.:.FOR THE MADNESS OF LORDS.:.
The First Full-time Album by Six Comm Side-project Schräge Musik is an Uneasy Excursion into the Abattoirs of WW2
While the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War is almost overshadowing other historical landmarks connected with WW2 now in 2014, the co-founder of controversial post-punk (and later, after its split, neofolk) outfit Death In June, Patrick Leagas, once again focuses on the events between 1939 and 1945 with the recent release from his side-project Schräge Musik: the CD album Fleischmaschine (German for meat machine). Credited as the creator of Death In June’s stage appearance and military musical feel, using 1940s haircuts, German camouflage patterns and martial drumming to create an uneasy spectacle of the seductive power of an aestheticised ideology, Patrick Leagas’ obsession with WW2 and military history can be traced back to his father’s involvement in that war. His interests are also influenced by his very own experiences as a soldier of the British Army reserve during the 1980s, and then as a civilian witnessing first-hand the devastating effects of armed conflict during his travels to Afghanistan (Soviet Invasion era) and the Horn of Africa where he experienced a little more than he had hoped for.
Informed by this highly individual prism of personal exploration, experience, and despair about the human condition, Patrick’s post-Death-In-June project 6comm (or Six Comm/Sixth Comm) has supplied listeners with deeply emotional music since 1986, spanning an amazingly wide stylistic range from epic synth-pop (Content with Blood) via ritualistic experimental works (Fruits of Yggdrasil featuring runic sorceress Freya Aswynn) to evocative shamanic crooning (Headless), prefiguring a number of what would subsequently become musical subgenres in their own rights (like martial pop and goa/trance). While Six Comm has always been his main musical output, Schräge Musik (colloquial German for the flatted, „skewed“ notes in jazz music, but also used in WW2 as a term for aircraft’s aft machine guns which were able to fire at enemy planes from below) is his outlet for music dealing with WW2-related topics which don’t exactly offer themselves for the catchy tunes, dancey rhythms and magickal experimentation of his 6comm moniker. So beware the Fleischmaschine: if you expect seductively melancholic tunes and groovy dancefloor tracks, this record is not for you (however, your desires might find satisfaction with the recently released Ontogeny I + II, which both feature reworks and original versions of memorable Six Comm anthems). Instead, it is more of an audio drama reviving the horrifying and oppressive moods experienced by both the civilian and uniformed cannon fodder churned by the meat grinder that raged in Europe and the world from 1939 to 1945.
Fleischmaschine begins its rage with an uncompromisingly martial and minimalist intro: “Europa Gefallen” (Europe Fallen) is both a call to battle and an epitaph to a continent. The demise and destruction are already looming over the dynamic drumming that propels us into a nightmarish world of industrialised war, great sacrifice and foolish heroics. The archaic sounding horn and brass proclaim a warlike tribe on the march, thus hinting at war as a continuous presence in humanity’s history.
The following title track with its symphonic, neoclassical ambience–and introduced by a historic Churchill speech–sets the album’s characteristic mood. It is reminiscent of film scores, complemented by Leagas’ lyrical narrations which have been delivered in a markedly gloomy and subtly aggressive tone of voice.
“Cassino Lost” and “Gran Sasso Affair” reference specific events, namely the battle of Monte Cassino and Mussolini’s liberation from imprisonment by a German special forces unit commanded by Otto Skorzeny, a ruthless Austrian Waffen-SS commander whose achievements made him an outstanding though unapologetic character in the history (and propaganda) of WW2. After the war, he managed to escape the German and Allied authorities and eventually fled to Argentina, evading conviction as a war criminal. The song itself has a fitting, vaguely Mediterranean feel and contains typically British darkly humorous puns where nothing is sacred with such lines as „my big Edelweiss, with your Storch rescue him“–with Storch or stork (the Fieseler Storch was the light aircraft used to recur Mussolini from the Gran Sasso mountain) perhaps alluding to the personal anatomy of the very tall Skorzeny, and hinting at an almost homoerotic connection between Skorzeny and his beloved Führer. Twixt these two tracks is what is basically one song split into two chapters: “Sow the Wind” and “Reap the Whirlwind”, referencing the London Blitz and the carpet bombings of Germany, respectively. Here, Leagas uses drawn-out standing notes and layers of ominous (dis-)harmonic chords, some of which are played on his ebay collection of 1940s harmonicas with plates removed, which give a deeper resonance (something he discovered when repairing an instrument). This is complemented by spots of Leagas’s voice amounting to pained arias of despair; the claustrophobic inescapability of death from above becomes palpable as a captivating yet paralysing atmosphere of looming danger evokes „Bomber“ Harris’ squadrons deploying their deadly loads over Germany in the „total war“ Goebbels had infamously asked for. “Eternity”, previously released as a 7“ single, has been substantially reworked and, with its uptempo marching rhythm and snare drums accompanied by regimental trumpet, may well be the most accessible track on the album. Tempo, brass and snare drums continue to haunt the listener in “Asylum 39-45”, a track originally released on the Sixth Comm album Asylum in 1990. Here, it is augmented by more martial drumming and a desperate organ, creating a sense of utter futility and furthermore conveying 6comm’s overall anti-war message with the unforgiving lyrics „In the hands of battle we lie / for the madness of lords / deliver us unto the sword / we rest our heads in shame / we rest our heads in blood.“
