With MTV's suburban mallscape being bombarded by a noisome barrage of manipulated, overproduced teenpop, gangsta rap and nu-metal for the past few years, various segments of the underground have crafted intelligent responses (smarter, at least, than punk rock's answer to overblown arena rock was in the mid-'70s). Indie rockers have gone folk and alt-country, art-rockers have crafted cinematic soundscapes and quietcore, electronica has shifted into glitches and microsound, and experimental improvisers play lowercase (or, in Japan, onkyo), often with more silence than sound. All separate but parallel developments with one thing in common: Since around the turn of the millennium, quiet has been the new loud.
Whether it's a global zeitgeist or not, this tendency has not escaped the notice of Einstürzende Neubauten, the German industrial-music legends whose name means Collapsing New Buildings. For over two decades, EN has been associated with glorious, dangerous din on albums such as Kollaps and Halber Mensch. Frontman Blixa Bargeld (also known for his long stint as Nick Cave's guitarist in the Bad Seeds) and his cadre of dour-faced Genial Dilletantes would scour the wastelands of West Berlin for sheet metal, pipes and other detritus, and aggressively wield drills and jackhammers onstage with a deleterious effect on venues and equipment.
Yet somewhere along the way, youthful indiscretions were forgiven and the wild-eyed droogs of Neubauten became a cultural institution, both in their homeland and around the world, commissioned for dance companies and theater productions. Unlike Nine Inch Nails and other faux fops who followed, EN never purveyed their status into pop stardom (though slick Vegas acts such as Stomp and Blue Man Group would be bupkus without EN's presaging shadow), preferring to remain on the margins and sticking with visionary U.K. indie label Mute (a label roster they now share with Pittsburgh's own Modey Lemon).
By the 2000 album Silence Is Sexy, EN had jettisoned much of the banging and screeching, settling down into a comfortable, middle-aged blend of subtle ambience and propulsively rhythmic Krautrock (not surprising given the influence of predecessors such as Faust and Can), with Bargeld's very distinctive, carefully pronounced, hard-edged German poetics no longer dealing with the apocalyptic remains of Western post-industrialism but instead addressing maturing themes of beauty and contemplation.
Perpetuum Mobile ("perpetual motion machine") continues along this path, developing an evocative industrial art-pop style along the lines of early efforts such as the group's breakthrough single "Kalte Sterne." The results are less like Throbbing Gristle and more like Leonard Cohen, Sigur Ros, Laurie Anderson and Tom Waits. Indeed, the easier-going tracks such as "Youme and MeYou," "Paradiesseits" and "Dead Friends" could find a place on an open-minded radio format targeted to baby boomers. (Too bad we don't have one of those here.) After all, the members of EN themselves are pushing into their mid-40s.
Which is not to say that just because EN's sound has mellowed they have sold out in any significant way. The group still exploits every piece of scrap at its disposal, from air compressors and gas canisters to invented devices such as the "air-cake" and "olive-alarm," while the melodic element is evident in Blixa's string-section arrangements and minimal keyboard lines as well as Alexander Hacke's loping, hypnotic bass figures. The frequent lyrical references to natural forces (tornadoes, earthquakes) and the vast majesty of outer space ("I make it out of the local group of galaxies, out of all eleven, still-rolled up dimensions" is a proper anthem for any astrophysicist) indicate that Bargeld's creative fury is still there, yet carefully controlled and channeled -- "the deja vu is now historic / the mixture remains as ever," Bargeld explains on "Ich Gehe Jetzt" -- and even hopeful.
Occasionally, the old EN ghosts burst forth, such as on the ironclad clangor of "Selbstportrait Mit Kater." But overall, the listener must possess a certain level of patience and sophistication to appreciate EN's new sound -- your average high school industro-goth is not going to get it because there's no instant angst-ridden gratification here. For example, how many people will grasp the Biblical reference on "Ein leichtes leises SÃ¤useln," in which Bargeld speaks in the persona of the prophet Elijah (Kings 19) when he encounters God as a still, small voice ("kol demama daka," which he spells wrong, but gets the general idea) in the wilderness. Has Blixa, in his advancing years, found solace (or a sort of religion) in the Zen-like hush of cosmic background noise filling the expanse of the universe? Well, thankfully there aren't any Madonna-esque references to Kabbalah yet, but I can say conclusively that silence, in this case, is golden.