Monday, June 16, 2014

In Defense Of: Rammstein

This In Defense Of was contributed by Duane Gibson: economist, lawyer, German-speaker, und — wichtigsten! — Rammstein-Verteidiger. Willkommen, Freunde.
Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann + fireworks gun.
I repeat: "fireworks gun."
My most gracious editors have astutely bestowed the “In Defense Of…” moniker to this series, and it is a very efficient set-up providing multiple starting points from which the writer can choose an angle. It is also an admirably elegant construction that simultaneously elides and celebrates (with a wink) its nature as the most perfect straw man that ever did straw (this is a compliment). This has created a fecund ground in which compelling arguments have been cultivated to illuminate the various merits of things whose merits are indeed palpable and enjoyable to reflect upon, despite — and perhaps also as a result of — the mild-to-severe public derision they may have endured. However, this generally involves at least somewhat widespread public familiarity with the band, a decent portion of its catalogue, and ripe nostalgia. This, I suspect, is not one of those cases.

I come not to defend Rammstein, but to praise them. This band is fucking awesome, and their awesomeness is as pure as the band is not. 

First and foremost — the music. Gott im Himmel, the music. It is virtually wall-to-wall adrenaline and comically pansexual testosterone — relentlessly aggressive, unapologetic, rhythmic, and propulsive, like a monster truck crossed with a metronome. Even the structure of the band defies convention — an atypically large six-member ensemble, Rammstein has somehow managed to avoid a single lineup change in its twenty-year(!) existence. Their emergence onto the European scene in 1994 even precipitated a new musical taxonomy for their style — Neue Deutsche Härte, which literally translates to “New German Hardness.” Given the well-established bona fides of old German hardness, this is particularly impressive. If Type O Negative had a baby with Kraftwerk, and Nine Inch Nails had a baby with Wagner (conceived to the dulcet tones of a mashup of “Happiness in Slavery” and “Ride of the Valkyries” playing in the background, naturally), and then those two babies had a litter of six, the result would be the kids from whom Rammstein stole lunch money in middle school (and possibly still do).

Rammstein looking "Teutonically coy."
Beginning with their debut effort, 1995's Herzeleid (“Heartache” — just look at that cover), the band hit the ground running with an exemplar of what would become its oeuvre — classically straightforward distortion metal, driven in this case by the Rock Band-on-medium-mode drums of Christoph Schneider. Throughout Rammstein’s catalogue, Schneider is infrequently tasked with anything more than bpm maintenance — albeit interspersed with flashes of percussive craftsmanship — and this undergirds the band’s methodical approach to song construction. The song entitled Wollt Ihr das Bett in Flammen Sehen? (“Do You Want to See the Bed in Flames?”) contains a bridge hook that more or less sets the tone for the ensuing twenty years — syncopated thrashing behind vocalist Till Lindemann’s inimitably unmistakable bellowing: Sex ist eine Schlacht; Liebe ist Krieg (“Sex is a battle; love is war”). The fourth track, Asche zu Asche (“Ashes to Ashes”), is perhaps the purest distillation of the band on the entire album — immediate, driving chord-progression-heavy guitar overlaid on a rapid electronic drum sample, with the sneaky-slick bass of Ollie Reidel providing a garnish to the meat-and-potatoes thrust of the song. It is also, incidentally, a song about crucifixion and resurrection that involves Jesus in exactly no way at all. The fifth track, Seemann ("Seaman") is the first example of what I consider a weirdly endearing characteristic of the band, which is that virtually every album has a song that is unadulterated, unlistenable garbage. It’s endearing because you come to realize it is telegraphed — if the song is recorded at fewer than 80 bpm, there is a 90% chance it will be terrible, so you can probably skip it. Perhaps its only saving grace is the repeated use of the line “komm in mein Boot” (“come in my boat”), which does not have any possible figurative meaning, no way no how. As for the rest of the album, Laichzeit (“Spawning Time”) is a personal favorite both because of the delectable sliminess of the lyrics, the forceful riff, and Lindemann’s obvious enjoyment in vocal inflection. Du riechst so gut (“You Smell so Good”) may very well be the most complete song on the album, with all six members making notable contributions, and lyrics that call to mind a spin on “Every Breath You Take” that can only be described as Teutonically coy. 

