Even the most notorious noiseniks show their softer sides up close. Take Lou Reed’s infamous opus Metal Machine Music, for instance. Go ahead, play it at your next dinner party (all four sides if possible); it’s as effervescent and refreshing as good champagne, sparkling and brimming with shimmering harmonics. Or how about that 24 Hours of Throbbing Gristle box set? Turn it down low and you could fall asleep to it. The Japanese noise extremist Merzbow might seem as fun as snorting wasabi, but his music these days is more mellow than you’d expect. Listen on headphones and dig the subtleties of tone and texture, the crash and tumble of sonic waves, and the colorful sound-blips splattered all over the place like a Pollock painting. Then there’s Einstürzende Neubauten, the German band famed for crafting music out of a cling-clang sturm und drang of industrial machinery and urban detritus. In the early ’80s, Neubauten were the loudest, most terrifying band imaginable. As they’ve gotten older, they’ve turned down the levels—swapping most of the shrieking for singing and most of the maelstroms for melodies—while still managing to keep things interesting.
You can trace Neubauten’s tendency for tunefulness all the way back to 1981, actually. While the band was still practicing with power tools under an autobahn overpass in Berlin, they inadvertently wrote a pop song, “Kalte Sterne” (Cold Stars). The band could wring beauty (and horror) out of pneumatic drills, concrete, chainsaws. Though their new album, Perpetuum Mobile, doesn’t have the undistilled fury and wild-eyed radicalism of, say, their early Kollaps, it’s because the new album doesn’t sound like it’s about to collapse, but more like it’s moving right along. Even the most chaotic moments seem precision-German-engineered to snap into a particular songful logic. Shards of sonics are pasted in place by gluey rhythms and converted into prickly arrangements, all done so seamlessly that you can barely see the joins. The album has a light, airy feel, partially thanks to three air compressors, electric fans, and plastic tubing, but also to the fluid, easy grace of traditional instruments—smooth, elastic basslines, warm organ sounds, and pedal steel guitars.
All that lightness on Perpetuum Mobile doesn’t mean that things don’t take a turn for the dark, for the rough and corrugated, unnerving and disturbing. “Selbstportrait mit Kater” starts out softly, but soon enough, satisfyingly loud crashes rain down like anvils from the sky. And “Ozean und Brandung,” an air-compressor/polystyrene-flakes/metal-percussion instrumental, sounds like the beginnings of an evil tidal wave.
The album is constantly in flux, right down to its words. “Ich gehe jetzt” (I’m going now), murmurs Blixa Bargeld. “Ich bin unterwegs” (I’m on the way), he sings to a chugging motorik beat. In his evocative, layered lyrics, birds take flight, ships set sail, people go from A to B and back again, and planes lift off the ground but never seem to land. Bargeld has a habit of repeating lines as if they were rhythmic incantations, allowing his deep, halting voice to build momentum as the songs crest and fall. He expresses subtle emotional nuances best in his native German, but sounds harder and flatter when he sings in English—except for “Youme + Meyou,” which sounds so polite and formal it’s heartbreaking. “There’s a place around the corner where your dead friends live,” he sings in a song otherwise completely auf Deutsch—and it doesn’t sound sad or reflective or even creepy, just a little resigned.
Like the Berlin from whence it spawned, the band is full of sharp contrasts: grim industrial landscapes beside gleaming new developments; shiny art surrounded by debris; a history both rich and harrowing. In the beginning, Neubauten’s music sounded urgent and vital, created out of necessity; now it sounds effortless and natural, moving forward because it has no other place to go.