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When Language Fails


Einstürzende Neubauten’s Rampen (apm: alien pop music)

On Rampen (apm: alien pop music), Einstürzende Neubauten turn ends into means, the finish line into a starting point.

Fluent in cosmopolitanism: Blixa Bargeld.

Alles schon geschrieben, alles schon gesagt” begins the opening track “Wie Lange Noch?”: everything has been written and said.

How long can we keep going once we understand that the future is bound to bring more of the same?

While this may seem like a logical question for musicians who have been working together for more than four decades, it has defined the German post-punk legends’ approach to culture from the outset.

The difference is that, whereas the Neubauten that blew people’s minds in the early 1980s thematised creative destruction with savage bursts of noise, the Berlin band takes a more subtle approach today, relying on the bilingual surrealism of Blixa Bargeld’s lyrics to communicate an aesthetic that continues to prioritise the fragmentary.

Although Einstürzende Neubauten are best known for their pioneering approach to music, making a startling variety of sounds without traditional instruments, they have always relied on Bargeld’s voice to make their records cohere. His remarkable form of Sprechgesang (“speech singing) makes his lyrics ring out clearly, whether he is whispering or screaming.

As Bargeld explains in his liner notes on the band’s website, Rampen was created through reverse engineering.

Instead of completing songs and then figuring out ways to improvise around them in concert, they compiled some of their best live improvisations from recent tours and used them as the foundation for new recordings.

In Neubauten language, these improvisations in front of the public were and still are called ‘Rampen,’” he explains, “’Ramp’ in the sense of ramping up.”

But whereas the band practised pure improvisation in its early days, the material repurposed for Rampen was the result of a compromise.

“On the 2022 tour, we switched to playing so-called ‘supported’ Rampen,” Bargeld continues. “That is, we agree on a few minimum conditions ahead of the time.”

This hybrid process made the band’s work in the studio easier. So did his approach to lyrics.

“I fed my teleprompter with a changing selection of text fragments, mostly only a few lines long, unfinished and leftovers, so I can use them to inspire vocalisations.”

Conceptually, this approach might seem to contradict Einstürzende Neubauten’s investment in destruction. Instead of smashing the world to bits, they started by picking up the pieces. However, the more you listen to Rampen, the harder it becomes to discern evidence of this shift.

No matter where they begin, Einstürzende Neubauten end up in more or less the same place.

While there is no denying that Rampen is less consistently abrasive than their earliest work, it has enough off-kilter rhythms and bone-rattling surges to sound aesthetically consistent with anything the band have released since 1985’s Halber Mensch.

While Rampen doesn’t mark a musical break with its predecessors, it does seem more self-reflexive about Neubauten’s place in the world. The refrain “Wie lange noch?” from the opener alerts us to the depressing realisation that the band can’t continue like this indefinitely.

Bargeld’s lyrics have always trended dark. Now, though, the darkness he perceives is closer to home.  “Before I Go”, possibly my favourite song on the album, describes an exit strategy in which he shuts out the lights and leaves “a cryptic message on the door”.

On “Everything Will Be Fine”, he starts with the image of a paradoxical void, a nothingness that isn’t nothingness because it represents an imagined something.

Then, as the song picks up momentum, like a cart clattering downhill, Bargeld links this image to the Romantic tradition, redeploying Edgar Allan Poe for montage effects:

Wo kann ich denn noch hingehen?

(Where else can I go?)

Oder ist das schon the end?

(Or is this already the end?)

Ich habe keine Seite und mein Entsetzen keine Form

(I have no side and my horror no form)

Der Rabe hat sein Lied verloren:

(The raven has lost its song)

Nevermore and never mourn

(Nevermore and never mourn)

As the last line quoted here and “the end” from earlier in the stanza indicate, Blixa Bargeld has developed a hybrid language in which he turns to English when German feels inadequate and vice versa.

That’s not new. Already with its cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “Sand” on Halber Mensch, Bargeld was using English to complicate Neubauten’s relationship with German culture.

This time, however, the bilingualism conveys a frustration with the limitations of any language not supplemented with fragments borrowed from somewhere else.

At times, Bargeld seems to go further, lamenting his dependence on words to communicate, no matter where they come from, as if he were looking forward to a time when he will have transcended their necessity.

“I fell into the pit of language covered in tar and words,” he half-sings on one of the album’s entirely English songs. “I fell into the pit of language. I couldn’t lift myself out.”

Two songs later, Bargeld returns to the theme: “I wait in the pit of language before I get tarred and feathered; I try to drag myself out.”

Idiomatically, to tar and feather people is a form of punishment, turning them into objects of ridicule. It’s revealing, then, that the mention of tar from the first song suggests that words are functionally equivalent to feathers. Once they stick to us like that, it’s hard to wash them off.

Then again, this notion of language might be less pessimistic than it initially appears.

Einstürzende Neubauten have never been a band particularly interested in keeping things clean. In a world where the aspiration to purity has caused unfathomable suffering, perhaps it is preferable to dispense with the impulse to filter and clarify.

Rampen represents a tremendous achievement in part because it makes us ponder this kind of question instead of just asking, “Wie lange noch?” (For how much longer?)

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Photograph courtesy of Andreas Lennver. Published under a Creative Commons license.