For me, though, the album always comes back to Heirate mich (“Marry Me”). This is a song which perfectly captures, through Lindemann’s ominously melodic spoken word intro and outro — set to the sound of haunted chanting and church bells that sandwich a faster, electronic middle — the essence of the album title and its internecine relationship to the construct of eternal love. It accomplishes this by utilizing — because, of course it does — a necrophilia allegory that ends with the narrator decapitating a rooster: 

Mit meinen Händen grab ich tief 
zu finden was ich so vermisst 
und als der Mond im schönsten Kleid 
hab deinen kalten Mund geküsst

  With my hands I dig deep
  to find what I missed so much
  and under the moon in its most beautiful dress
  I have kissed your cold mouth 

Ich nehm dich zärtlich in den Arm
doch deine Haut reißt wie Papier

und Teile fallen von dir ab

zum zweitenmal entkommst du mir 

  I take you tenderly in my arm
  of course your skin rips like paper
  and parts are falling off of you
  for the second time you escape me
Dort bei den Glocken verbring ich die Nacht
dort zwischen Schnecken ein einsames Tier

tagsüber lauf ich der Nacht hinterher

zum zweitenmal entkommst du mir 

  There by the bells I spend the night
  there between snails, a lonely animal
  all day I run after the night
  for the second time you escape me 
Heirate mich  (Marry me)

So nehm ich was noch übrig ist
die Nacht ist heiß und wir sind nackt

zum Fluch der Hahn den Morgen grüßt

ich hab den Kopf ihm abgehackt 

  So I take what still remains
  the night is hot and we are naked 
  with curses the rooster greets the morning
  I hacked off his head

Christ on a cracker, I’m only through one album — and I only touched on a few of its songs. This is shaping up to be like William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address, if it were about German industrial tanzmetal. 

Come we now to what is almost assuredly Rammstein’s most famous (notorious?) album stateside — their 1997 sophomore effort Sehnsucht, a word that loosely translates as “OMFG the strongest yearning a human being can even fathom, but can’t really experience because to do so would rend you into tiny bits.” You know how when American movies are released abroad and different countries localize the title in different ways for descriptive and marketing purposes? Run through that prism, this album would be titled “Id: the Album.” The band revels in the mythology of the id without restraint: it lays bare the destruction that can result from fully indulging it, reminds you that the nucleus accumbens requires socially acceptable restraint lest one’s humanity become forfeit, and then does not give a single dusty fuck (H/T Jaime Lannister) about those consequences. This is the quintessential marriage of the sonic force of Rammstein and their gleefully subversive approach to lyrical content, yet the lack of understanding of the lyrics was crucial to its North American popularity. Tipper Gore would have died a thousand deaths if she had known that this album existed and what the lyrics meant. Ray Bradbury might have looked the other way if a mob gathered to burn copies of the lyric sheet. Yet I stand in wonder of the interplay between the lyrics and music on this album, and not merely due to my own nihilistic sociopathy (which I assure you is benign). To illustrate what I’m talking about, here are softened summaries of some select tracks (full translations readily available online):

