Old Heroes Go Mute: Laibach - Spectre and Plastikman - EX

Laibach and Plastikman are part of the Mute legacy, but there is nothing nostalgic about Spectre or EX, these albums are as modern and current as anything released in 2014.
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Mute Records has been the home of cutting-edge artists since Daniel Miller founded it in 1978. While it would be ridiculous to consider the label an independent today, it remains surprisingly true to Miller's original vision. As 2014 comes to a close, it occurs to me that two of the years' best records came from artists who have been with Mute for a long time. Laibach's Spectre and Plastikman's EX are great examples of what Miller is still doing right, allowing the artist to make their music without interference.

The fact that Laibach released a new album in 2014 was a welcome surprise. Spectre is their first new studio recording in eight years. The band formed in the former Yugoslavia in 1980, and were the very definition of "illegal music" for years there. Even the use of the name "Laibach" was outlawed by the government from '83 - '85. Their politics were a sustained dissident attack on the government, although it was their incredible music and artwork that captured the attention of Western audiences. A great deal has changed in the world over the past thirty-four years, but Laibach's ability to make great music with a provocative message remains constant - as Spectre makes clear.

Laibach's use of martial beats is central to their musical identity, and they are considered one of the original industrial bands. One of the things that shocked me in the '80s was the critical response to them. There were a few otherwise well-informed music critics who actually thought Laibach were a pro-Communist or even neo-Nazi group because of their iconography and martial sound. Nothing could be further from the truth of course, but it took a while for some to understand the irony being employed.

The whistling "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"-style "The Whistleblowers" is perfect Laibach. It is probably the catchiest bit of musicĀ  they have ever written. "The Whistleblower" is their very own German berr-hall tune, with a lyric of men happily marching off to be slaughtered. Jeez, how did people ever miss the irony of Laibach?

This militant theme is continued with "No History," they then go full on with the hardcore "Eat Liver!" I love the vintage Syn-drums in this track. "Eurovision" brings the ominous gloom that Laibach are also so well-known for, in the best possible way. "Bossanova" is reminiscent of what attracted to me not only to Laibach, but to '80's industrial music in general. Unrelenting beats, the powerful Orwellian vocals of Milan Fras, and lyrics that reward a careful listen. If they are saying what I think they are saying, it would be unbelievable. If they mean it, we should all run away now.

The only question I had about "Resistance is Futile" is what took them so long to write it? Laibach as The Borg made me smile. The first closer is "Koran," and it is bizarre. Lyrically, anything goes with these guys, and always has. But Laibach doing Philly soul? I don't know how to explain a tune that has Laibach going all Teddy Pendergrass on us.

The deluxe edition of Spectre contains four bonus tracks. I have no idea why, as they are great tunes and fill the bill perfectly. Maybe the reason is that Laibach want to do the Western thing and wring a few extra bucks out of unwary consumers. "The Parade" is the first of these extras, and it is very cute, sort of in the vein of another classic Mute band, Erasure. "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" is the monstrously aggressive finale from our Slovenian heroes.

My second "old" Mute hero is Plastikman, a.k.a. Richie Hawtin. Hawtin began his career as a DJ in 1987, at the age of 17. He has worked under many pseudonyms but his first release as Plastikman was Sheet One in 1993. Every term I have heard to describe his music is wrong, from ambient techno, electronica, chill out, or intelligent dance music, none of them are accurate in my opinion. By consensus, "minimal techno" is what the music is being called today.

The fact is, very few artists are making music like this anymore anyway. The glory days were the early '90s, with superb records from groups such as The Orb (U.F.Orb) , Aphex Twin (Selected Ambient Works 85-92) and Autechre (Incunabula). Sheet One was an instant classic, and I believe that EX is the best thing Plastikman has released since then.

Although you would never know it, EX was recorded live. Live at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City no less. There are seven tracks, "EXposes," "EXtend," "EXpand," "EXtrude," EXplore," EXpire," and "EXhale," which add up to a little over fifty-three minutes of music. When Hawtin received the invitation, he took it very seriously and composed a set of all-mew material.

A single Bootsy-ish rubber-band note opens the night's performance. "EXposes" is a series of exposures, as other elements drop in and out of the mix, with that original "boing" sound providing the beat until the three-minute mark, when the trademark Plastikman low-key drum machine kicks in. This is Plastikman's sound, and while one may wonder how these synthesized tones differ in a live venue from in the studio, we can hear the spontaneous choices he is making. When to drop a particular bit in, when to fade it out, where to take it all, these musical directions are the same as they are for a traditional guitar hero, or master pianist for that matter.

The musical patterns get much more intense during "EXtend." Having established the tone with "EXposes," Hawtin pushes the envelope to include a series of rising crescendos and near-explosions. The most mysterious piece is "EXpand," which I found myself haunted by for days after first hearing it. The house-beat is subliminally insistent and the textures provide atmosphere, but it is a simple three-note sequence that provides the track's hook, and it is so perfect that it feels narcotic.

"EXtrude" is as unattractive its title, with bumps and grinds in all the wrong places. If your device only has room for six songs, this is the one to leave off. The fifth track is the first of what I consider a three-song suite, as it introduces a lovely melody that seems to weave in and out of "EXplore," EXpire," and "EXhale." "EXplore" is aptly titled, as it does feel like anĀ  exploration. "EXpire" is much more frantic, with wild sounds building the tension, layer by layer until Hawtin lets it all go and begins again. It is like the soundtrack to a film too good to actually be filmed.

"EXpire" segues quietly into "EXhale", which ties EX together by emphasizing the best qualities of the performance. What makes this music so grand is the most overlooked aspect, the melodies. In three or four notes, Plastikman is able to create unforgettable signposts, which he has done throughout the show. These are reiterated with the help of a synthesized orchestra in "EXhale", and all is revealed. This has been a recital by a brilliant artist, and the word "techno" has no place in describing it at all.

The PC term for musicians who have been around for a while is "legacy artists." Laibach and Plastikman are certainly part of the Mute legacy, but there is nothing nostalgic about Spectre or EX, they are as modern and current as anything released in 2014.