Eine Kleine Rammsteinmusik

Daniel Kalder praises some German originals who seem to have sprung fully-formed from the head of Wotan.

I first encountered Rammstein in an almost empty cinema on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street, during an afternoon matinee of the largely unloved David Lynch movie Lost Highway. Balthazar Getty had just broken into a house, a porno starring his lover was unfolding on a giant screen, and something was about to go very wrong- a point underscored on the soundtrack by sinister chanting, tolling church bells and an impossibly low German voice muttering words I didn’t understand. It was ominous, bombastic, absurd, utterly hilarious- and yet also thrilling:

Was ist das? I thought. The credits revealed that it was an outfit called “Rammstein”, but that meant nothing. A few weeks later however I was back in Moscow where I lived at the time, shopping for sounds in the open-air pirate market Gorbushka and lo! I stumbled upon a weird cassette, featuring six oiled, naked from the waist-up Germans posing in front of a giant flower. This, apparently, was Rammstein, and track eight- Heirate Mich– was the song from the movie.

At the time I was more of a 70s art rock/Algerian Rai man than a fan of Teutonic heavy metal. But beneath the grinding riffs, the guttural vocals, the industrial synths I detected something unexpected: a gift for melody, a sense of rhythm, almost, at times, a groove. It was, in other words, sehr gut:

Mere weeks later Rammstein released their second album, Sehnsucht which featured more grinding riffs, a female vocal and a bit more synth. It also contains what is probably the band’s signature track, Du Hast which became briefly notorious in the US since the Columbine killers dug it big time. Note the martial beat, and the obvious pleasure lead singer Till Lindemann takes in enunciating the sounds of his native language. Like Kraftwerk before them, Rammstein embraced their Germanic identity, albeit very different aspects of it:

The clip above is from the concert film Live Aus Berlin, when their stage show was big but not yet the epic piece of infernal rock theatre it would become. It also dates from a period when Rammstein’s sense of the absurd was less on display. Two tours later, and some members of the band had abandoned the “scary cyborg” look for lederhosen and even (in guitarist Paul Landers’ case) a monk’s tonsure. However Lindemann’s unique body language has always remained constant- a champion swimmer in his youth, he is a huge presence on stage, alternately doing the “Rammstein squat”, pounding his fist on his knee, or staggering around looking alienated from his own ageing carcass, a profound melancholy in eyes.

I was lucky to discover Rammstein in Russia, because they were massive over there. Each release was an event, rather than an esoteric fringe thing as in the UK or US. The Mayor of Moscow was outraged by their sturm und drang stage antics, thought they were fascists and banned one concert I had tickets for lest Moscow’s many skinheads were inspired to go on the rampage. A year or so later he relented, which was good because it meant that after I had cleared multiple police barriers I could enjoy a live performance of Mein Teil, a song inspired by the penis-munching German cannibal Armen Meiwes:

Both Du Hast and Mein Teil are present on the recently released overview of their 16 year career, Made in Germany: 1995-2011. Putting together an effective compilation is an art, and Rammstein kept the track list secret until the last moment, making fans such as myself nervous. How could you select a single disc worth of songs from five excellent studio records (the band have in fact released six, but Rosenrot was rubbish). Would the sequencing work? I feared a travesty like Pulp’s Hits– an incredibly lazy serving of obvious songs from their four Island albums, presented in chronological order, and thus tapering off in quality drastically towards the end. Dreadful.

