1986: Einstürzende Neubauten - Halber Mensch film
Einstürzende Neubauten represent everything that was great about the post-punk era, a savage union of aesthetic violence and intellectual refinement that seemed plentiful as the air in the late 70s and early 80s. A foundational band in the lineage of industrial music, Neubauten took the burgeoning genre to its most literal extreme, incorporating scrap material, homemade instruments, and power tools into their work. The results were often predictably brutalizing, yet there was also a poetic quality to frontman Blixa Bargeld’s lyrics that lent the songs a kind of malefic beauty (provided you could speak German, or otherwise obtain English translations of the lyrics, that is).
During their 1986 tour in support of their third album Halber Mensch, the group collaborated with experimental filmmaker Sogo Ishii to create a document of their visit to Japan. You couldn’t ask for a more harmonious meeting of the minds.
Einstürzende Neubauten literally translates to “collapsing new buildings,” but its connotations in German are far more subversive. The Germans use the word neubauten to describe architecture that sprang up in the wake of World War II, versus altbauten, the older (and often sturdier and more beautiful) buildings from the pre-war period. The band’s name, therefore, signifies the implosion of the new order, the collapse of a flimsy myth of progress over a tragic history. Sogo Ishii, meanwhile, came to prominence in the early 80s through a series of guerilla sci-fi films that helped define cyberpunk cinema in Japan. The movement’s Western counterparts — novelists like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson and filmmakers like Ridley Scott (with Bladerunner) or Paul Verhoven (with Robocop) — spun futures in which a declining US was being eclipsed by megalithic corporations and an influx of Eastern culture, where scrappy computer hackers pulled noirish capers in virtual realms of ones and zeros that we would later come to know as the internet. Japanese cyberpunk was often more dystopian in vision. In place of sprawling megacities, we have post-industrial wastelands roamed by gangs and outlaws. In place of cybernetic prostheses and implants that blur the distinction between human and machine, we have invasive technologies that corrupt and pervert the human body.
Ishii is best known internationally for Burst City, a punk rock musical about biker gangs resisting the construction of a Yakuza-funded power plant in their part of town. One can see echoes of his earlier film — this fusion of post-apocalyptic science fiction and music video sensibilities — in Halber Mensch. In just under an hour, the film flits from staged performance to music video to documentary to live concert footage and back, without really batting an eyelash. Except for a chunk of footage toward the end from a soundcheck and actual live performance at a Japanese club, most of the action takes place in an abandoned foundry. The stark backdrop of industrial ruin and desolation fits nicely into the aesthetic universes of both parties. Neubauten look perfectly at home on that dirt floor amid the scarred pillars, mechanical waste, and shattered windows, while Ishii brings an atavistic beauty to the proceedings by intercutting the band’s performance with images of scrapyards, feeding protozoa, and buildings being demolished.
The footage of Neubauten performing is arresting and captures the brute physicality of those early shows. You see Alexander Hacke flailing at his guitar; F.M. Einheit, N.U. Unruh, and Mark Chung crouched over their homemade instruments like mad scientists, often scrambling from station-to-station mid song; and, of course, a wildly coifed Blixa Bargeld strutting from one end of his rude stage to the other like some unholy combination of Mick Jagger and Darth Vader. Still, the film’s indisputable high point would have to be the videos for its two-song centerpiece “Halber Mensch” and “Z.N.S.”
The title track is one of Neubauten’s most lovely and terrifying compositions, a stunning four-and-a-half-minute a capella arrangement about the hobbling of man by a technocratic society. It’s a theme that clearly resonated with Ishii and his contemporaries, and it inspired some of the film’s most terrifying imagery. Einheit watches his leg get devoured by worms, while other band members wander through a dilapidated labyrinth, encountering a series of grotesque Butoh dancers: two men bound together by their heads in a wire lattice, another leering pair lumbering around in an upright 69 position, and finally a ghostly figure with a feeding tube clenched in its teeth.
On “Z.N.S.,” this final figure is joined by a host of pale men and women clad in loincloths and scrap metal. The dancers stagger into formation around him, their movements tortured and spastic. They jerk and writhe to the song’s emaciated dance beat with faces contorted into grins of malevolent joy. Gradually, their dancing devolves into combat, with performers shoving, wrestling, grappling for one another’s throat. When the lead female dancer breaks the fourth wall and begins creeping toward the camera, one can’t help but feel a surge of fear, as though we were interlopers at some demonic revel who have drawn the attention of our hosts.
