And I also couldn't leave with the beautifully mighty poster of the event, even though it would be a risk to travel with the big roll.

My sleep was good and satisfied, even though it was borderline hot for my taste.












Ok, I guess, if you're only here for the musical part, you can stop reading now. On the other hand I won't go on too long about the following two days...



Saturday / Ljubljana:


For breakfast I had to walk a few minutes from my pension to another hotel. After the receptionist showed me the way he commented "Nice shirt, sir!" on my newly bought Laibach wear.
Similar thing back at the pension. Turned out that Laibach is a good conversation starter in Ljubljana. Who would have thought, haha.


The parole for the rest of the day was: Tourism galore!


I was on my feet the whole day, exploring Ljubljana from Tivoli Park to Dragon Bridge to the castle with its far outlook.
Since I brought some film cameras with me, I will probably dedicate another post to this day in a few weeks, as soon as everything is developed and scanned.

I also visited two small record stores where I purchased some second hand albums from Procol Harum, Herbie Hancock and Return To Forever, as well as some rather creepy yugoslavian Volksmusik seven inches.

Even though the city is rather small and everything in the center is very close and for pedestrians only, in the evening my feet were seriously sore and swollen.
In fact ironically the only parts of my feet not hurting were the middle toes. If you don't get what I'm talking about, you have probably forgotten the beginning of this long report. I don't blame you.

After I pre-packed my luggage as good as I closed the day with a nice cup of fruit and ice and a drink I can`t remember, because I'm an absolute amateur in regards of alcohol. Which doesn`t mean that I got sooo drunk. I just don't know any drinks.















Sunday / homewards:


Good morning, Rimska Cesta!

Early breakfast, still more than an hour to go, until I had to check out, so I visited the nearby Trg Republike Square opposite the Slovenian Parliament again. Even though communism had tried to throw its ugly architecture upon many parts of the genuinely pretty city, it hasn't been too successful in the old historic heart by the river.

Yet this place... If there is any location more laibachian than this in Laibach, someone needs to tell me, so I'm prepared to visit it if I ever go there again.








I had almost a full day of train travelling before me and Ljubljana left me with a bad last impression, as it was impossible to get some sandwiches or other serious provision for my ride at the main station.

Yes, it was Sunday morning! But come on, you're supposed to be a state capital!
So it was only sweet vendor food for me the whole day. I wanted to join the dining car after the much too short change into another train in Munich, but alas it was an IC (not ICE), so there was no fucking dining car.

Other joys of this day were reserved seats en masse again (and me using one of those exclusively for my vinyl/magazine bag for more than six hours while I was sitting on one of the very last free seats myself). Or a stressful austrian lady who carried luggange for at least four people and insisted in placing everything in the cabin instead of the corridor and then closed the door which was still absolutely unnecessary given the hot summer weather.

But in the end it mostly was a comfortable day.
My feet wholly recovered from Saturday's burdens and my poster and records remained unharmed.


At point midnight I reached Itzehoe.

Work would suck and go very slow on Monday, but that was a small price for this highly memorable weekend.










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