Also Sprach Zarathustra

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Slovenian industrial collective Laibach composed music for a 2016 theatrical adaptation of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel Also Sprach Zarathustra, and subsequently developed their score into a full-length album, released by Mute in 2017. Surprisingly, considering the group's reputation for recording radically reworked versions of familiar rock songs, orchestral works, and even national anthems, the album has nothing to do with the similarly named Richard Strauss tone poem, best known for the usage of its opening fanfare in Stanley Kubrick's iconic sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead of the fist-pumping industrial dance anthems or martial chanting one might expect from Laibach, this is a relatively restrained album of sparse, chilling sound design -- much closer to the Haxan Cloak than KMFDM or Rammstein. There are no metal guitars and no over-the-top camp here, and the moments of bombastic grandeur are evenly paced and separated by suspenseful pauses. Deep, guttural vocals similar to Tuvan throat singing (presumably by longtime vocalist Milan Fras, though who can tell for sure, given the group's penchant for anonymity) emerge from the pitch-black darkness at startling intervals. Orchestral percussion instruments such as gongs and timpanis (or at least synthetic approximations thereof) contribute to the rhythmic heartbeat of the compositions, while a few snatches of flickering breakbeats or digitally shredded snares pop up throughout. "Ein Verkündiger" ends with the sound of knives sharpening, and "Das Nachtlied I" contains a hair-raising grinding noise, delivered in fits and starts over eerie pianos. For all of these unnerving elements, there are just as many that are stunningly gorgeous, such as rippling, bubble-like effects and swelling strings during "Als Geist" or the ethereal female vocals during the majestic, shimmering "Vor Sonnen-Aufgang." Then there's "Von Den Drei Verwandlungen," the head-spinning Coil-esque audio tornado that ends the album. Also Sprach Zarathustra is an intense experience, but not at all in the way one might expect from Laibach. It's spacious and fluid rather than rock-solid and rigid, but every sound and movement feels entirely deliberate. Nearly 40 years after their formation, Laibach remain innovators, and Also Sprach Zarathustra is easily one of their best works. Absolutely glorious.

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