Aside from being a kick-ass document of Neubauten in their prime, Halber Mensch helps to underscore just how influential the band has been. It’s easy to see that their sonic progeny include a broad swath of artists, ranging from industrial noise punks like Missing Foundation to the more populist, family-friendly fare like Blue Man Group. What the film also demonstrates is how quietly the band’s visuals have been appropriated by their more famous (and often markedly less talented) successors. Rammstein seems to have inherited Neubauten’s love of setting shit on fire, and I’d be surprised if Floria Sigismondi hadn’t seen the “Z.N.S.” segment prior to directing Marilyn Manson’s video for “The Beautiful People.” Don’t let that put you off, though. Halber Mensch still looks and sounds as fresh and invigorating as it did those nigh-30 years ago when it was first released
P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about Sogo Ishii and Japanese cyberpunk, I’d recommend checking out Mark Player’s enlightening essay on the subject for Midnight Eye. Happy viewing.
1983: Fraggle Rock - “Music Box Song”
My son doesn’t like Fraggle Rock. But what does he know? He’s only 3! I can’t get him on it, but I think it’s a solid show; I even started re-watching it several years before I had my son, which was over 20 years after the show originally aired, thanks in large part to my then-coworker who stole Season 1 for me (as a joke). And, to my surprise, the show resonated with me after all those years. Maybe it was because of the relatively progressive, sometimes even socialist undertones — the dialectic between work and play, the questioning of monarchies and social structures, the critical awareness of its protagonists — or maybe it was because Wembley is CUTE, but in any case, the show’s fun to watch from various perspectives.
For a program that relies heavily on music — “music is the greatest of the Fraggles’ art forms,” says Uncle Traveling Matt — most of it has not aged very well. But there are moments during the series that are downright exquisite. One such example is from episode 9 of the first season. In this episode, Gobo and Red find a map that leads to “The Treasure of the Ancient Fraggles.” With the help of Wembley, Mokey, and Boober, The Fraggles go on a search for the treasure, which they fantasize as being five million diamonds. When they finally reach their destination, however, The Fraggles discover that the actual treasure is much sweeter, much more valuable, much more transcendent than diamonds. Sniff, sniff. Check it out for yourself:
1985: The Replacements - “Little Mascara”
Sometimes the destiny of a song is determined by its placement on an album. An exceptional tune can get lost in the shuffle, even for the most diehard fans, due simply to its position in the album’s tracklist. “Little Mascara,” the penultimate track on The Replacements’ cite>Tim, is one such song, sandwiched unfortunately between two of the most iconic songs in the Mats catalog, “Left of the Dial” and “Here Comes A Regular.”
But judging “Little Mascara” out of the context of the album, it’s clear that it deserves more love. The track is about a woman in an unhappy marriage. Her husband (partner?) treats her like shit and then leaves her. By the end, Paul Westerberg sings a line that about how she wanted “someone to be scared of” — i.e., a bad boy. Still, the morality of the track comes into question, since, at the beginning of the song, Westerberg sings “You and I/ Fall together/ You and I/ Sleep alone,” which makes one wonder if this woman was having an affair with the narrator. Yep, all of this happens in this three-and-a-half-minute song.
It’s an interesting song that’s well worth another listen. Revisit it here:
1996: Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine - Dark Star
Nanjo Asahito’s La Musica label was a treasure-trove of magnificent psychedelic (and other) weirdnesses — unusual collaborations, old recordings, outtakes, and such ephemera — quickly and, so the story goes, sometimes shadily dubbed onto cassette or VHS or huge CD-R boxsets. Among all the oddities to be found on this subterranean outlet of the pseudo-mainstream of the Japanese psych/noise/folk underground (whatever that might be — P.S.F. Records?), there are quite a few that sound like they might be worth hearing by virtue of their intriguing premises alone. Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine’s Dark Star cassette strikes me as one of them.
What premises? Well, Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine featured the then-current members of Mainliner (Kawabata Makoto, these days better known for Acid Mothers Temple; Nanjo Asahito of High Rise; Koizumi Hajime, also sometime drummer for AMT) adding the “psychedelic” to Tababata Mitsuru’s Leningrad Blues Machine project. This already quite tempting collaboration is supplemented by the fact that the title track is — of course — a swirling 20+-minute rendition of “Dark Star,” The Grateful Dead’s most iconic (and obsessively documented) number. Dark Star! Leningrad Psychedelic Blues Machine weren’t part of a scene that has been particularly circumspect when it comes to flagging its influences (if in doubt, check out any of Acid Mothers Temple’s song or album titles for their almost random mélange of classic rock/prog/psych references), but hearing a full-blown cover of such a distinctive tune is still uncommon enough to be diverting.
