‘We thank Laibach for 40 years of existence and 10 years of good music.’ It's a meme that appeared in 2020 on the group's 40th anniversary. Many fans of Laibach especially like the early work of the collective, and sometimes express their contempt for the later work, especially when singers such as Mina Špiler or Marina Martensson are involved.
Not that I'm that harch myself. I really like what Laibach has made after the 1980s, up to and including their most recent work. But of course the history of Laibach in the 1980s is extremely fascinating, and it laid the foundation for later work. We therefore see that the band has referenced the early years a lot in recent years, whether or not to accommodate their critics.
For example, the extensive ‘Laibach Revisited’ box was released in 2020, which contained both the group's 1985 debut and new versions of the songs of the time. In 2021, ‘We Forge The Future (Live at Reina Sofía)’ was released, a re-enactment of Laibach's scandalous concert at the 1983 Music Biennale in Zagreb, at which they played images of Marshal Tito on television screens simultaneously with a porn film. It was one of the reasons for the ban on Laibach in Slovenia a few weeks later.
These ‘Sketches of the Red District’ also belong in the series ‘going back to the early days’. It refers to the birth of Laibach in the small town of Trbovlje. More specifically, Laibach was born on June 1, 1980, which was an important holiday in Trbovlje. After all, on June 1, 1924, the mining town managed to repel an attack by the fascist militia Orjuna (Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists).
It was a tumultuous time. After the First World War, many new countries emerged on the ashes of empires such as the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, or in case we are interested in: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the south of Europe, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established, which would be transformed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after a royal coup in 1929.
The new kingdom was unstable, with border disputes with Italy and Austria. As a result of the treaty of Rapallo in 1920, many Slovenes and Croats came to live in Italy, and the Istrian peninsula also fell into Italian hands through a treaty between Italy and the entente (although it would become part of Yugoslavia after the Second World War, and is still today a source of tension between Slovenia and Croatia). The Slovenes from Carinthia, in the south of Austria, surprisingly chose to remain within Austria in the plebiscite of 1920, perhaps because of the better economic prospects for the region.
The Orjuna came into existence in 1921 and consisted primarily of Croatian refugees from Italy. Their goal was an authoritarian and highly centralized Yugoslavia, ironically drawing inspiration from one of their main enemies: the Italian fascists. The Orjuna was active against any form of separatism by Serbs, Croats or Slovenes, but also and especially against communists. And the mining town of Trbovlje was a red stronghold. Hence: The Red Districts, or Zasavje, a region that includes Trbovlje, Zagorje and Hrastnik.
On the morning of June 1, 1924, between 500 and 800 armed members of the Orjuna gather at the Trbovlje station. They unfurl banners and flags and want to march through the city together with a marching band. A little further on, about seventy members of the Proletarian Action Units (PAČ) are waiting for them. Shots are fired and people are killed on both sides. On their withdrawal, the Orjuna kidnaps and kills another key miner and sets fire to his house, a communist headquarter.
By nightfall, the army restored peace in Trbovlje, and the communists would face severe repression in the aftermath of the day's events, with several leaders going behind bars. Still, the day remained important as a symbol of communist resistance in the city, and was thus celebrated extensively in communist times. That is why Laibach chose that date as the date of birth for their project.
Laibach's first action – entitled: alternative to Slovenian culture – was also supposed to take place in Trbovlje, on September 27, 1980, almost four months after their foundation. The event would consist of three parts: 1) putting up posters with the name Laibach and the black cross symbolizing the group for the first time, 2) concerts by Laibach, Kaos and Berlinski zid, and 3) an exhibition. Location of the event: Delavski dom (Workers' House). The event was supported by the ŠKUC (Študenski Kulturni Center, student culture centre) from Ljubljana.
Unfortunately, the group would not get any further than putting up their posters at night, because when Trbovlje awoke with posters of torture and ominous black crosses on the walls, the concert and exhibition were promptly banned. The government argued that the posters were illegal and provocative and that they confused the public. The local ZSMS (Zveza Socialistične Mladine Slovenije, or Association of Socialist Youth of Slovenia, of course affiliated with the Communist Party) also strongly condemned the action, even though it was linked to the ŠKUC, that operated as a part of ZSMS.
It would last another two years before Laibach can have it’s first performances and exhibitions. However, that didn’t go smoothly. After a number of scandalous performances, in particular the aforementioned appearance at the Zagreb Music Biennale, the group is put on trial in prime time by television presenter Jure Pengov, who, among other things, defiantly asks why the workers did not support Laibach when the 1980 event was banned. The band replied calmly:
‘The 1980 Trbovlje action was designed to test the national security network. It was a test of positive awareness in the red mining district. The action was a success, as it was intended to be banned. The workers worked closely with the police, demonstrating their positive awareness.’
After the television appearance, the municipality of Ljubljana retrieved an old regulation from which it could be deduced that Laibach was using its name, the German variant of Ljubljana, illegally. The use of the name Laibach was banned, and so were performances under that name. The band did not retreat, however, and left for a European tour, The Occupied Europe Tour, visiting countries in both Eastern and Western Europe. When they were back in Slovenia, Laibach managed to hold a successful exhibition about the tour, again at the ŠKUC in Ljubljana.
The group managed to score internationally and even signed record contracts with foreign labels. The popularity among the youth, who increasingly resented centralism and the lack of freedom in Yugoslavia, also put pressure on the situation. On April 4, 1986, the communist youth organization ZSMS officially proposes to lift the ban, and a month later they award a prestigious prize to the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst, an artists' collective around Laibach that was active in various fields, and that also was a reaction to the ban on Laibach).
In the end, the ban on Laibach was lifted in early 1987, which was immediately celebrated with a Yugoslav tour. But it didn't take long before Laibach made the country shake again, through the designer collective New Collectivism that was part of NSK. New Collectivism had designed a poster for the celebration of the annual Youth Day, an important holiday in Yugoslavia, at the request of the ZSMS. However, the poster turned out to be a copy of a Nazi poster from 1936, in which Nazi symbols were replaced by Yugoslav and communist symbols. A huge scandal ensued. The genie was out of the bottle, and the disintegration of Yugoslavia had begun.
But back to the record ‘Sketches of the Red Districts’. Musically, this is completely in line with Laibach's untitled debut from 1985. Untitled, because Laibach was not allowed to use his name at the time, so the buyers had to know which record it was based on the black cross on the cover. You will hear reminiscent sound waves on the new record that are a mix of industrial and dark ambient. For the music, Laibach is once again relying on external composers, in particular Vitja Balžalorsky and Bojan Krhlanko, both of whom already have a lot of experience in other projects.
Remarkable: For the first time since the breakthrough album ‘Opus Die’ from 1987, Laibach releases an album sung entirely in Slovenian, with vocals by the ‘Immanent Consistent Spirit’, a character that appears in NSK's organizational charts, a parody of the complicated Yugoslav state structure (which was almost as complicated as the Belgian state structure). Who sings is therefore not clear, but we still recognize the gurgling grave voice of Milan Fras, and a female voice that seems te belongs to Kaja Blazinšek.
The lyrics deal with the hard life of the miners in Trbovlje, and the conflict between the Orjuna and the communists in the miners' town. The last song is called '27.09.1980', which of course refers to Laibach's first banned performance. 'Posters, posters everywhere (…) The unfolding of the banner must take place in Trbovlje – in the nest of red elements'. Is Laibach explicitly comparing itself to the Orjuna here, or is this merely ‘a test of positive consciousness in the red mining district’? We don't have the answer for you, but we recommend ‘Sketches of the Red Districts’ to all lovers of the old Laibach.