Fortunately, the sequencing of Made in Germany is excellent. The thing about Rammstein is that they sprang fully-formed from the head of Wotan. Membership of the band has remained constant, and they have always worked with the same producer. Rather than mess about with different styles, they have instead refined and developed the sound they were born with. Thus although the first six tracks were recorded over a period of almost ten years, the riffage is consistently mighty, whether exceedingly brutal in the case of Links 234 a military march proclaiming the band’s allegedly leftist leanings (they were tired of being called Nazis), or exceedingly brutal, as in the case of Keine Lust in which Lindemann laments his lack of desire to do ordinary things such as masturbate or chew food, whereas those things he would like to do- say, have sex with large animals, involve rather too much risk. This fine song was accompanied by a rather entertaining video (available on the luxury box set edition) in which the band perform in fat suits:

It’s not all brutality and perversion however. Rammstein may operate within strict sonic parameters, but this does not stop them from experimenting with their sound. Thus track 8, Mein Herz Brennt, begins with a rising swell of strings, as Lindemann sings the opening narration from an East German kid’s show The Sandman rendering it into something anguished and nightmarish:

Indeed, Rammstein’s lyrics are well-written, featuring neologisms and word-play, while also being steeped in such fine German traditions as romantic and decadent poetry, porn and, er, sadistic stuff in the newspapers. Lindemann has been known to quote Goethe in his texts and published a volume of poetry long before Faber whacked off their Jarvis Cocker cash-in, and when the German composer Torsten Rasch took Lindemann’s lyrics and melodies and rendered them as orchestral lieder nobody laughed- in fact, one reviewer at The Spectator acclaimed it as the best classical recording of 2002:

(NB: the last two videos are in fact the same song.)

One of Rammstein’s great strengths vis a vis American heavy metal is that they are not inspired by rage, with its drastically diminishing returns (see the career of Metallica for an example). Rather they do melancholy, strange lust, yearning, grief. Lindemann was already 34 and a divorced father of two when he became successful. Knowing the hardships of adulthood, and the deprivation of an East German upbringing, he is not inspired by adolescent themes. Rather, he is inspired by the thought of Snow White enslaving the seven dwarves and doing coke, before dying of an overdose in the bath:

My only substantial complaint about Made in Germany is the quantity of tracks (five) selected from their third album, Mutter. Sure it is a work of art, possibly their finest recording, and it was their major international breakthrough. But they could definitely have cut the title track in favour of, say, Heirate Mich, which I linked to above. Meanwhile their sixth album, Liebe ist fur alle da is represented by an odd song selection, which might dissuade a neophyte from investing in a copy when I’d rank it as one of their best. Tokenism then lumps us with a track from Rosenrot which could easily have been omitted in favour of something better. But that’s what the skip function on a CD/MP3 player is for- so you can hop over minor mistakes to enjoy tracks such as this:

Some of the missing classics appear on the CD’s second disc, albeit in remix form. I’m not sure whether this second compilation will make much sense to those unfamiliar with the originals, but it’s a lot of fun nevertheless. I suspect Faith No More thought they were taking the mickey when they reduced Du Riechst So Gut to romantic strings and voice. Little did they realize that Rammstein were in on the joke already, and would go much farther in their pursuit of radical or frankly bizarre reworkings of their songs. In many cases the heavy metal guitars disappear completely, and the focus is on electronics and voice, such as in the trancey remix of Stripped by Tiamat, a Swedish black metal band. The somewhat tiresome satire Amerika is rendered into a boppin’ bossanova, while Rammlied becomes a polka, complete with banjos and yodelling. And if you have ever wondered what the Pet Shop Boys sound like with a guttural German bass baritone as their lead singer, why not try out their disco version of Mein Teil? The best remix however is probably Laibach’s version of Ohne Dich. The mega-bombastic Slovenes were a major influence on Rammstein’s sound, imagery and provocative tactics- something, it seems, the band was for a long time wary of fully acknowledging. But Rammstein never really got into Laibach’s ultra-arch, cerebral irony, which left their elder Slavic cousins the creative space to make this preposterous/awesome version of Lindemann’s mournful, melancholic ballad:

My verdict: Rammstein: Made in Germany gets eleven stars out of five. Give the gift of Teutonic metal this Christmas. Wait a minute, Christmas has already come and gone. Never mind, give the gift of Teutonic metal anyway. Now, as Malty said:


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About Author Profile: Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

16 thoughts on “Eine Kleine Rammsteinmusik

  1. wormstir@gmail.com'
    January 11, 2012 at 13:06

    I would liken the noise that Rammstein make to the sound of two battleships mating. This is a good thing.

