Blixa Bargeld

“He’s a creation of some sort, where you can’t even imagine that he could have parents,” Nick Cave once said about his one-time bandmate in The Bad Seeds, Blixa Bargeld. “You can’t even imagine what coupling of normal people could create that thing.” It’s certainly true that Bargeld, the German polymath who has helmed his group Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) for over forty years, is one of a kind. There is a defiance to his spirit, and a single-mindedness, that has served Bargeld well over his career – he seems to have an uncanny knack for finding the right situations, at the right time, and for navigating his way through the various impasses of a musical career with relative ease.

Most importantly, over the past five decades, he has blossomed into a songwriter of rare poise and fluency, maintaining a purity of creative vision even as some of his side-hustles – like his infamous series of advertisements for the German hardware store Hornbach – play loose with his legend. Watching early Neubauten clips, like their Liebeslieder video from 1980, or the wild footage recorded by the group on the Autobahn, released as part of the Wind-Up Tape collection, you wouldn’t necessarily expect this outcome. The figure Bargeld presents in the latter video – ratty hair, sallow skin, thin as a rake, in regulation leathers – is one of an outsider channelling urban desolation into a new, almost formless blues plaint, with the clutter of construction for a soundtrack.

Einstürzende Neubauten often get called industrial, resulting from a reductive reading of their use of the left-behind detritus of society and its material resources – metals, springs, chainsaws, jackhammers, air pressure, etc. – as part of their extra-musical armoury. Bargeld has always been uncomfortable with the term, correctly noting that Throbbing Gristle invented and laid claim to the genre. If anything, Neubauten extends out of German post-punk, in particular the remarkable Geniale Dilletanten (non-)movement, which loosely aligned Neubauten with groups like Die Tödliche Doris and Der Plan. This all played out during the early 1980s, where an incredible number of creative artists gathered together in Berlin, making music and art, and in Bargeld’s case, also running a secondhand store, Eisengrau.

The most legendary Neubauten line-up is surely the one that piloted the group through the eighties and early nineties, of Bargeld, N.U. Unruh, F.M. Einheit, Alexander Hacke, and Mark Chung. Several of the other members had prior form in German post-punk groups like Abwärts, Sprung Aus Den Wolken, and Borsig, but the alchemy of this quintet was rare indeed. They worked hard during the eighties, releasing five albums, and touring internationally. During this time, Bargeld was also conscripted into Nick Cave’s group, The Bad Seeds, after a guest appearance on The Birthday Party’s final EP; Cave discovered Neubauten when he saw them on television, later saying, with echoes of disbelief still marking his face, “I’d never seen anything like it.” Bargeld would hold down the guitarist role for The Bad Seeds until 2003, and for an incredibly busy two decades he was an active member of both groups.

Over the past two decades, Bargeld hasn’t so much slowed his output as delved even more deeply into exploring the manifold nuances of his art. As Neubauten’s line-up changed over the decades, their music shifted too – more pacific, at times, with Bargeld’s voice and carefully sculpted lyrics often the centrepiece of their songs, though they are still more than capable of investing their music with the noise and fury of its early days. Neubauten’s and Bargeld’s projects are now often meticulously researched, the better to understand the myriad resonances of the material they’re working with. They’ve also explored the possibilities of existing outside of traditional music industry structures via their ongoing supporter / subscriber project.

Bargeld has also collaborated with a number of other musicians, projects with figures as diverse as Italian composer Teho Teardo and German glitch pioneer Carsten Nicolai; he has also acted, and his unique scream has voiced characters in a number of films, including Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. He crops up in curious places – the previously mentioned hardware advertisements; on cooking shows; as Grandmother Cash, on 2-Kut’s techno track “Rock That”; as a theatre and film composer; a guest vocalist with Die Haut, Anita Lane, Gudrun Gut and countless others. Behind that sardonic face, that poker rictus, lies a generous and thoughtful artist, one with a subtle sense of play, and a serious dedication to their art in all of its many voices.

