A Beginner’s Guide to the industrial innovation of Einsturzende Neubauten

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Einsturzende Neubauten

On April 1, 1980, Blixa Bargeld unknowingly set in motion a legacy of radical sonic invention and iconoclasm that’s continued for more than four decades. West Berlin’s Moon Club asked the young German artist to perform that night, and he assembled a group of friends who happened to have nothing else planned that night to join him, and they called themselves Einstürzende Neubauten: “Collapsing new buildings,” in reference to the cheaper, mass produced construction that cropped up in postwar Germany. Two of those musicians moved on shortly thereafter, but Bargeld and N.U. Unruh, later joined by Alexander Hacke and F.M. Einheit, kept going, carving out a cacophonous niche that’s evolved, transformed and reinvented itself for 44 years.

A preeminent name in the development of industrial music, Einstürzende Neubauten initially built their sound from found objects and a rough, primitive sonic approach. Punk in spirit but employing an unconventional set of tools to explore their noisy, avant garde sound, the group embodied industrial music in an almost literal sense, with pieces that resembled carpentry or garbage compaction as much as actual songs—they even had a 1984 performance with fellow industrialists Genesis P-Orridge and Frank Tovey cut short because they literally damaged the stage. As the group evolved in both sound and lineup over the following decades, they embraced more of an actual musical approach, transitioning from terrifying ambience to chaotic dance music to actual industrial rock, and then eventually more nuanced, even beautiful records that found them innovating with gentler, quieter sounds in much the way they did with noise.

In their forty-plus years, Einstürzende Neubauten have made a lot of music—some of it fan-supported experimental exercises, some of it in the form of spoken-word radio plays, as well as film soundtracks, collaborations, remixes, and other oddities sprinkled in between their 13 proper studio albums. They’re not the kind of group that lends itself well to the idea of a hits collection, though that technically does exist; in 2016 they released a Greatest Hits compilation that features music from throughout their catalog, though it’s missing some of their essential singles such as “Yü-Gung” or “Feurio!” They also have several editions of their Strategies Against Architecture chronicles, which are more comprehensive, but their focus on demos, live tracks and other rarities make them better suited to the already converted. But the group’s studio albums provide a much more logical path into their world of thrilling, explosive madness, if a non-linear one. We’ve selected five of the best Einstürzende Neubauten albums to start with, along with next steps and advanced listening. Bring earplugs.

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Some Bizzare

1/2 Mensch (1985)

A masterpiece of industrial music, Einstürzende Neubauten’s third album 1/2 Mensch brought the accessibility of pop music to the noisy abstractions of their earlier output. Sort of. It’s perhaps a generous interpretation to call this a pop album overall, especially given moments of amorphous terror like the death-chant voices of opener “Halber Mensch.” But only one track later, the group kicks up a genuine industrial dance track with the harshly hedonistic “Yü-Gung (Fütter Mein Ego)”. What makes it both a revelatory listen, as well as a fun one, is the way in which the group balances their chaotic and freewheeling experimental sensibility with a knack for songwriting that I wouldn’t call traditional, by any means, but the melodies are certainly there. See, for instance, the oozing dread of bass-heavy burner “Seele Brennt,” the brief Tom-Waits-in-a-junkyard clash of “Trinklied,” or the unexpectedly gentle closer “Letztes Biest (am Himmel)”. Each song here thrums with distortion, shrieks and aggressive, percussive crash, but they’re connected to pop music, however narrowly, revealing the musical heart beating at the center of the noise.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

best einstürzende neubauten albums - Haus der Lüge
Rough Trade

Haus der Lüge (1989)

It’s strangely fitting that one of the most accessible and acclaimed albums by a group of industrial iconoclasts would also be the one with the horse ejaculating on the cover, which was taken from a 16th century woodcut from German artist Hans Baldung and not of the group’s own perverse making. The album itself is considerably less perverse, though nonetheless identifiably tense and austere—but artfully, even enjoyably so. As industrial music crept into the mainstream, Einstürzende Neubauten, too, heeded the call of the dancefloor on pulsing EBM banger “Feurio!” and the clattering darkwave funk of the title track. The group embraces haunted atmosphere as much as they do a punishing pulse, whether via the 12-minute centerpiece “Fiat Lux,” the eerie folk ditty “Ein Stuhl in Der Hölle,” or on the ornate ambience of closer “Der Kuss.” The defining characteristic of Haus der Lüge is its songwriting more than an overall sound, which in itself provided a breakthrough of sorts. After all, what were the group’s earlier recordings if not masterfully twisted manipulation of sound? Here, they concern themselves less with an unrelenting assault and more a sinister kind of seduction—woodcut optional.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

best einstürzende neubauten albums - Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.
Some Bizzare

Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (1983)

