Rammstein's musically rich fifth album is nowhere near as chilly as the cover art would indicate.
After creeping into the North American subconscious in the late-'90s, first with their inclusion on the soundtrack to David Lynch's 1997 film Lost Highway, and then with the way out of left field modern rock hit "Du Hast" a year later, Berlin, Germany’s Rammstein was unable to hold the attention of the ever-fickle mainstream rock fans, their stomping, brutish, evilly Teutonic brand of industrial-tinged metal being mistakenly lumped in with the nu-metal fad that was going on at the same time. As a result, over on this side of the Atlantic, anyway, the band is remembered for a creepy video, some asinine accusations that they inspired some idiotic teens to kill people, and that one irresistible, headbang-inducing song that remains a staple at hockey games across the continent. To dismiss Rammstein as just another product of pre-millenial white boy angst, though, is completely unwarranted; instead of becoming as sad and pointless as Limp Bizkit has become, Rammstein has in fact undergone an evolution that has been as fascinating as that of System of a Down and Slipknot.
After 1998's surprise hit album Sehnsucht, Rammstein tried to achieve more of a streamlined, more melodic sound on the follow-up, 2001's Mutter, but it was Reise, Reise, released three years later, that proved to the many doubters that Rammstein were more than just a repeated riff, bludgeoning beats, and an overtly masculine dude trying to sound imposing. Well, in all honesty, that aspect of Rammstein's sound has never gone away ("Mein Teil" is every bit as great as "Du Hast"), but it was on such songs as the minimalist brilliance of "Los", the grandiosity of "Stein um Stein", and the wickedly satirical, not to mention uproariously catchy "Amerika" that had the band showing impressive musical range and lyrical depth.
Although Rammstein's fifth album is said to consist primarily of songs that were left off Reise, Reise, Rosenrot is anything but a collection of outtakes and toss-offs. In fact, it might be their best effort to date, as the sextet continues to move gradually from the strong industrial influence of their early work to a much more organic sound, the rhythms less mechanical, the music replete with melancholy beauty. At the center of it all is lead singer Till Lindemann, who commands over the proceedings like a demonic compere, presenting character sketches that are depraved, wanton, and always provocative, and whether you understand just what the hell he's raving about or not (thank goodness for Internet fan sites), like any good frontperson, his conviction transcends the language barrier. But it does help to have English translations handy.
Lead-off track "Benzin" is quintessential Rammstein, from its sinister synths to Lindemann's authoritative monotone, singing from the point of view of a pyromaniac, "Willst du dich von etwas trennen / Dann musst du es verbrennen" ("If you want to part with something / Then you have to incinerate it"), but the drumming of Christoph "Doom" Schneider propels the song with a welcome hint of a groove lurking underneath. "Spring" ("Jump") boasts some massive riffs by guitarists Richard Zven Kruspe-Bernstein and Paul H. Landers, as Lindemann provides a fascinating examination of mob mentality at its ugliest. "Zerstören" is the kind of straight-ahead, adrenaline-fueled rocker we've come to expect from the band (coming closest to matching the sound of Sehnsucht), while the stately "Feuer und Wasser" artfully blends lust and helpless longing.
Not surprisingly, it's the more bold musical excursions that really make Rosenrot take flight. "Hilf Mir" benefits from the increased presence of Christian "Flake" Lorenz's keyboard work, and while the homosexually-inclined "Mann Gegen Mann" can be a bit too blunt for its own good, Lindemann still paints a scathing indictment of hostility toward same sex couples, aided tremendously by the band's multi-layered musical backdrop. "Stirb Nicht Vor Mir (Don’t Die Before I Do)" is a lovely, acoustic-tinged ballad featuring a duet between Lindemann and Texas singer Sharleen Spiteri; the band could have easily gone for a token goth duet featuring an operatic female singer, but they wisely chose a singer with much more emotional range, and Spiteri's impassioned singing, the perfect foil for Lindemann's baritone, adds some genuine feeling to a song that could have easily become too overwrought in the wrong hands.
Most startling is the audacious "Te Quiero Puta!", which inexplicably combines mariachi horns with Rammstein's Tanz Metall, and pulls it off so well, it's impossible to tell whether Lindemann's exhortations of, "Dame de tu fruta", are serious, or otherwise. Either way, it's one of the most ridiculously contagious tunes the band has ever come up with, proof that for all the bombast, for all the melodrama, there's often a healthy dose of dry, decidedly German humor underneath it all. Rammstein is one of the smartest hard rock bands today, and the Rosenrot is further proof that they are far from the one-hit wonders many consider them to be.