Still Smiling cover

Outside of Einstürzende Neubauten, Blixa Bargeld’s most fruitful recent collaboration has been with Italian film composer and musician Teho Teardo. Still Smiling was their first collaboration, and it’s one of Bargeld’s most endlessly rewarding albums outside of the Neubauten orbit – he and Teardo work together beautifully, with the latter’s capacity for drama, subtlety and counterpoint working as a fantastic foil to Bargeld’s rich, sensuous voice. Bargeld sings in three languages – English, German and Italian – admitting great flexibility to the way he approaches the sonority of singing, the very material of the voice; he seems to slide, beautifully, between the sweeping and sliding strings that form the core of the album’s music. The title track, pensive and stealthy, is perhaps the highlight, though “Axolotl” comes close, its deep black strings resonating out like galaxies forming in front of your eyes.

From Her to Eternity cover

On his first solo album, recorded after the dissolution of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave doesn’t sound renewed, so much as dragged – willingly, mind you – through the mud. There are echoes of the Grand Guignol post-punk of his former group on songs like “Cabin Fever!,” but the core of From Her To Eternity is a cover, Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” that reads as a re-consideration of what song can do for Cave, and the mordant, sinuous title track. The most startling thing here is the way Cave’s new bandmates disrupt the mise en scène, from Barry Adamson’s elastic bass, to the clangourous, riveting guitar of Blixa Bargeld – a master disruptor.

Commissioned Music cover

Blixa’s first solo album collects material he’d composed for two projects in 1994 – Uli M. Schüppel’s film, Jahre Der Kälte/Frozen Stories, and Bernard-Marie Koltès’s play, Dumpfe Stimmen/Des Voix Sourdes (which translates to Dull Voices). The music’s functionality determines some of its sound and structure – the material here is pared-back, sparely scored – but it’s also, often, gorgeous. The Dumpfe Stimmen compositions tend to set two phenomena in contrast, the dominant force often a low bass tone or a clanging guitar drone, but Bargeld’s sense of pacing and careful juxtaposition works beautifully, and in amongst everything, there’s a stark, surprisingly moving version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” The Jahre Der Kälte material quotes from Schubert; graceful and dourly paced, it’s never less than compelling, and an album of such piano and strings compositions from Bargeld would be welcome.

Let Love In cover

Past, present and future all collide on Let Love In – recorded by probably the classic Bad Seeds line-up, there are guest appearances here by Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard (on backing vocals only, but never mind), and Cave’s future right-hand man, Warren Ellis (of Dirty Three), makes his first appearances on a Bad Seeds album. It’s certainly a more explosive album than the early ‘90s Bad Seeds output – and it sounds better than the muddied Henry’s Dream. While the furies of “Loverman” and “Jangling Jack” have their charms (and Blixa Bargeld’s storms of guitar are, rightly and righteously, centre stage), the core of Let Love In, though, is Cave’s more reflective moments: the gorgeous sway of “Nobody’s Baby Now,” the keen kindness of “I Let Love In.” And with “Red Right Hand,” the Bad Seeds go wide-screen and cinematic as Cave essays one of his most iconic lyrics.

Alles Wieder Offen cover

By 2007, Einstürzende Neubauten had fundamentally shifted the way they worked within – or outside of – the music industry. Self-sufficiency was now their modus operandi, supported directly by fans, who became subscribers, and were welcomed into Neubauten’s inner sanctum, with access to footage of recording sessions and the capacity to respond and critique material in development. Out of this came Alles Wieder Offen (Everything Open Again), one of Neubauten’s most focused albums. There’s only one new instrument here (a box of aluminium sticks) – but in the place of innovation comes a certain confidence and assuredness. The rhythmic propulsion of “Let’s Do It a Dada” and the Faust-esque piano clang of “Die Wellen” are urgent as ever, but perhaps the revelation here is the group’s comfort in subtlety – “Nagorny Karabach” is one of their loveliest melodies. “Susej” draws from the archives, bringing a 1982 ‘cellar guitar’ recording into the now, for one of the album’s most compelling, intimate performances.

