Rammstein: Reise Reise

Tim O'Neil

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.


Reise Reise

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2004-11-16
UK Release Date: 2004-09-27
Amazon affiliate

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.





Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.