Norway's Ultima festival ranges from rock to classical. The latter includes the 19th-century songs of Robert Schuman in novel context — accompanied by a grunge-rock duo called Fucking Famous and a slapstick chef who performs a snake-charmer routine on his own penis, achieving elevation by means of a tin whistle and some artfully attached fishing line. But, despite the grunge, the heaviest proposition at Ultima comes with the industrial sounds of Laibach, from Slovenia in what was once Yugoslavia.
Laibach have no guitars on stage but they carry heavy freight in terms of both ideas and sounds. They’ve also made repeated connection with the rock realm. They’ve recorded fantastical versions of tracks from the repertoires of the Rolling Stones, Status Quo and Europe. Their take on the Swedes’ metal-kitsch classic The Final Countdown was a propulsive surge that suggested Soviet-era cosmonauts flying to Mars or beyond. But Laibach made their first real international impact in 1987 with a self-described ‘totalitarian’ cover of Queen’s One Vision — equipped with monumental martial drums and sounding like something Leni Riefenstahl might have used to soundtrack her films of the Third Reich’s Nuremberg rallies. Laibach have repeatedly used totalitarian imagery, both from the Soviet era and what they call ‘Nazi Kunst’. Tonight a swastika flickers into view in one of their startling film projections. But it’s long been clear that this collective are no far-right goons, rather using the most extreme symbols of nationalism to catalyse thought on these areas in our own era. (There have been clear clues here. Laibach did once prominently feature a swastika on a record sleeve, but it was a design by the German anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield).
Ultima is a bold, intriguing event taking place over ten days across numerous Oslo venues, from cafes to the imposing Nationaltheatret. Leading up to the Laibach show there’s a compelling collaboration in a church from Norway’s Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrod. The latter has recorded distinctive covers of Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath and played on stage alongside Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. In the 1990s Hval was in the gothic metal band Shellyz Raven. Together they perform a wonderful mix of grand piano, textured electronica and bewitching human voices.
This is the context in which we find Laibach and they rise to the occasion. Ultima has invited Laibach to re-interpret music by Norway’s most celebrated composter, Edvard Grieg. The result is a Laibach variation on Grieg’s unfinished opera Olav Tryggvason, named after a viking king and, as such, pretty metal. Laibach’s talke is an audio-visual tour de force. Rotating images of a viking ship gradually take shape, a vast assembly like something from architecture’s palette of computer-aided design. The music is a potent blend of synth abstraction and symphonic fanfare, including an additional section from the Norwegian national anthem. Vocals are alternatively seductive and stentorian — from Laibach’s two singers, Mina Spiler and Milan Fras.
The theme at Ultima this year is ‘The Nation’. Laibach are hugely fitting here — after all, this is a band who have created their own state entity, the borderless NSK State (Neue Slowenische Kunst), complete with their own passports and postage stamps. Over the past 35 years Laibach’s music has addressed national and international politics, and tonight they draw heavily on this year’s Spectre album, a record that looks at the individual’s positions in the face of governmental hierarchies. This might sound dry, but Laibach live have great charisma. Milan is austerely commanding, Mina an alluring alt-rock communist tour guide, leading the audience into mass exercise. The Spectre LP’s The Whistleblowers is an obvious highlight, an anthemic cyber-pop answer to the Colonel Bogey March.
Tonight, sadly, there is no Queen or The Final Countdown. But there is a powerful, haunting synth-rock re-imagining of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. This is Laibach at their thought-provoking best. Ultima is, naturally enough, a very white, northern European event. Even so Laibach manage to respectfully remind us of hard rock’s origins - the Afro-American blues.