When the chance came to review this new release from Slovenian avant-grade group Laibach, I grabbed it with both hands.
An experimental reconstruction of The Sound of Music – what’s not to love about the idea? From serious musicians such as these, this was never going to be some kitsch throw-away cash-grab. The band, now in their thirty-eighth year, have more than proved their worth over a series of acclaimed original albums and, pertinently, four previous covers-projects, starting with 1998’s Let It Be, a set of Beatles re-workings unlike any other interpretation you will have heard, full of the band’s trademark growling vocals, martial rhythms, choral swells and uncanny knack for injecting a strange feeling of unsettling pathos. Laibach are also quite open concerning their political elements. They have a long history of appropriating right-wing visual and musical motifs into their art as a sardonic and often misunderstood criticism of fascist agendas. With all that in mind, it’s a wonder that the band didn’t pounce on this idea before now.
The title track, under Laibach, is a powerful and majestic statement, underlined with melancholy, which soon bursts into peculiar rock-ballad territory. The spot-on production is coated in an eighties veneer, glossy and sharp. It really shouldn’t work, but it does. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” continues in the same vein. It could be a long-lost Propaganda track. Big bold drums, sparse arrangement and minimal synths and that low, growling voice which by all rights ought to sound ridiculous, but sounds anything but. “Do-Re-Mi” is far from the up-beat tune presented in the original. The track opens with beautiful slow piano and choral-synth background before, surprisingly, a delicate female voice sings the opening lines. From there on it becomes an affecting mid-tempo piece, with subtle vocoder-singing blending organically with synths.
“Favorite Things”, actually a popular track long before the original film, becomes a strident, dark highway, juxtaposed with sweet harmonies. “Lonely Goatherd” is a haunted forest of echoing drums and deep-bass synth rumblings, set against a children’s choir and tinkling keyboards. It is absolutely spellbinding.
Cover-versions and album re-workings, since the dawn of recorded music, have always been with us. The line which separates the wheat from the chaff is one of integrity and ambition. History abounds with countless knock-offs – record companies and artists seeking a cheap way to capitalize from recycling and re-hashing. Yet there are also those few projects which bring with them originality and a sense of worthiness. Happily, with this release, Laibach fall firmly into the latter camp. To my mind, possibly only The Residents’ The King and Eye – an extraordinary re-working of Elvis Presley’s (who was himself a master of cover versions) back-catalogue or Paul Anka’s eye-opening alchemy on Rock Swings come close. Of course half the fun is in hearing how the band have transformed oh-so-familiar songs into something quite different, and transform them they truly have.