I first heard Rammstein like everyone else — when “Du Hast” suddenly hit American radio waves sometime around 1998. Those days, Rammstein was grouped with their considerably more mainstream American counterparts, nu-metal rockers like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Rob Zombie. Despite having only two albums under their belt, Rammstein were forced into a category within which they didn’t belong. Korn’s biggest hit, “Freak On A Leash”, is telling: where Fred Durst, Jonathan Davis of Korn, and Rob Zombie maintained an MTV-ready image, harnessed by music television’s conventional leash — Rammstein trudged on, their concerts pushing back against the mainstream, emphasizing the band’s own theatrical sense of performance and its relation to their music.
As they would throughout their career, Rammstein found controversy in sex with their stage shows in the late 90s; during the song “Buch Dich” (literally: “Bend Down”) lead singer Till Lindermann would lead the keyboardist Flake onstage draped in chains and pretend to rape the keyboardist from behind using a fake dildo. The act, which provoked an overzealous police force to arrest the band in Minneapolis in 1999 and fine them $25, is all too literal a reenactment of the band’s place in American music — the only group to take their chains (leashes) onstage with them. Did they mean to mock Jonathan Davis — was Flake supposed to be Davis, an elaborate inside joke, the freak on a leash, bending down, ready to be dominated by his German meister?
Perhaps a better measure of the dominant band is present success. Today, Korn is no more. Half the members are born again evangelicals. Limp Bizkit, which never really meant anything more than Fred Durst, fell apart when Durst could no longer find a way to express the lower-middle class white boy angst he proselytized. Breaking stuff lost its appeal. Rob Zombie became —was he aiming for Hollywood the whole time? — an undead (read: zombie) horror film director.
With the release of their sixth album on Oct. 26, Rammstein is the only band still thriving. And they’ve stuck around even while their albums have consistently defied jumping into the same boat as other popular bands throughout the years. Rammstein have been, and still are, lonely, angry Seeman.
1997’s Sehnsucht was an industrial metal record laced with staccato synthesizers and sparse production. The nu-metal crew, on the other hand, only left their guitars to drop a few DJ scratches in the bridge. 2001’s Mutter relinquished the techno-keyboard motif altogether, replacing Flake’s choral synths with orchestral string sections and sweeping, heavy, relentless songs.
These were big picture songs, memorable but unique: German power metal stadium anthems. The stage show followed suit and there were no other bands like Rammstein in 2001 — a five piece with a pyrotechnic stage show whose flames were real but remained at its core a show, an act, a production. Much as Marilyn Manson struggled to define himself as anything more than a shock rocker, Rammstein were written off as simpletons — playing to the mainstream’s obsession with the disgusting, the absurd, the controversial. The flamethrowers, Till’s hulking hyper masculine appearance, the deep, growling sound of his voice inside the German language, the mesmerizing power anthems, the endless 1,2,3 of the snare drum — was Rammstein promoting a conspicuous pro-Nazi agenda? Was Rammstein’s visceral metal, which was gaining popularity in the US, just another example of the world’s lingering neo-Nazi sentiments?
The band, of course, knew what they were doing. It remained unthinkable for the media to consider a band this German anything but an extension of the Third Reich. And Rammstein played to this image in certain ways — the shirtless photo of the band on the cover of their debut album Herzeleid, the song “Links 1,2,3” (Left 1,2,3) from Mutter, which — if you can’t understand the lyrics — sounds exactly like a military march song. (It turns out that it is, except if you understand the words they’re making fun of the whole military song and dance — it’s a complicated maneuver: sounding like something that might be played in Nuremburg during a Third Reich rally, actually being German with all the post-WWII baggage that the nationality carries with it, combining stereotypes and ideologies to parody everyone’s expectations).
It’s a clever trick. But their fiery theatrical stage show ultimately proved the opposite point. Rammstein weren’t propping up old stereotypes of Germans or Hitler’s totalitarianism, but rather by means of symbols and imagery paralleling American foreign policy. As 2001 became 2002, the pyrotechnics became increasingly elaborate as Rammstein continued to tour.
Little did the band know how timely their fiery on-stage antics truly were. Within 5 months of Mutter’s release, the US had begun bombing Afghanistan after 9/11. Another two years and we’d invaded Iraq. Our strategy? We could have called it the “German Power Metal Stadium Anthem Attack” but no, instead, we dubbed it “Shock and Awe.” An American demonstration of power without a considerable ground force penetration — “Buch Dich,” anyone? Flames soaring into the sky, syncopated, timed explosions, restrained, precise attacks, relentless pounding — are we talking American foreign policy in Iraq or Rammstein’s music? Does it even matter?