To dismiss Balkan music as peasant folk songs and imitative disco-pop is to incur the wrath of an angry God and his earthly medium. If religion was actively suppressed in the Soviet Union and its satellite nations during the reign of communism, Laibach was its release valve. The Slovenian metal gods are obsessed not so much with Judgment Day fury, but the various ways in which the teachings of Jesus have been misappropriated by the church, government, and individuals.
Unless you've surfed over to their Website, you probably don't know that Laibach are the musical arm of a multinational artists' collective called Neue Slowenische Kunst ("New Slovenian Art"). If ever you should seek political asylum, you can take comfort in the fact that Laibach claim nationhood status, with "consulates" in Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Copenhagen that are authorized to issue passports. (Stacks of applications were available in the front of the house at the Trocadero, and at $29 a pop, at least they're cheaper than U.S. passports.) Just because they're on an Orthodox Christian jag, don't think that Laibach proselytize -- quite the contrary. With a reputation for making waves with the authorities in the Balkan republics, these provocateurs from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana are on a mission to promote critical thinking on all issues of life, art, and politics -- or at least get a reaction from folks. Anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-status quo, anti-idealist -- Laibach oppose, therefore they are.
Early '80s works like Baptism, with its percussive pummel and full-on noise, are far more frightening than the Spinal Tap stuff that Laibach have been doing lately on Resurrection, and, more recently, on Jesus Christ Superstars (Mute). Whatever sort of musical transformation they've undergone, the latest opus rocks hard, though conventionally. There's something all too appealing about the way Milan Fras' gargles-with-sand voice tops the grinding hooks and Gregorian choir replete with death knells.
My beef isn't that Laibach have gotten cartoony of late. Popular music, after all, has traditionally been well aware of its lack of high seriousness -- as evidenced by punk effrontery or shock rock. The problem here is that Laibach don't get their own jokes, and worse, even if they did it wouldn't matter: The band's performance on March 22 was plain boring. Jesus Christ Superstars is probably the best techno-metal album out of Europe right now, but the band needs to enroll in the American school of rock-star panache. They take themselves far too seriously, even for Eastern Europeans. This gig could almost have been mistaken for one of those impossibly long Russian Orthodox services. The Old Testament-style scare tactics were engrossing at first, but after an hour or so you start tuning out -- and stop hearing altogether -- the obnoxious torrent of fire and brimstone.
It would be asking too much of artists to pander completely to an audience, but Laibach were so convinced of their own righteousness that they failed to even acknowledge us sinners in the crowd. Slavic peoples may be uncomfortable with the social looseness on this side of the Atlantic, but Laibach's Iron Curtain austerity, which was supposed to have an air of menace, came across as stiff. They were a band entirely ill at ease outside the studio. When people shell out 15 bucks for a concert, they expect a little something more than just a straight-ahead rehash of the recorded material -- and dry ice doesn't count! Maybe it was the hefty dose of Absolut in my Greyhound, but the only thing Laibach provoked on this night was drowsiness.
Of far greater note was the first act, Oaktown's own Idiot Flesh -- perhaps the finest noise-art performance troupe of its kind in the East Bay. With a smattering of 7-inches on the local indie label Vaccination Records and a full-length CD, The Nothing Show, on their own label, Rock Against Rock, these guys only played a handful of numbers, but their prog sensibilities made for rather lengthy songs. Dressed like surreal clowns, members Pin, Win, Din, and Jin incorporated electric cello, violin, flute, and an assortment of synthesized drums into an exhaustive tumble of noise exercises, absurdist arias, and intricately layered a cappellas that left the audience utterly rapt from start to finish. I think some peckerhead yelled "Get the fuck off the stage" or something, but it was a negligible detraction.
The set reached its dramatic climax when mysterious fire lady Telula Lipenfetch did a hypnotic dance with flaming torches atop a 10-foot wheeled platform in the middle of the pit. The woman had dexterity and stamina in bucketloads. After lead singer Pin emerged from a strobe-lit box at the end of "Twinge," he knew how to elicit a few laughs with his leaden Max von Sydow routine: "Thank you. Thank you for your kindness." If Idiot Flesh haven't reinvented the rock opera, they've at least injected it with some Cirque du Soleil-style energy. If they have any to spare, they should donate it to Laibach.