    Embarrassingly I first saw them (performing feuer frei) in the opening credits to dire Vin Diesel flick XXX. My initial reaction in the cinema was “Woah! Nazi band!”

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    January 11, 2012 at 15:26

    Wonderfully lyrical tribute to the boilermakers band Daniel, though an acquired taste for many (aged parents, the catholic church, the entire population of Morningside and Esher) they do have a point, never knowingly tipped their hats at the Schlagerparade, they cut their own path, with maximum impact and oxy-acetylene torches, the stage show resembling the interior of a pre CNC era sheet metal works. For a while they were, strangely, the doyens of the European automotive design fraternity leading to accusations over the authenticity of some of the detailing on the Renault Megane.
    German musical tastes are, if nothing, wide ranging and, er, strange, what can we make of a race that recently had Circlip Richards and Boy George on the same bill (Köln’s Lanxess Arena) and still buy Francoise Hardy and Mireille Mathieu music, not to mention James Last, odd.

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      January 11, 2012 at 21:21

      Indeed Malty, and regarding German musical taste I am quite fascinated by it. I have noticed in my travels that it all boils down to Modern Talking… their billboards begin in Germany and venture ever further east, growing ever more substantial the farther you go. Likewise Mireille Mathieu (also big in Russia) while the likes of Nazareth are quite popular in Germany and are filling stadiums by the time you get to Kazakhstan.

  3. editor@anatomyofnorbiton.org'
    Toby Ferris
    January 11, 2012 at 17:04

    Nice to see the young people enjoying themselves, as Ray Bartley’s grandmother remarked would have it.

    I thought at first, with my limited frame of reference, that Rammstein must have had something to do with the soundtrack for Red Alert II, but on broadening and deepening my investigation that turns out to have been the work of the award-winning Frank Klepacki.

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    January 11, 2012 at 19:03

    Expanding somewhat on the topic of the influence of modern musical iconography upon the design environment, specifically the automotive with it’s hard-nosed commercial constraints. Allegedly and only allegedly you understand, whistle blowing being a flogging offence within the industry, a certain jam jar manufactured by the world’s greatest engineering company, not one million miles from Tübingen and whose Raison d’être is group C, Le Mans prototypes, was conceived at a Rammstein concert. The similarities are remarkable although the flames are a by-product of unburnt fuel in the wastegate

  5. Gaw
    January 11, 2012 at 20:07

    I guess it’s music but not as we know it. Though bits do remind me of Yello (remember them?).

  6. jonhotten@aol.com'
    January 11, 2012 at 20:54

    Excellent piece Daniel, and a worthy compilation. I interviewed Rammstein a few years ago, during a memorable and strange early evening at the Brixton Academy, where they were to play later. There was a tout outside wanting to ‘buy or sell for Frankenstein’.

    Till Lindemann was in a phase where he wouldn’t speak on the record – that may still be the case, I’m not sure – but he did hang around, and was happy to talk off tape. The rest of them gathered and we did the interview via a translator, as they felt happier that way.

    If you interview heavy metal bands for a living, as I did for a long time in the late 80s glory era, you spent a lot of time speaking to German groups because metal was and is massive in what was then the West. I went there quite a lot [oddly I was in a pub near the Hammersmith Odeon before some gig or other when the wall came down, and Fish from Marillion showed up fresh from Berlin with a chunk of it in his pocket – we all gathered around and took turns to hold it, reverentially] but what was immediately obvious from Rammstein was that West Berlin was almost as unknowable to them as it was to an Englishman spending a few days at a time there.

    Your point about the language seems absolutely right. They maintained there were many subtle differences between the German they spoke and the German of the West, and said they’d abandoned a brief attempt to write in English because their lyrics lost all of the nuance that they heard in German. The best example I can remember is of the album title Sehnsucht, which they understood as meaning hunger, but also longing. They are expert in that sort of giant gothic sadness.