Tabula Rasa cover

It’s tempting to say that, as Einstürzende Neubauten progressed, their music became less intense, that the shift in their focus – from noise to song, from provocation to philosophy – somehow defanged the group. It’s patently untrue, though a seductive narrative, at times. Tabula Rasa sometimes feels like a pause, a group catching their breath; what’s more surprising, listening back, is the simple yet effective compositions on display, like the lovely “Zebulon,” which pivots on a chord change that’s pure third album Velvet Underground, or the following “Blume,” sung by the late Anita Lane with tenderness and poise. If you’ve any doubt about Neubauten’s capacity to tear apart the terrain they’re traversing, though, look no further than the closing, fifteen-minute “Headcleaner,” a pounding, mutant block of noise, unrelenting and thrilling, where they detourn The Beatles; it’s prefaced by the beautiful “Wuste,” where they swathe mournful strings in flaming hiss and grit.

Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. cover

The leap that Neubauten made between their 1981 debut album, Kollaps, and its successor, Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T., was extraordinary, not the least because they accelerated the intensity and ferocity of Kollaps while finding a new eloquence amidst their ruins. The detail is heightened and richly sensuous, even when the music’s marinating in flames, as on the brutally overloaded “Abfackeln!”; there’s a great string of compositions through the middle of the album that locate the tactile properties of scraped metal and rub them up against deep pulses, morphed tape work, and savant guitar moves; by the time of “Armenia,” Bargeld’s wounded voice is drowning in the deep melancholy of the traditional folk melody Neubauten borrow for one of their most lasting compositions. They’d subsequently make albums that cover wider terrain, or that momentarily reach greater heights, but there’s something consummate about Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T.; the Neubauten DNA is fully imprinted here.

Haus der Lüge cover

On Haus Der Lüge, Einstürzende Neubauten made the definitive record of their first phase – if not quite the best. They seem to have distilled everything they do well here, with increased self-awareness: the “Prolog” has Bargeld declaiming all the ways in which Neubauten didn’t sell out; “Hirnlego” is built from samples of prior Neubauten recordings. The difference is, here their music soars into the sun. “Schwindel”’s clattering tornado of clang’n’scrape is an unending ascension; “Fiat Lux”’s tripartite structure builds in the aforementioned “Hirnlego” and a recording of a riot, to startling effect; “Der Kuss” has Bargeld chanting and declaiming, both sensuous and deadly, hypnotic and tense, soaring over one of the group’s most assured and regal compositions.

Perpetuum Mobile cover

If 2000’s Silence Is Sexy felt slightly tentative, at times, there are no such concerns with its follow-up, Perpetuum Mobile. The art song that Neubauten had always hinted at in their music is given free rein here, resulting in an album haunted by the spirit of lieder. Blixa Bargeld’s ongoing love affair with Krautrock, the music of his youth, plays out in the motoric thud of the title track; it’s fascinating hearing Bargeld’s trademark squeal, like air escaping a blocked vent, nestling within these more poised musical structures. “Dead Friends (Around the Corner)” and “Youme & Meyou” are some of Neubauten’s loveliest songs yet, proof that they really were a pop band all along, as Bargeld had claimed over the years. They’re not wallowing in beauty here, but they’re certainly embracing the possibilities beauty offers – its expressive force is a creative counterweight to the destructive character of yore.

The Good Son cover

While its predecessor, Tender Prey, features some of Cave’s most iconic songs – “The Mercy Seat,” “Deanna” – it’s incoherent as an album. But things got back on track with The Good Son, a relatively disarmed collection of songs, gentle and steeped in longing. “The Weeping Song” is, perhaps, the album’s pinnacle, a devastating duet between Cave and guitarist Blixa Bargeld that’s still deeply affecting, decades later; Cave’s recent relocation to Brazil, to be with his then-partner, has not so much ‘lightened’ the mood of his songs, as given them greater emotional depth, and he’s now able to embrace a more understated, denuded melancholy – it’s the beginning of Cave’s long, complex process of whittling his song back to the bone, a process he’d complete with 1997’s The Boatman’s Call.  

