Strange is the world of Laibach that it has taken 3 years for an audio document of this project to emerge. Given the publicity surrounding Laibach’s high adventures in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one might have predicted a hastened release instead of the ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA album from last year. Perhaps the concept needed time to fester, brew, cache, sublimate or whatever… undoubtedly, the Laibach process accomplishes what it needs to in its own mysterious way. If this were some faux-populist rock band, it would certainly have been expedited to market for altogether crass reasons, and the album would be dripping with obvious tones of magnolia political earnestness. That this is a Laibach album speaks silent volumes about its evasive message and mischievous ambiguities.
In terms of the visual communication/disinformation, Laibach’s detailing is immaculate and the gatefold record is a thing of considerable beauty. Four propaganda styled paintings including a particularly splendid front cover, an inner sleeve illustration featuring Ivan Novak bearing sinister resemblance to Kim Jong-un, and a gaudy gold embossed graphic on the rear make this a work of art before the record even hits the turntable.
Laibach’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC is based on obvious picks from core works of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage musical score, not the subsequent movie adaption. Most likely for reasons of overall cohesion we are missing NO WAY TO STOP IT (which thematically would have worked nicely) and the mawkish HOW CAN LOVE SURVIVE (thankfully!). In terms of extra material Richard Rodgers penned for the movie after Oscar Hammerstein’s death, the cloying slush of SOMETHING GOOD has been appreciatively sidestepped, but I HAVE CONFIDENCE is notable in its absence – It seems very much in tandem with the overall concept of what Laibach sets out to achieve with the source material… all sorts of magnificent may have resulted!
Laibach’s version of the title track, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, is a sedate opener of radically different emotion to that which is ingrained in memory via pop culture. No swirling orchestration and gallivanting across high meadows to open proceedings, but no cynical stomping Laibach either. This project leans heavily on the vocals of Boris Benko, with the ever-present bass growl of Milan Fras taking some leads and punctuating elsewhere. It’s curious that Mina Špiler doesn’t appear anywhere given that she was very much a part of the DPRK excursion and has felt, to Laibach enthusiasts at least, like a fully-fledged member of the band in recent years. Although what that looks like on the inside could be a different matter entirely.
In the process of building a new musical repertoire with outside source material, it is inevitable that certain elements will work better than others. This was the case with at least a couple of tracks on LET IT BE (the cover of the Beatles album from 1988) and VOLK (interpretations of 13 national anthems from 2006). CLIMB EV’RY MOUNTAIN feels more like a necessity than a particularly inspired result and is very much Laibach on cruise control… But the original was a nauseous affair so what do you do with it? Is it possible to turn vomit into gold?
DO-RE-MI features the first of 3 vocals by Marina Mårtensson, a Swedish Jazz singer based in Slovenia. With additional layered vocals, both vocoded and choral, this builds into something lush and creepy. EDELWEISS continues in this vein with the intertwined vocals of Boris Benko and Milan Fras set to a slow undulating beat and synth orchestrations. Rounding out side one, MY FAVOURITE THINGS is one of the more successful renditions of the album and unsurprisingly one of the promotional videos in the lead up to its release. Like a lot elsewhere, Laibach doesn’t force an old-school stomp over everything. Instead there’s restraint and breathing space, enabling the Rogers & Hammerstein melodies to guide the material, where convenience might otherwise have reconstructed it into something harsh.
Laibach’s sinister playfulness works to best effect on THE LONELY GOATHERD opening side two of the album. This is a smirking and sentimental interpretation of what was the original bedroom/storm song from the stage play, before it became the basis of the movie’s spirited puppet show scene. A promotional video for the track squeezes all sorts of darkness and light from the original text and is a rare opportunity to see Milan Fras smiling. SIXTEEN GOING ON SEVENTEEN is a duet between Milan Fras and Marina Mårtensson. Like CLIMB EV’RY MOUNTAIN, this is a track that only really works in the context of the album as a whole. As a stand-alone it is somewhat uninteresting. No such complaint can be made about SO LONG, FAREWELL. Judiciously reworked to contrast Milan Fras’s gentle growl with a children’s choir, a trite show tune is transformed into something that retains the sentiment but shakes the schmaltz. MARIA / KOREA is exactly what you think it is… This sounds like a terrible idea but not only does it work, it’s the conceptual lynchpin of the album in so many ways. An arrangement of ARIRANG completes the vinyl release. Not part of the Sound Of Music songbook, this is a 600-year-old folk song draws uncanny real world parallels with EDELWEISS – It served as a resistance anthem against Japanese Imperialism, and is widely considered an unofficial anthem of Korea, north and south.
Two extra tracks appear on the CD & digital version of the album. THE SOUND OF GAYAGEUM is a short instrumental featuring an arrangement for group and Korean 12 string zither performed by students from the Kum Song Music School in Pyongyang. WELCOME SPEECH is a bureaucratic and denouncing rant delivered by one Mr. Ryu of the DPRK Committee of Cultural relations. Both were recorded during their Korean excursion.
As a self-contained body of work, Laibach’s THE SOUND OF MUSIC excels at twisting the one piece of American pop culture encouraged by DPRK authorities into something that speaks volumes about them. It is curious and questioning but not overtly cynical or condemning. And as is typical of all things Laibach, there’s more layers to this, some intentional and others undoubtedly stumbled upon in the process.
Sleeve notes include an extract of “The Art Of The Opera” by Kim Jong Il in which he may have inadvertently described Laibach where 1000 music journalists have failed – “ Adaptation is a new form of creative work. Adaptation translates the ideological content of one original work into another in conformity with the characteristics of a latter form of art, literature or music”.
If you have an aversion to the source material, recurring childhood traumas about dressing in curtains and singing about jam and bread, or were not particularly fond of Laibach’s previous collaborations with Boris Benko and Silence ( esp. the VOLK record from 2006) then maybe this is not a flavour of Laibach to sink your teeth into. For the hungry Laibach enthusiast, it’s another weird, playful and sinister addition to this worthy and rewarding oeuvre.