It’s an interpretation that’s reasonably faithful, albeit with the blown-out sound familiar from the majority of Nanjo’s productions; his bass is buzzy and thick, but the guitar is unusually buoyant and lucid, and we’re happily spared the kitschy “transitive nightfall of diamonds” lyrics. A true deadhead would be able to make a nice structural comparison between this version and the evolving form of the Grateful Dead’s own. I’m just grateful that there’s no chance “Turn on Your Love Lamp” is going to appear anywhere near it. If Ben & Jerry’s made a Makoto/Mitsuru ice cream flavor — lord knows what it would taste like, what dizzying effects it would bring about — I’d guess it would appeal to my palate more than Cherry Garcia ever did.
That’s before we even get to the other side, the equally exciting “acid” side to Dark Star’s more laid back “cool side” (I confess I wouldn’t be too upset if every double-sided format were to have a cool and an acid side.) “Leningrad Sonic” is a brief and intense burst of free rock fury; “Satirize” slows things down to a murky tread, the album’s only vocals an underwater blur; “Wood Stock Monster II (Free Jazz Version)” reinterprets the heavy-psych riffery of Leningrad Blues Machine’s “Wood Stock Monster” with the addition of a (not particularly jazzy, but I’m neither genre-police nor judge) formless spaced-out interlude. None of which is particularly new ground for those involved, but it’s perfect fodder for listeners, like me, whose simple pleasure in the visceral and uninhibited nature of such music is happily supplemented by the micro-novelties in the execution. If you’re as at home with the anomalies, the unusual details, and the one-offs, as with the records that create/redefine genres, Dark Star is a good example and one of the many such in La Musica’s catalog.
Of course, La Musica, like all good things, had to come to an end. A number of the projected releases of La Musica’s extensive catalog never appeared when — this is reported in the interest of the essential activity of rock & roll mythmaking as much as scurrilous rumor spreading — it seems that Nanjo vanished into the ether, supposedly having irritated too many people with his unsanctioned bootlegging. Even when Mainliner made their recent (triumphant, I’d say) return, Revelation Space, Nanjo was replaced by Bo Ningen’s Kawabe Taigen as bassist, and the band was renamed Kawabata Makoto’s Mainliner to mark the difference. At least Nanjo’s continued existence was attested to by the note of thanks addressed to him in Revelation Space. There’s that.
1989: Julee Cruise - Floating Into The Night
I broke my gaze first. There’s nothing here. Only yearning. Golden, but oxidized by time.
I broke my speech to make room for grace… for breezes and other such solemnities. I peaked thru to see my mirror self boast of its reflectability. Taunting. tormenting. I twist myself out of shape, but never into grace…
I balanced with shaky legs on atomized columns. I lurked and lingered and I even leered (let me be sex. let that undercurrent insulate with drowsy, dozing aplomb. let my tilted head and chin cast a worthwhile shadow…)
Let… Of course, I’m leaving plenty of room for error…
for hopeless, unfailing awkwardness.
I’m not breaking my fall. I’m cutting trenches in the looming muscle. I’m bracing for impact. I’m kissed by concrete and lithesome, reverberant evening.
Just so… burnt out and so destroyed. Ever loving. Ever torpid. Ever and ever breaks the chill, ever and ever beneath us and breathing and uncompromisingly still.
I crouched under a window. I am only a messenger. The flesh crawls to its holdfast of its own volition. And rawness and intimacy in a song can’t phase… can’t circumnavigate… all is pooling… all is neck-deep.
I broke my gaze first every time all the time. The branches shake in spite of their trees. The forest forsakes, forestalls and fulfills. The galling echoes therein… One gets used to them and roams without a moment’s hesitation. One clings to mystery…
One knows what one is doing.