Alles In Allem cover

Einstürzende Neubauten albums feel far more sculptural, now, than they did in the eighties, and while the group were always quite conscious of structure, on Alles In Allem, everything seems carefully, cautiously placed. This works to the advantage of these ten songs. Reflecting on their home city of Berlin, it’s also a coherent, smart way to celebrate their fortieth anniversary; the histories (city and group) are intimately intertwined. While there’s some self-referentiality here, Neubauten are also alive to the need to keep the field open, to still clear new paths. On “Ten Grand Goldie,” they call on their subscribers to contribute lyrics, which Bargeld assembles into a surrealist stream of words; “Zivilatorisches Missgeschick” (“Civilisation Mishap”) is crafted smartly from Neubauten’s arsenal of sound and object. Throughout, you can hear the group trying to coax new meanings and contexts from the tools at their disposal, with subtle political undercurrent – on “Taschen,” the scuffle and rustle of plastic bags is built from the same bags given to refugees for their belongings. Unlocking potential, Alles In Allem’s ten songs are rich with allusion.

Silence Is Sexy cover

With a new line-up fully settled in – Jochen Arbeit (guitar) and Rudi Moser (drums) now joining lifers Blixa Bargeld, Alexander Hacke and N. U. Unruh – Silence Is Sexy zooms in on new intensities and intimacies. It’s surprising, at first blush, to hear such a muted Neubauten, on songs like the opening “Sabrina” and “Silence Is Sexy,” but quickly enough, Silence Is Sexy becomes expansive, cinematic; when things do work up into a lather, like the piston percussion of “Zampano,” their disruptive force helps articulate the clarity and restraint of the rest of the album. It all pivots, seemingly, around the gorgeous “Die Befindlichkeit Des Landes” (“The Condition of the Country”), channelling ghostly Marlene Dietrich into the song, as Bargeld sings of “mela-mela-melancholia… Nothing but future ruins.” The psychogeographic core of the album becomes clear, here – a disappearing former Berlin, receding into the past.

Halber Mensch cover

Halber Mensch – both as an album, and in its correlated visual form, a 1986 film, directed by Sogo Ishii, made during their tour of Japan in the preceding year – is a particularly forceful, hypnotic example of early Neubauten. A notoriously expensive album to record, its lush production focuses attention on the granular tonal detail of Neubauten’s music; even when they’re drumming out tattoos, or hacking away at their collective nervous system, the group’s music is startlingly open-eyed and clear. The title track’s hackled choir – a vocal take from the damned – is haunting; “Sehnsucht (Zitternd)” is chaotic longing reduced to its pulsing core, a two-note riff pounding through a landscape of haunted, clanging metal. But the masterpiece is an extra, CD-only track – the pulsing life-force of erotic noise that is “Das Schaben.”

Mimikry cover

It makes sense that Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten would eventually interface with Carsten Nicolai (of Alva Noto, Diamond Version, Cyclo., Raster-Noton, etc.), one of the most rigorous and ascetic of the ‘90s/‘00s glitch/electronica crew; there’s a shared intensity to their work, along with a fondness for reducing to essence and removing all unnecessary ideas and motifs. There’s also an abstract but shared fascination with various other phenomena – scientific, mathematical, etc. – that plays into parts of Mimikry. But the surprise of this album is just how varied it is, how much Bargeld and Nicolai wrestle from their minimal material; Bargeld’s voice is in stunning form, whether piling up on itself on “Berghain,” or extending a screeching whistle tone to infinity on “Fall”; Nicolai responds with pin-prick accuracy, his textures gleaming, metallic, cold but welcoming. In amongst an album of unexpected turns, covers of Harry Nilsson’s “One,” and the traditional song “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground,” are particularly startling for both their idiosyncrasy, and the way they, somehow, effortlessly fit in amongst the abstraction.

Lament cover

Commissioned by Belgian city Diksmuide, as a remembrance of the fall of the city to Germany in WWI, Lament is one of the most idiosyncratic, and oddly moving, works in the Neubauten canon. It was conceived as a performance, and in some ways the subsequent album can only work as a shadow of Lament’s primary form, but it’s still incredibly compelling. Intensively researched, it’s particularly significant for placing Neubauten’s lexicon in service to broader narratives. The opening “Kriegmaschinerie” is one of their most radiant noise works, a deep gurgle of metallic shriek that evokes “Das Schaben” (from three decades previous), while “Der 1. Weltkrieg (Percussion Version)” is a lengthy, intricate rhythmic excursion. The three-part title suite is devastating, shifting from a wordless choral composition to Pärt-like strings that ghost original recordings of prisoners of war. The power of Lament is in the way the music is so intimately connected to the stories being explored, which are addressed with compassion, but not sentimentality, by the group.