While the pointless slaughter rages on in the asylum that is the world, the ballad of “Tommy Atkins Sweet 16” provides a short break from battle with its harmonica and heartfelt lyrics. It is a melancholic song of homesickness and loss of innocence, bemoaning all „Tommys“, but in this case eluding to the many young men/boys of 16 & under who managed to fool the recruiting system and join the madness, who then lost their lives on the so-called „fields of honour“. It’s easy to imagine a lone young guard singing away the fear and anticipation of battle during a night shift in the trench with this little ditty, which is followed by a song actually sung by British soldiers in action: „We’re here because we’re here“, a line that is reassuring and simultaneously illustrative of the lack of choice faced by both the uniformed units and the civilian population exposed to the machinations of power, war, and violence. While those last two songs directly reference the (unknown) British soldiers, ground to pulp by the Fleischmaschine, Patrick Leagas stresses that neither this song nor the whole album should be perceived as anti-German: „Even though my father fought the Germans, he was never conceited about them or regarded them as a bad people per se but just part of the whole World system under the control of the Lords as we all were. I’ve never felt that this war was a war between peoples, but as we all know the same war between the power-hungry and self-righteous, whether that be in politics or religion, which only profited the industrial complexes on all sides. Thus the title Fleischmaschine: a highly technicised process devouring human flesh to keep operating and exerting its inhumane power like an enormous H.R. Giger machine constantly committing global atrocities, both devouring and renewing itself in an ecstatic fuck and Shamanic destruction and self-renewal, thus speeding development and creating our technological advances to which we all are most grateful Lord.“
The nightmare concludes with “State Laughter 39-45”, which acts as a coda or the end credits of a film, forming an acoustic bracket with “Europa Gefallen”–again using war drums and trumpet–and comes across even bleaker and more accusatory than its original version, released as Death In June’s first 7“ back in 1981, conjuring images of firing squads leaving nothing but „holes in the wall“. The minimalist rendition and the context it is presented in not only concludes an extraordinary achievement in terms of musical treatment of a difficult and sensitive subject, but also sets the record straight about the original concept behind the widely misunderstood group Leagas left for good in 1985. Even though he once let in that „at the same time, some of the nastier rumours were true“, there can be no doubt that despite the sordid attraction that WW2 and Nazi aesthetics exerted on the then young men, Leagas’s continuing examination of war as subject matter, open to misreadings as it may be (just like any outstanding work of art), carries at its core an intense sense of affliction, grief and suffering unparalleled in music. It is an ongoing treatment of a (collective) trauma that can and should never be overcome, yet necessitates dealing with, which uses art as a means to come to terms with, and produce both a reminder of the past as well as a warning to the future which should also be heard outside the ghettos of „underground“ music. Thus, Patrick Leagas’ work is a far cry from the pathetic attempts at silly glorification of war, pseudo-controversial hero-worshiping and championing of ideologies of yesteryear, which are so prevalent in some of the lesser works created by younger groups in the martial industrial and neofolk genres, which he is quick to admit he has little to no connection with, despite the fact that they emerged from the background of a body of themes and topics he pioneered, and has returned to with Fleischmaschine.
Overall, this is a difficult album to review for it refuses each and every stylistic categorisation and does not even attempt to be a pleasurable listening experience. Instead, it invokes nightmarish visions of impending doom, senseless destruction, and pointless suffering, without leaving so much as a silver lining at the horizon to provide a faint glimpse of hope for humanity. Especially at the dawn of a new era of global power struggles and counterproductive military interventions, at a time when cynical reminders to „learn from history“ are uttered by the same people who simultaneously engage in political saber-rattling, while civilians are being slaughtered and enslaved by rogue armies of religious fanatics, this album should be applied as psychological warfare and therapy through repeated listening at loud volumes by those who still opt for deliberate bloodshed as a means to an end. On a scale less grand, it also comes as a timely reminder from someone who has been roaming life and the world mostly outside of any particular music scene for the past 20 years, that the genres he has helped to birth once dealt with the immediate, personal effects of war and violence on the individual, and that the collective traumas of the 20th century are something to be reviled yet remembered, and not something to revel in. There is no hero worship on this album; if you dream of victorious European knights in shiny armour conquering godless subhumans supposedly out to subvert and destroy occidental culture: go and die in some useless war, for the latter has already been achieved by the leaders your fine Europeans had elected in the 20th century. In the meantime, the rest of us shall–reluctantly and resentfully–continue to „dance the tune to the pipes of gold.“