Generally when we put together a Beginner’s Guide, we have a tendency to assemble the albums included in chronological order or close to it, based more or less on the idea that you get an overview of the artist’s evolution over their career. Here, that idea is a bit turned around, seeing as how starting the Einstürzende Neubauten catalog from the very beginning is akin to being thrown in the deep end, and thus we take a step back into abstraction after delving into the band’s more overt embrace of goth-club pulse and industrial-rock riffing. Their sophomore album Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (Drawings of Patient O.T., a reference to the artist Oswald Tschirtner, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia) is a step closer to more melodic ideas from their debut, but still steeped in clangor and din. Much of the material juxtaposes heavy, distorted bass against chaotic percussion, sometimes with eerily oozing loops or other effects, the entirety of the album situated on a scale between unsettling and sheer panic. Yet it’s fascinatingly accessible at times, like in the austere immediacy of the title track—complete with sounds of breaking glass!—or the menacing fuzz-pummel of “Abfackeln!” or the low-simmering terror of “Neun Arme.” Musicality begins to take shape, sounds start to become songs, but the act of antagonism remains.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

best einstürzende neubauten albums - Silence is Sexy
Rough Trade/Mute

Silence Is Sexy (2000)

In the late 1990s, Einstürzende Neubauten saw their one and only release via Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records, Ende Neu, which found them sharing a bespoke imprint with the likes of not only Nine Inch Nails but Meat Beat Manifesto, Rob Halford’s Two, Squarepusher, Autechre, and Pop Will Eat Itself. (Coil’s Backwards was also initially intended to be released via Nothing, though it remained shelved for years.) Despite the slightest brush with the mainstream—including 120 Minutes airplay for the single “Stella Maris,” the group returned to Rough Trade and Mute for its follow-up, the subdued and intoxicating Silence Is Sexy. True to its name, it’s one of the group’s most understated records, yet as a result, it’s also one of their most endlessly listenable. The manner in which the songs on the album are constructed don’t feel worlds apart from the more menacing and cacophonous pieces on their 1980s records, but they take on a far less hostile tone; the pulsing, percussive elements in “Zampano,” for instance, still scan as industrial. Ditto the Rube Goldberg pop of “Newtons Gravitätlichkeit” or the lengthy, slow-burning drone-and-clang of “Redukt.” But by and large the album is haunting, restrained, even pretty—and yes, sexy. Leadoff track “Sabrina” shimmers with vibraphone and a simmering bassline that feels more darkjazz than darkwave, and “Die Befindlichkeit des Landes” retains the percussive urgency of their previous works in what otherwise feels like a gothic ballad. One of the best albums the group ever released, Silence Is Sexy found them entering the 21st century on a new high.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)


Alles wieder offen (2007)

In the mid-2000s, Einstürzende Neubauten launched a series of releases called Musterhaus that were made available to subscribers of their website, each of which was released about three months apart and offered an outlet for the group’s more experimental impulses. The end result was a set of records that felt connected to the chaotic spirit of the group’s early days, even as they drifted away from their noisiest impulses over time. In their aftermath, however, they delivered another fan-supported release, albeit one intended as their next proper album, Alles wieder offen. Their first self-released album, Alles wieder offen continues the evolution toward subtler, even softer songwriting, embracing space and understatement in satisfying ways (after all, they had already established the sexiness of silence). In its opening track “Die Wellen,” the group nods to their pummeling early releases, with a martial rhythm that escalates toward a more threatening level of intensity. But it’s a rare moment amid what remains within a starker space, like the brooding repetitions of “Von Wegen,” the moody art-pop of “Nagorny Karabach,” or the clattering darkwave of the title track.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

Next Steps: After taking a tour through five different points in Einstürzende Neubauten’s fascinating and eclectic evolution, I highly recommend going back to the beginning. While their debut, 1981’s Kollaps, is their most unrelentingly harsh record, it’s also pretty fun—yes, you read that right, it’s a fun industrial-noise record, in part because it sounds like it was probably a lot of fun to make, an embrace of chaos and cacophony as a device for creativity. Next jump forward again to the 1990s with 1993’s Tabula Rasa, which eases off the throttle a bit after Haus der Lüge, but with its industrial elements still intact, just a little more muted.

Advanced Listening: In 2002, Einstürzende Neubauten released a live album of material drawn from throughout their career, 9-15-2000 Brussels, which has both excellent sound quality and an outstanding curation of material from various albums going back to 1985’s 1/2 Mensch. It showcases a group with a powerful command of the live stage, one of the best live documents of industrial music you’ll hear. Then wind your way back through the studio albums, including 1987’s Fünf auf der nach oben offenen Richterskala (translation: “Five on the open-ended Richter scale”), which leans into the band’s more subdued gothic leanings, and proto-post-rock sounds.

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