Kollaps cover

Few groups have so completely and clearly expressed their fundamental ethos on their debut album as Einstürzende Neubauten did with Kollaps. It’s an album of negatives, of destruction, indeed of collapse – of the collapse of song, of instruments, and of the group’s collective nervous system. Within that politics of rejection, though, Neubauten found great beauty. Listening back to Kollaps, it’s surprisingly how haunting it can be: beyond the punitive furies of songs like “Tanzdebil,” there are spooked, taped voices; clanking, erotic percussives; burbling mini-operas for water; desperate anti-hymns for drills and scream; and, on “Je t’m,” a perverse detournement of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s breathy ode.

Rede / Speech cover

Some of Blixa Bargeld’s most significant artistic moves during the 1990s and 2000s happened live, on stage, in improvisatory contexts. Rede/Speech was one such series of performances, which Bargeld called ‘pseudo-scientific entertainment’, involving reflections (in German) on various scientific phenomenon, which Bargeld had researched intensively for this purpose. Bargeld fed his voice and microphone through a series of MIDI devices and looping machines, though, building great edifices of chant, murmur, melody and scream through these systems; it’s a salutary, wild experience, Bargeld slyly mumbling at one point, singing out beautifully the next, chatting away, inviting the audience to get involved, becoming a human beatbox, and sometimes unleashing his trademark, unworldly scream (at these points, he’s like a dapper version of Japanese noise maestro Masonna). There are a number of Rede/Speech performances floating around online, in audio and AV, and a great DVD – well worth checking them all out, to get a sense of the universe Bargeld smelts out of this material.

The Firstborn Is Dead cover

The Firstborn Is Dead is where things start to cohere for Nick Cave, after a compelling but uneven solo debut. If “Tupelo” was Cave’s first iconic performance, its stealthy and pummelling bass entrapped by thundering drums, the real meat of the album lands in its second half, where Cave’s blues obsession finds its most articulate expression yet. “Knockin On Joe” is gallows blues, with Blixa Bargeld’s guitar bleakly drowsy; the cover of Dylan’s “Wanted Man,” a song written for Johnny Cash, is as unrelenting as it is haunted, and the closing “Blind Lemon Jefferson” borrows the name of the Texas blues pioneer for the lone collective composition here, a startling, stumbling drag, levitating on a Bargeld slide-guitar drone that’s thin, needly and penetrating. It’s one of the Bad Seeds’ classic line-up’s bravura performances.

Kalte Sterne: Early Recordings cover

Compiling the earliest vinyl forays for Einstürzende Neubauten, Kalte Sterne is fascinating for the glimpse it gives us to the music they made while figuring out who they really wanted to be. Its formative spirit suggests closer relationships with post-punk or NDW than you’d expect; the pulsing bass thud of “Zuckendes Fleisch” could be a primitivist take on what P.I.L. were trying to achieve at the time. But the whirring electric drill and plastic, wobbling pound of the amplified metal string on the following “Tagesschau-Dub” shows Neubauten were already well on their way. The experiments are always compelling, but there’s also a raw poetry and romance to songs like “Kalte Sterne”; Blixa Bargeld’s voice is cracked here, but you can tell there’s great depth and rich resonance in there. It’s beautifully burnt.

Your Funeral… My Trial cover

There’s something definitive about Your Funeeral… My Trial – Cave might have written and recorded deeper, more intricate albums, but this one captures what’s so compelling about his art, particularly in these early stages. He’s often stated it’s a favourite of his, as well. The Bad Seeds are now artisans of drama, theatre, and shading – the way they build the complex architecture of “The Carny” is astonishing, teasing all kinds of nuance out of what is, in essence, a simple two-chord circus shuffle. “Stranger Than Kindness” is Cave’s greatest co-write with Anita Lane; a cover of Tim Rose’s “Long Time Man” is a great measure of Cave’s increasing flexibility with his voice, and capacity to plumb the emotional depths of the songs of other writers.

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