2001: Stunt Rock - Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1: Questions and Answers for the Insecure Youth
William “Billy Stunt Rock” Flegel cuts an eccentric and enigmatic figure in the world of electronic music. An integral member of the Midwestern breakcore scene of the late 90s/early 00s, he remains well regarded by electronic music aficionados while leaving a remarkably minimal web presence in his wake. Sure, you can download most of his discography from his Bandcamp or read his laugh-out-loud funny commentary on cinema of the 70s and 80s on The Betamax Rundown (think twice before not clicking that last link; it’s amazing). Yet, after hours of searching, the only interview I could turn up for him was this one from 2008, and his highest-profile reviews (in digital form, at least) consist of a rather perplexing blurb from Entertainment Weekly and some muted praise from Pitchfork for 2005’s This is Stunt Rock Volume Three.
Adding to the mystique is the standoffish persona Flegel has cultivated over the years. He is openly contemptuous of his fans, his contemporaries, and perhaps most of all himself, with even his song titles speaking to a kind of dismissive self-loathing (a brief survey includes such gems as “That Last Song Blew,” “Really Harsh Noisy Breaks Don’t Cover Up for Lack of Talent, or Do They?” and “I’ve Really Lost It Because This Shit Is Starting to Sound Like A Washed-up, Half-assed, Fatboy Slim Ripoff with a Twelve Year Old’s Sense of Humor”). The extent to which these attitudes can be taken at face value is difficult to determine.
With that in mind, the Regret Instruction Manual series can be seen as his most emblematic work, despite the fact that it was originally intended as a separate project from Stunt Rock and felt far removed from the cacophonous bangers he was churning out under that moniker at the turn of the century. Conceived of as a zine, Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1 came packaged with a 30-page booklet full of minimalist cartoons, personality tests, sardonic motivational slogans, and bitter letters to ex-lovers. A piece entitled “Motivational Springboard” ends with the mantra, “I will be motivated all day long, and whatever I do I will prosper at.” In a cartoon featuring two wheelchairs a few pages later, the first wheelchair asks, “What do you want for your birthday?” The second one replies “The courage to get out of bed.” The juxtaposition of glassy-eyed optimism with concentrated snapshots of despair creates an atmosphere that’s at once blackly humorous and crushingly earnest.
That tone of nihilistic submission with a playful wink carries over fully into the music as well. Flegel loads the album with dialogue samples from films both obscure and well-known, including such feel-good fodder as Fight Club, Buffalo 66, Death of a Salesman, Magnolia, Requiem for a Dream, and loads of vintage Jack Nicolson. These snippets of violent breakdowns, tearful confessions, and bleak introspection play over rough-hewn beats that swing between melancholy and whimsy.
Regret Issue 1 lacks a certain polish, and Flegel admits to reusing the same drum samples for over half of the tracks. Yet, this rough and limited pallet yields so many thrilling moments. The introduction of a drum loop transforms a wistful piano sample into something jaunty on “Wow, a New Release from My Favorite IDM Producer, Has It Been Two Weeks?” The chopped up dialogue excerpt from Dustin Hoffman’s explosive exchange with John Malkovich in Death of a Salesman creates a wrenching groove on “Someone to Lay in Bed with and Watch Shitty Beta Movies.” Then, of course, there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I’m Sorry I Couldn’t be the Person You Needed, I Mean It,” which lays Jason Robards’ meditation on regret from Magnolia over a jazzy backdrop reminiscent of a stripped-down Avalanches.
But perhaps the most unexpected quality of Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1 is how powerfully cathartic it is. Flegel allegedly began the project after moving back in with his parents and enrolling in community college. The album was, in part, an attempt to create “emotive computer music” — a task that he himself referred to as “impossible” — and process some of the bad feelings he was going through. Whether he acknowledges it or not, Regret was astonishingly successful at that. The film excerpts that occupy such a central place in the compositions force the listener up against focused bursts of rage, sorrow, frustration, and loneliness, a buffet of human misery so intense that even the most bathetic and melodramatic expressions manage to hit a vital nerve center. Listening to the album beginning to end leaves me feeling wrung out, starved for air, exhausted by the weight of suffering and turmoil.
Subsequent volumes of the Regret Instruction Manual would build on the vocabulary Flegel established for the first. Issue 2 contains some truly extraordinary compositions (Flegel beat Kanye to The Arc Choir’s “Walk with Me” by about a year and arguably used it to better effect), and Issue 3 moves into longer-form post-rock territory more closely aligned with Stunt Rock’s later output. Still, there’s a rawness and brutality to the first instillation that has secured it a place in the most masochistic recesses of my heart. Feel-bad music is very seldom this much fun.