It would seem that Rammstein are forever cursed to suffer for the original sin of not having been born in an English-speaking country. Critics in England and America have been almost universally dismissive of the group’s distinctive brand of Teutonic metal. It goes without saying that a great deal of the subtext that the band thrives upon is invisible unless you know German (or have access to decent lyric translations). They don’t provide any official translations themselves. Save for a handful of covers, they don’t sing in English. They are proudly chauvinistic in regards to their national identity, and they have never seen a reason to bend this policy for the benefit of an American audience. They will merely have to be satisfied with selling millions of records in the US, instead of the tens of millions of records they routinely sell across the globe.
It’s almost helpful to approach Rammstein from the perspective of performance art. Certainly, their music is powerful in the tradition of the best industrial and metal music throughout history, but they’re punks at heart. They became a metal band because they thought it would be a fun idiom to exploit and subvert. The closest English-language comparison would probably be Public Image Ltd., another band that took the punk ethos and transplanted it onto the foreign soil of a new genre in the name of greater subversion. (And if you doubt their punk cred, you should know that the Ramones’ “Pet Cemetery” has been a staple of the group’s live show since Joey’s death in 2001.)
Which is not to say that they don’t take their music seriously. They’re satire in the same sense that George Orwell’s 1984 is satire (except for when they’re feeling silly, which is usually whenever they have to shoot a music video). There’s not a member of the group who isn’t fiendishly smart about what it is they do, and absolutely committed to their singular vision.
Which is one of the reasons they hole the current vanguard of American metal and hard rock in such disregard. They couldn’t have less in common with the juvenile self-aggrandizing misanthropy of groups such as Slipknot and Limp Bizkit. (I didn’t pick these names out of a hat, either—Rammstein has toured with both groups, and neither tour ended well.) Their closest peers in America would probably be System Of A Down—both groups lean to the far left on the political spectrum and share similarly humanistic philosophies. But Rammstein have only recorded a handful of songs with an indirect political bent, preferring instead to wreath their philosophy in the guise of a detached third-person, whereas SoaD always broadcasts their sentiment from the first-person imperative. Reise Reise sees the group begin to move away from this detachment, if only incrementally.
The six members of Rammstein did not simply grow up in Germany, they grew up in East Germeny, and to this day they remain stalwart socialists (despite the fact that this egalitarianism hopelessly clogs the group’s decision-making process). They are also the products of a unique and painful historical perspective that grants their music a powerful authority. Whereas tyros such as Marilyn Manson toy with the trappings of fascism in order to make satirical feints at obvious American hypocrisies, Rammstein have lived through literal fascism, have suffered under the kind of economic and political repression that most Americans can only vaguely imagine. When they summons the lockstep wraiths of totalitarianism, it is a vivid and deadly presence, standing over their shoulders and peering down from recent history. If they occasionally overreach in their disgust of America’s reactionary politics, it can be forgiven: they have earned their skepticism towards dangerous political ideas the hard way. Of course, if they never tour America again that will just give hoards of American metalheads another reason to love our current administration.
One of the best examples of this easily misunderstood textual irony can be seen in the reception that met the release of the video for their cover of Depeche Mode’s “Stripped” (available on 1998’s classic For The Masses tribute album). Their video offset their deadpan cover of the track with excerpts of Leni Reifenstahl’s infamous Olympiad (a documentary on the 1936 Olympic summer games designed to glorify the Nazi regime). Of course, if you know the lyrics to “Stripped” you can probably see how it was appropriate—if brutal—imagery. Rammstein were taking shameful images from their own national identity and using them to reinforce the song’s passionately anti-capitalistic message. It was an excellent bit of leftist agitprop, but of course anyone who doesn’t have an understanding of Rammstein’s characteristic ironies could easily misinterpret the message.
(Of course, you could also argue that they bring some of the negative attention on themselves: the video for their cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” was built around the death of a famous model, and contained fictional imagery explicitly intended to invoke the memory of Princess Diana’s tragic death. Again, a perfectly valid and interesting commentary on the worst excesses of modern society, totally obscured by the subsequent public overreaction.)
