"We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter," declared Laibach, collectively, in an interview with the German magazine Die Zeit.
Nonetheless, it's easy to mistake the monolithic industrial-dance group from Slovenia for a bunch of fascists. The group that has founded its own sovereign nation in recent years dons itself in fascist-styled garb, decorates its album covers with dark Stalinist design and plays dirge-like anthems with totalitarian lyrical overtones.
Yet the Ljubljana-based quartet's penchant for catchy tunes and clever song revisions (its covers of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" and the Beatles' entire Let It Be album in particular) is equally suited to "war presidents" and the techno-goth set alike.
Last month, the group released a new best-of double album, Anthems. While the first disc features some of Laibach's most rousing tracks, the second disc includes remixes of its most popular songs, as well as a handful of unreleased recordings. The album also includes a 40-page booklet showcasing paintings, photos and writing about the band.
Although the band plays with fascist imagery and Wagnerian grandeur, its artistic intent is far more subversively anti-authoritarian. As artists raised in the former Communist-occupied Yugoslavia, Laibach began in 1979 as a reminder of its nation's dark past. The group members--who prefer to speak as a collective, never revealing the names of individual participants--took their moniker from the German name given their hometown during the Nazi occupation. Yugoslav government and media at the time reacted with hostility to the artist collective's brash appropriation of a past the country was eager to forget. Laibach was officially banned from performing in its homeland in 1980. Even the name was restricted from use until 1987.
Laibach, and the Neue Slowenische Kunst (or NSK) artist collective it founded in 1984, states in its manifesto that its intent is based "on the premise that traumas from the past affecting the present and the future can be healed only by returning to the initial conflicts." Hence, the shaved heads and military attire serve as a dose of cynical play-acting. After being banned in its homeland, the group soldiered on (so to speak) for years, touring throughout Europe and playing under various monikers at home--occasionally only identified by its imposing rune-symbol logo. After signing a deal with mega-indie labels Mute Records in London and Wax Trax! Records in the U.S., Laibach's popularity with industrial music fans blossomed. Its first widely available release, 1987's Opus Dei, featured the band's signature cartoonishly stilted version of "Life Is Life," which received considerable MTV airplay and brought the confounding and controversial group worldwide recognition. The video depicted Laibach members roaming the Slovenian hillside in full militaristic regalia, backed by marching drums and triumphant horns heralding its deceptively simple declaration, sung with heavy Eastern European accents: "When we all feel the power/ Life is life/ when we all feel the pain/ Life is life!"
The album's success inspired the band to give some classic pop songs the full Laibach treatment. But the pinnacle of its daring, the revised version of the entire Beatles album Let It Be, failed to capture the hearts of millions, instead becoming a novelty.
There's more to the grou, however, than a simple one-hit wonder. With the possible exception of Dolly Parton's Dollywood, no other artist has ever established itself as its own sovereign nation. In the '90s, the NSK State, composed of a group of artists, was established with its own passports, proclamations, embassies, consulates and stamps. Though the state is not officially recognized throughout the world, NSK passports were accepted as valid by various factions during the Yugoslav civil war.
The NSK State exists essentially as an idea, a "temporary autonomous zone" within which audiences experience art and ideas free from political manipulation because it is art that, in the NSK's words, "speaks the language of the same manipulation." In other words, "the Man" wouldn't dare mess with art that seemingly celebrates his own imperatives of control.
In the years since the establishment of NSK and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the ban on Laibach has been lifted, allowing the group to perform emotionally charged concerts for crowds in Sarajevo and in its hometown.
And, for the first time since before Dubya first came to power, Laibach returns to the United States. Perhaps Americans are finally ready for a quasi-fascist band?
Laibach plays with Bonfire Madigan Thursday, Nov. 18, at Sabala's at Mount Tabor, 4811 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-1646. 9:30 pm. Cover. 21+.