Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Laibach Skirts Music's Fascist Edge

It was Saturday night at the Gorbunov Club in Fili Park. Cult industrial band Laibach had brought its "totalitarian" stage show to Moscow and was halfway through its doomy version of "Sympathy for the Devil." To the backing of a militarized dance beat, the satanically styled lead vocalist addressed Jagger's lyrics to the audience like a demagogue haranguing a torch-lit rally.

In the audience stood a tall, gaunt-faced young man. His gaze was fixed rapt and unblinking on the singer, his hand firmly outstretched in a Nazi salute. Watching him it was easy enough to believe the common accusation against the band that, whatever its artistic or political intentions, it dabbles in forces too dark and too dangerous to be played with.

This question had cropped up repeatedly at Laibach's press conference earlier that day. Like a well-rehearsed government spokesman, band member Ivan Novak responded politely and articulately, without actually giving anything away.

Asked whether Laibach's Moscow audience consisted of "fascist students and music snobs," Novak replied with a faint smile: "We will see tonight ... but I hope both groups will attend." Asked to comment on the danger that people might take the band's use of totalitarian symbols seriously rather than ironically he stated: "We use the symbols of socialist realism and the art of the Third Reich also because we actually like them ... We cannot be entirely responsible for the way people interpret them."

On Saturday night, judging by appearances, the "music snobs" greatly outnumbered the fascists in the audience. If the dominant dress code was black, it was far more as the uniform of international bohemia than of neo-Nazidom. In fact the proportion of the audience giving a Nazi salute or sporting shaven skulls was scarcely greater than you would expect to find at a typical Moscow punk gig.

The core of the show was made up of tracks from Laibach's new album, "NATO." With this record the band declared that it intended "to take NATO where NATO itself has refused to go." The bulk of the album consists of grandiose reworkings of some of the more fatuous attempts of pop music to come to terms with militarism. Thus Status Quo's supremely brainless "In the Army Now" -- a hit with young Yugoslavians as their country slid into civil war -- becomes genuinely sinister when played at dirge-like pace with the support of a synthesized, Red Army-scale backing choir.

Although Laibach is hardly a "good live band" in the Springsteen sense of achieving a testosterone-fueled rapport with the audience, it is worth seeing in the flesh as its impact depends as much on visual effects as on the music itself.

At center stage the lead vocalist, Milan Fras, growled into the microphone, while on either side stood one of his colleagues, hammering on snare drums or tooting into bugles like overgrown Hitler Youth. The stage was draped with banners on which the NATO emblem appeared, reworked as sinister fascistic mandala. A montage of images projected onto the backdrop formed a commentary on the banality of the song lyrics themselves. So Europe's hit, "The Final Countdown" was accompanied by a blitz of multinational firms' logos, framed by the Nuremberg-style banners to either side.

To watch this show as a Westerner living in Moscow was an unsettling experience. The West -- the place where the shops are full and the laws are obeyed -- is presented as an alien threat. And this may get at the essence of what Laibach is doing, namely, not propagandizing for any particular political ideology by manipulating totalitarian symbols, but rather questioning all ideologies. If so, then the people in the audience with their right arms outstretched didn't get it.