Why you should care

Because the most moving World War I tribute yet might just be from an angry bunch of old performance-art punks.

“This will take as long as it takes,” Blixa Bargeld murmurs. He’s standing barefoot in a tailored, glitter-stained suit looking out over the most silent rock ’n’ roll crowd you’ve ever seen, and he’s about to blow their minds. Once a skeletal post-punk goblin king, Bargeld is now in his mid-50s and has the heavy demeanor of an otherworldly undertaker. He takes a step back from the microphone, folds his hands and stares like he’s about to give a lecture. And he is — but this history lesson is like no other.

Bargeld, a onetime collaborator with Nick Cave, is a founder of the West Berlin industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. Founded in 1980, Einstürzende Neubauten calls itself a declaration of war “on all conventional hearing habits” — and it is not kidding. The band’s early concerts eerily sketched the coming fall of the Berlin Wall with smashed concrete and sliced metal filling in for instruments.

Today, Bargeld and company continue their uncanny relationship with history. Lament is a literal portrait of the First World War. It’s no rock album; it’s “a piece of theater,” Bargeld insists in his artist’s note. Commissioned by local governments in Flanders to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war, this show is part real-time installation art, part living memorial.

Watch a 1983 performance on concrete and sliced metal, and see the “goblin king” era, c. 1990.

It begins with the construction of “Kriegsmachine” — the war machine. Band members drag chains and stack pieces on bare sheet metal, creating an iron monster that grows in size and volume onstage. Bargeld silently holds up signs throughout this process. “War does not break out. It waits,” one reads.

Split into acts that span languages, themes and people, Lament is nevertheless as precise and historically nuanced as an academic work. The show uses real people’s words, sounds and music, from wax cylinder recordings of Allied POWs, to war poetry, to telegrams between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II. Two numbers are wry takes on jazz compositions by the formidable African-American U.S. Army regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters.

Lament makes audiences who paid to see a heavy rock band uncomfortable.

Unlike many of the past year’s World War I commemorations, Lament makes an effort to extend the war’s consequences beyond borders. Einstürzende Neubauten sings in French, English, German and Flemish. Band members occasionally become faceless characters, like a soldier whose crutch provides a beat.

It’s deadly, dangerous stuff — and it makes audiences who paid to see a heavy rock band uncomfortable. One number stuns them into silence completely. “Der 1. Weltkrieg” is played on a giant xylophone made out of pipes, each of which represents a country that fought in World War I. It’s played at 120 beats per minute, and each beat represents a day in the war. As the song goes on, percussionists add more pipes, with Bargeld narrating the timeline all the way to the armistice.

This is no dignified two-minute silence. It’s brutal, hypnotic and pounds home the hundreds of thousands of deaths represented by every minute. True to Bargeld’s word, it takes as long as it takes.

An hour-plus version of Lament can be viewed here.

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