Laibach live: the Slovenian avant-garde group bring North Korea-approved ‘Sound Of Music’ show to the UK

They were banned for half a decade in their native Slovenia when it still part of Yugoslavia. Back then, Laibach silently embodied the visual tropes of Nazi totalitarianism with panache. And as they played their heavy industrial music, Communist governors were sent into a tailspin.

Their inscrutable image of strength and autocratic power made it impossible to distinguish satire from reality, or indeed the Communist group’s image-making from the Fascists that they existed to stand against. On a Friday in London at the beginning of March, nearly four decades later, Laibach’s stern-minded historical revisionism and penchant for uncanny embodiment takes aim at one of Austria’s other cultural legacies beyond Hitler: The Sound of Music.

Most recently known for being the first band to perform in North Korea, 2018 The Sound Of Music cover album is a result of the band finding something to play for North Korea that didn’t offend its censors. A near-total run-through forms the first part of a three act show that juxtaposes three of Laibach’s various skins – musical theatre revisionism, 80s Slovenian industrial avant-garde and kistchy blockbuster Americana – in a way that is as engaging and entertaining as it is utterly bamboozling and dissonant.

The Sound of Music playback is fast, punchy and playful. Boris Benko’s luxurious vocals are as smooth as the tuxedo he performs in, while Marina Martensson’s tone is soaring and sweet, filled with Alpine abandonment. Their voices triangulate well with iconic frontman Milan Fras’s trademark growl. ‘The Lonely Goat-herder’ and ’16 going on 17′ are the most powerful arrangements that swell in their own right, but the playthroughs are quick and to the point meaning that even the less impactful bits pass smoothly enough to make the ensemble concept hold. Act one ends, as the album does, with a segue into a North Korean staple, ‘Arirang.’

After a 15 minute interval the audience might be returning to another show. Laibach perform new arrangements of songs originally written and released between 1981 and 1987 during which the band were actively suppressed by the Yugoslav Communist government. ‘

Mi kujemo bodočnost’ (Eng: ‘We are forging the future!’) makes a clean break from what came before: its dark industrial militarism gives way to a brief, explosive burst of heavy metal. ‘Vier Personnen’ (‘Four People’) is a crazy atonal jazz sojourn that is as mechanical as it is unhinged. The section closes with the powerful ‘Ti, Ki Izzivas’ (“You who challenge”) – a peon to Partisan chivalry, bloodshed and death. Its context and depth is about as far removed from 2019 London as you can get. But, whether the symbolism is understood or not, the music packs.

The encore shifts the tone once again. Kicking off with their terrible but persistently appearing cover of Sympathy Of The Devil, Martensson reappears looking like a strange whitewashed version of Beyonce’s Foxy Cleopatra from the ignoble Austin Powers 3. They follow with two tracks from their soundtrack to the crowd-sourced rotten tomato of a movie Iron Sky – the one about Moon Nazis, in case you’ve forgotten.

Fras dons a cowboy hat as they close out with the country and western ode to love ‘Surfing Through The Galaxy’. It’s weird, uncanny, and perhaps not very good – but the closing image for the evening’s bizarre triptych is a memorable vignette that captures Laibach’s wild capacity for contrast and conflict in the most comprehensive of terms.

Pictures by Dave Pettit