Before the clamor of industrial music or the culture of found-sound records, Berlin's Einstürzende Neubauten (which means “collapsing new buildings” in German) reflected its city in ruins through a gathering of metals and minds. Stealing materials from construction sites and concocting novel instruments made of urban detritus, Einstürzende Neubauten made listeners squirm with its white-noise treatises, ominous vocals and hypnotically engaging rhythms, not to mention intense volume and pummeling dynamics. EN albums such as Kollaps (Indigo, 1981), Halber Mensch (Thirsty Ear, 1985) and Tabula Rasa (Elektra/Asylum, 1993) sounded like an entire city tumbling down a toilet — metal, steel, water and excrement flying by in one forceful swoosh.
“For the early recordings, I took the idea from punk that anybody can do anything and that everything has to be done quick,” recalls Blixa Bargeld, the band's founder. “We didn't rethink things or practice or rehearse. I came to the recording studios and said, ‘Let's run the tape.’ That was my aesthetic.”
That “What, me rehearse?” approach had parallels with the punks of the day, the brainier of whom eventually founded bands such as Front Line Assembly, Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails. Those bands used electronic gear instead of EN's array of metal junk and machine tools, but the conviction was similar: Conventional sounds and conventional music must be destroyed. And it all began with scavengery, metallic brutality and a hit-and-run recording style.
“Kollaps was recorded kamikaze-style from '81 to '83,” Bargeld says. “We abandoned all traditional instruments for metal percussion. There is a bass guitar, but that is as far as the compromise goes. From abandoning the normal drum set to working with metal, it exploded into myriad material possibilities. For Kollaps, we explored everything from metal to wood to paper to stones to dogs to motors to flesh, the body itself. Is there anything you can imagine that anyone hasn't done? We have done it.”
EN formed in 1980 with Bargeld, Mark Chung, F.M. Einheit, Alexander Hacke and Andrew Chudy (aka N.U. Unruh). Lacking money for proper instruments, they made their own. What studio time they couldn't steal, they borrowed and never paid for anyway. Einstürzende Neubauten had vision, if little else.
Recording in one room with no separation, EN built songs to answer questions. “There are things I want to find out and materials that I am interested in, but I don't have a clue how to tickle the music out of them,” Bargeld says. “I believe in finding concrete solutions in the sound of an object. I am not judging the object by what it sounds like. Things don't sound good or bad: Their context makes sense, or it doesn't make sense. Often, it is trial and error. It can be a sandwich method: You record things and see what kind of subtle associations will be formed. I moved away from that way, though. Now, I hate the sandwich method.”
It is safe to assume, then, that Perpetuum Mobile (Mute, 2004), the group's 13th album, is sandwich-free. Perhaps the result of maturity or lineup changes (Jochen Arbeit and Rudolph Moser replaced Chung and Einheit in recent years), Perpetuum Mobile is also EN's most soothing album to date, though it was created with a combination of metal and plastic materials; air compressor; Bargeld's grumpy vocals; and original instruments such as the Olive Alarm (basically, a recording of Chudy dragging olive cans behind him while running up and down a stairwell) and the Air Cake, a group of cans attached to a platter that is spun quickly and miked. Recorded live in front of Web supporters who paid $35 for a limited-edition noncommercially released album, Perpetuum Mobile is part of a series of supporter-sponsored EN recordings.
“This is one of two records; the first one is called Supporter Album # 1,” Bargeld says. “On both records, it is the result of live performance in front of a Web audience — a lot of editing but no overdubs. It is the Krautrock way.”
Using Digidesign Pro Tools, a Mac, Genelec monitors and a Soundcraft board, EN was free to create in a much cleaner recording environment while the paying Internet customers commented on the band's comings and goings. Although not fussy about recording tools, Bargeld was adamant about his choice of microphones. “I use Brauner mics because I hate Neumanns,” he says. “The Neumann membrane is too sensitive; you can't yell at it. The Brauner is incredible: It doesn't change, and it has a more even field that you can change with a switch.”
Perpetuum Mobile marks a new, user-friendly chapter in EN's career, one in which Internet guests are welcome but drills are strictly forbidden. “I am sick of the dentist and pneumatic-drill comments,” Bargeld says. “We are not trying to do something that is painful or unlistenable. There was always also the wish to be entertaining. I have to accept the term industrial because it is so widely used in the U.S., but I never thought we are an industrial band. To me, those bands sound like Rammstein and use vacuum Hoovers onstage and write lyrics that are full of blood and guts. I play these things, these instruments we create, because I like them and I think there is some beauty in them. I am not trying to evoke nightmares.”