EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN – Perpetuum Mobile (2004)

Review by: A.A
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

For the ever-adventurous (and the occasionally-unsettling – but I’d say that depends more on your constitution) Einstürzende Neubauten, air compressors, car tyres and dried leaves are as good instruments as any to feature on an album. And 2004’s Perpetuum Mobile – released almost a quarter century since the band’s formation – certainly features a diverse range of them. A mere look at the album credits shows, in addition to the usual rock music mundanities, such delights as Hammond organ, clavichord, pianos of various varieties, radios, loops, plastic tubes, metal sheets, pedal steel guitar, accordion, vibraphone, euphonium, trombone, tuba (played by one Natascha Zickerick – totally digging that name), viola, violin, cello, and bells & whistles (literally). And yes, compressed air, tyres and the crunchy sonic textures produced using dried leaves certainly have their place too in the whole scheme of things here.

Intrigued as you are, you hit the Play button, to be instantaneously greeted by lethargic drones coaxed out of the aforementioned air compressor against a chugging rhythm with Blixa Bargeld’s distinctive later-era half-raconteur, half-hypnotist vocals. So it’s been decades since the days of stealing construction site equipment to craft dissonant punk-industrial pieces fraught with searing vocal angst à la Kollaps, and we now have a sophisticated, clinically charming storyteller backed by a post-postmodern orchestra. But what story are they trying to tell? Lyrically the album offers us some cues, though the details are sketchy: cold, permafrost, planets, air travel & intergalactic journeys, tsunamis, tornadoes, storms and floods. Often it seems to be about the very real struggles and experiences faced by the refugees to an unknown planet. Maybe the album name Perpetuum Mobile (meaning “continuous motion”, but also the continuous rapid succession of notes in a piece of music) is a reference to this continuous struggle as well? Indeed the first track Iche gehe jetzt though heavy on drones and percussions, has also subtle clavichord and organ touches (a technique also used on some other tracks with various keyboard instruments for a similar effect); another allusion to that bittersweet struggle for life on remote galactic habitats perhaps?

The namesake title track is where Einstürzende Neubauten pay homage to their more primal past with metal-sheet banging and a raucous shrill leading to blips and beeps of a possibly last transmission by people trapped inside a space shuttle going awry. And right next up is the Ein leichtes leises Säuseln, which could – with its melancholic pianos, sombre autumn vibe produced using crunching dried leaves, and gentle vocals – very well be an obituary of the previous track’s demised as a storm slowly gathers around the lonely survivor-narrator (role-played by Blixa) on the run from an unseen menace. Easily the most heart-touching track on the album.

Selbstportrait mit Kater continues lyrically with the ordeal of the protagonist, with its nonchalant play of bass and rattles (as if the intergalactic gods don’t care what becomes of poor Blixa), some Kraftwerk-reminiscent moments, and a hard percussion pattern recurring now and again – and here’s when Blixa candidly admits: “Life on other planets is difficult!”. Though things look bleak, a glimmer of hope is on the galactic horizon with Boreas. Maybe the other survivors have eventually reunited with Blixa, and now they travel across an icy wasteland looking for the asteroid that will take them to a safer haven. The cold Arctic ambiance and Blixa’s semi-hopeful vocals convey this desperation well. Ein seltener Vogel follows with its drony backdrop and cymbal percussion and seems to be about a rare bird – perhaps a phoenix – a sign of some hope to the weary narrator after his comrades seem to have disappeared in the wake of a torrential downpour.

Ozean und Brandung is the nondescript odd-one-out here. It just drones on and on for almost four minutes with seemingly no other purpose than to callously induce in the mind of the listener the empathy for the suffering and uncertainly faced by our friend the protagonist. Thankfully its successor Paradiesseits is aglow with an almost cheery Alpine beauty. Also Blixa seems happy at the relief he’s found from his troubles in some kind of a paradise or oasis and is finally enjoying the warmth of the sun by the water and feasting on fishes while his mentor the bird offers him instruction and advice in his dreams about the course he should pursue to describe his experiences in form of the very album we have before us. Lyrics I must admit I never expected to find on an industrial album!

The lyrical gears shift into English for Youme & Meyou (oh, did I mention they were predominantly German except for an English line here and there till now?) So the survivors have come together and cultivated an urban civilization modeled as best they could after Earth – with such familiar things as Starbucks, hotels, laptops and tangerines, though there’s some danger from radioactivity and natural calamities. And as Blixa says, if the future isn’t bright at least it’s colorful. Musically, however, the track is rather plain and lackluster with drawn-out synth passages over subdued tribal rhythms.

I would venture on to describe Der Weg ins Freie as an octane-fueled EBM (Electro Body Music) track reminiscent somewhat of Front 242. But the piano flourishes give it a rather gravely soulful touch – a counterpoint to the catchy beats and blithe vocals. The lyrics seemingly allude to the routine experiences of exploration and travels conducted by the now-settled narrator. Perhaps this is what these settlers dance to on the galactic electro-industrial clubs on their alien planet when they get bored with the rut. For me, easily a standout track.

Though their colony is firmly established, they haven’t yet found a sure, complete remedy for death and consequently Dead Friends (Around the Corner) is about venturing into some sort of technological limbo where your dead friends are preserved and maybe even artificially reanimated. Musically the track is not anything out of the ordinary, though it does have some moments of interesting percussion work. The album comes to an end with Grundstück – an almost clockwork-like piece chronicling some mechanized Buddhist ritual in a strange temple on our alien planet, with lyrical themes of putting up with a hazy, distant past.

Earlier I mentioned the sheer amount and diversity of the instrumentation but the band manages to successfully combine them organically and thankfully it does not lead to a tasteless sonic hotchpotch. And so ends this review bidding farewell to our alien colonist friends with some lines from the album:

Ich treibe Inzest mit den Sternen!
Ich treibe Inzest mit den Sternen!
Life on other planets is difficult!

68 / 100