It’s about time that Laibach, those Slovenian mischief-makers and utterly serious interrogators of power (pop and state), thought about what constitutes a national anthem, a format that they declare the ‘perfect pop song’. Volk, an album interpreting 14 national anthems, is it, and it’s as audacious and confrontational as anything that this art band has produced in a 26-year career that’s never been far from controversy.
That is possibly because Laibach – their name is the German word for Ljubljana – have always been interested in how emotion and music work together. Packaging themselves in a Wagnerian, minimalist disco sound world and a visual aesthetic that by mimicking totalitarian art subverts it, Laibach’s strategy has always been to parody the spectacular – from the party congress to the stadium rock crowd – to the hilt. If it’s a tactic that leaves them open to misinterpretation, it’s superb when it works and on Volk, it most certainly does.
Aided by Ljubljana’s Silence duo, national anthems are prised apart; hymnal qualities as well as triumphalist tones arise. ‘God save your gracious queen,’ intones the voice on ‘Anglia’, as a string quartet gives way to brooding electronics. ‘America’ is more hysterical: ‘We are all people of God,’ rants a preacher who is spliced into ‘The Land of the Free’. Spain gets off easily, with a few mordant cries of ‘Viva España’ and ‘Olé!’ It’s no coincidence that the closing anthem is for NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst or New Slovenian Art), the global virtual state of which Laibach and their larger circle, the artists and theorists of the IRWIN group, are members. Hunting horns blare, snazzy drums join in but it’s nothing as martial as one would expect. A computerized voice quotes snippets of Churchill: ‘We shall defend our state. We shall never surrender.’ And then the sound of needle running off a vinyl record.