    We were all about the same age, and I said to them that all we knew about East Germans when we were at school was that the women shot putters looked like men, and they all laughed and said yes, their PE teacher was like that and used to beat them… When they formed their first band, they had to go and play in front of a committee who told them what type of group they were, and where they could perform. They said they were categorised as the lowest ‘punk’ kind of band, and thought they were very heavy, but when they finally managed to get hold of some bootleg records from the West they realised that they were actually, in their words, ‘rubbish’, and they went away and began to write the sort of music they play now.

    They told me all about the black market too,and how they made money – they had some scam involving curtains, if remember rightly – and they told Till’s story, which I think was quite embellished even then, about him being a swimmer and a single father and a sort of musclebound Nietzschean hero.

    It was a great night. They have a slightly odd vibe too, because outside of all the homoerotic S&M stuff, one of the guitarists and Til have children by the same women,and they were both married to her at one point, too, I think.

    Then the show started. They started with Mein Hertz Brentt and Till Lindemann descended from the ceiling on a metal globe dressed as a hunchback. You don’t get any more heavy metal than that. They were fucking brilliant. I’m going to see them again next month, too.

    • Gaw
      January 11, 2012 at 21:13

      I hope you like single malt.

      • Worm
        January 11, 2012 at 21:18

        Haha yep that will take some beating for comment of the month!

    • Worm
      January 11, 2012 at 21:20

      Great stuff Jon- to add to the nuance, as far as I was aware sehnsucht can also mean ‘addiction’

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      January 11, 2012 at 21:27

      Great stories, Jon- i envy your encounter with the R- men.

      I think on the US version of Sehnsucht there are English language versions of Engel and Du Hast and they are indeed horrible. also, the lead guitarist Richard Kruspe has a side project that sounds a lot like Rammstein, only he sings in English. Nein. The phonetics of German is as key to their sound as the meaning of the words.

      You can spot the daughter Kruspe had with Lindemann’s ex-wife in a cage during Engel on the Live Aus Berlin video. A strange vibe indeed.

      I saw them on that tour, it was in a dreadful East German town called Riese. Spectacular. Now that I am in central Texas however the closest they come is (occasionally) Mexico… haven’t seen them live since 2006. And thus my own herzeleid.

  7. jonhotten@aol.com'
    January 11, 2012 at 21:46

    My god, I would love to have seen them in East Germany – that must have been quite something.

    Worm, that fits in too, doesn’t it. A beautiful word. I think one of the things I really love about listening to them is that i don’t understand the language at all, but it is phonetically beautiful – majestic even – and fits the music so perfectly.

    As for the fact they’ve put the daughter Richard Kruspe had with Till Lindemann’s ex in a cage onstage – comment of the century, never mind the month. Turns out you can get more heavy metal than descending from the ceiling dressed as a hunchback.

  8. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    January 11, 2012 at 21:57

    My shame. Yes, I had heard of them, and heard them. Yes, they sounded great – just like Rock should be. Then I read Daniel’s piece above. And the penny dropped. How wimpy so many of the Brit/US so-called heavies seem after this onslaught. How should it be? Industrial, In-Your-Face, Gay, Rampant, Barely Controlled, Infantile….and, if possible, a nutter for a front man. Oh yes, and if they happen to be relentlessly true to their ‘art’, their ‘music’, so much the better. They have Lindemann. I have two daughters, and I wouldn’t want him around either of them.
    I see they are in London next month. I will be there.

  9. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    January 11, 2012 at 22:18

    It was a great gig. For some reason they had declined to play Leipzig, a much bigger town which was only an hour away. I had a friend in Leipzig and flew in, attended a concert in the church where Bach was Kapellmeister and then hopped on a train to Riesa. The gig was in a huge shed, there were lots of middle aged bikers and their kids. Lindemann had burned his arm in Nuremberg and so didn’t set fire to himself that night. It was awesome. But there was no train back from Riesa to Leipzig so we had to beg some girls in the car park for a ride home- not very heavy metal. Evidently we didn’t look too threatening because they obliged.

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