With full cognizance of their unique historical status, Rammstein can be an almost impossibly potent force. By using the repressive trappings of heavy metal to comment on repression both physical and spiritual, they have achieved a uniquely subtle synthesis of satirical form and function.
The first thing you notice about Reise Reise is the august and minimal packaging. Whereas past albums have all featured the six band members in various odd and slightly absurd photographic scenarios (such as the weird bondage gear of Sehnsucht or Mutter’s severed heads in a jar), there isn’t a single photograph anywhere to be seen. From the outset there are signs that this is something a bit more than past Rammstein albums, something slightly more focused. The ominous German legend on the cover reads “Flugrekorder nicht Öffnen”—“Flight recorder, do not open”.
The album begins with the images of distant conflict, of fishermen fighting the forces of nature on a wine-dark sea, á la Hemingway. “Reise Reise” means “journey, journey”, and we are immediately put on notice that this particular journey will be a grim and harrowing one, leavened by German existentialism in the grand tradition of Mann and Goethe.
The next track, “Mein Teil”, is already infamous in Germany for its somewhat sensationalistic adaptation of the Armin Meiwes cannibalism case. In 2001 Meiwes, a 42-year-old computer technician in Hesse, posted a singular notice on an internet chat-room: “Seeking well-built man, 18-30 years old for slaughter”. After a few months of inactivity, 43-year-old Bernd Juergen replied: “I offer myself to you and will let you dine from my live body. Not butchery, dining!!” Sure enough, the two met and proceeded to devour the latter.
Rammstein have always cultivated a fascination with aberrant behavior, and have used their music to explore facets of popular culture that would otherwise go unheralded. With “Mein Teil” they dissect what would appear to be a cut-and-dried example of pathology, examining the problem from the perspective of the victim who chose to give his life to achieve some sort of inexplicable immortality though self-immolation. Thematically, it may seem reminiscent of similarly grim passages of the Manic Stret Preachers’ Holy Bible, but whereas the tone of that album was unsurpassed disdain, Rammstein are always trying to reach a more sophisticated rapprochement with the darker edges of existence: they wish to understand why a person would want to eat and be eaten, and how such a depraved act could possibly lead to the kind of sublime spiritual communion implied by Miewes and Juergen.
The rest of the album revels in the type of paradoxical, multi-faceted existentialism which comes second nature to Germans but is persistently untranslatable to Americans. “Los” is a great example of this: the word “los” is a German suffix meaning “-less” (as in “meaningless”), but it is also an adjective meaning “off” or “loose”, and when used as a command it means “go!” The track itself brings to mind mid-period Depeche Mode, with repetitive acoustic guitar and a stripped-down, insistent beat.
“Amerika” is probably the groups’ most overt political statement to date, revolving around the recurring English-language chorus “We’re all living in America/ America is wonderful / We’re all living in America / America, America”. It is perhaps not the most nuanced attack of American cultural hegemony, but it is spirited and catchy nonetheless, a fine addition to the groups’ tradition of crafting ineffably catchy anthemic sing-alongs.
The album ends with “Amour”, the most intimate love song they’ve ever written. In the context of a disc filled with the imagery of great black gaps in the fabric of human rationality, Rammstein somehow manage to make honest and sincere romance seem just slightly alien, and tinted with enough melancholy to satisfy the heartiest emo-kid. There’s even a massively indulgent guitar solo towards the end, another uncharacteristic gesture in an album full of revealing departures.
Rammstein have built one of the most consistent and unforgettable bodies of work in modern rock by hewing close to a strong and unyielding template of emotionally ascetic and cerebrally dense industrial metal. They are still one of the hardest groups around, but their lofty detachment has fallen partially away, exposing a group that has found an artistically rich middle-ground by exploring the contrast between aggressive metal posturing and subtle emotional nuance. For those with the patience to look beyond the Teutonic bluster and punk insouciance, Reise Reise will be a uniquely rewarding experience.