  • Engel (“Angel”): Being an angel is lonely and scary and it sucks and I don’t want to be one (this is the tamest song on the album by a good amount, but would offend my Southern Baptist roots if I hadn’t already gone Harvey Updike on them long ago).
  • Tier (“Animal”): Probably just avoid looking this one up.
  • Bestrafe mich (“Punish Me”): A comparatively light-hearted exploration of the pleasures of BDSM, wonderfully couched in religious roleplaying terminology.
  • Du hast: The pun-iest of their efforts, it interposes Du hast mich (“You Have Me”) and Du haßt mich (“You Hate Me”) in a clever takedown of marriage, and remains the only song I am aware of that utilizes a pun on “’til death do us part” and “the death of the vagina” (der Tod euch scheidet / zum Tod der Scheide) to make fun of wedding vows. Bonus points for being the song Method Man played to wake Redman up for crew practice in the Lark Voorhies vehicle and cinéma vérité stalwart How High.
  • Bück dich (“Bend Over”): Your run-of-the-mill song about a dom/sub relationship in which the dom refers to the sub only as “the biped (on all fours)” and expresses nothing but disappointment with him. Also, the dom is excessively lachrymose for some reason.
  • Spiel mit mir (“Play with Me”): Older brother with insomnia finds that the best way to deal with the problem is to have his little brother give him a handjob so he can fall asleep (expertly worded as schüttel mir das Laub vom Baum (“shake the leaves from my tree for me”)). Arguably more acceptable now that we have Game of Thrones.
  • Klavier ("Piano"): A “Boxing Helena” (or reverse “A Rose for Emily”)-type situation — although without amputation, so that’s something! — in which a guy likes the sound of his lover’s piano-playing so much he ties her to it and locks her in a room with it. SPOILER ALERT: everything ends terribly.
  • Küss mich (Fellfrosch) (“Kiss Me (Furry Frog)”): Alternative title: “Cunnilingus is Awesome!” (This obviously needs to be in The Lego Movie's sequel.) A song about a woman who very much enjoys oral stimulation. For reasons unexplained, she also gets horrible nosebleeds. Remember that cartoon sound when a character is trying to shake off a dizzying blow to the head? It is prominently featured in this song, and it is just perfect.

To my mind, though, the signature song of this album is and forever will be Eifersucht (“Jealousy”). Beginning with an intro — don’t listen in mono — from keyboardist Christoph Lorenz (the one they usually set on fire during live shows), it opens simply enough, then jumps right in to the pulsing hook, which leads into the most incisive critique of the inherent stupidity and pointlessly destructive nature of jealousy that has been written this side of the “Sharing is Caring” episode of Barney. It essentially taunts the listener with gruesome scenarios that exemplify the absurdity of jealousy, while overtly suggesting that it isn’t merely absurd, it’s abjectly ineffective. 

So, apparently by “select tracks,” I meant “all of them but two.” The one-two dismount of Eifersucht leading into Küss mich is just divine. Pro Tip: Do NOT listen to the worthless English versions of Engel and Du hast included as tracks 12 and 13. 

I feel like the kid in American Beauty who talks about the trash bag, in the moment right after he sees Thora Birch topless and just before his dad beats the piss out of him. Fucking A you guys, I love this band so goddamned much. 

After that emphatic dismissal of the “sophomore slump” mythos, Rammstein followed up in 2001 with perhaps the tightest of their studio albums, mildly less lyrically adventurous but with a mind toward sonic expression. Entitled Mutter (“Mother”), it contains a 4-song streak unmatched in the band’s discography — Links 2-3-4 (“Left 2-3-4”), Sonne (“Sun”), Ich will (“I Want”), and Feuer frei! (“Fire at Will!”) — the latter of which is perhaps their second most famous song after Du hast due to its exquisitely crafted inclusion into the opening scene of the Vin Diesel epic xXx. 

Notably, the videos for these four songs are also just goddamned great — Links is a fever dream mash-up of Fritz Lang, ants, 1984, that Macintosh ad based on 1984 that aired during the 1984 Super Bowl, and a dash of Tim Burton; Ich will takes its lyrical commentary on the performer-audience dynamic and frames it as criticism of the media’s thirst for narrative, sinisterly embodied by attention-seeking criminals; Feuer frei! is basically found footage of what it would have been like to watch the whole performance at the xXx party, which is demonstrably awesome. Sonne, though, stands out in particular. Were you wondering if the Snow White story could be interpreted as an allegory in which the dwarves, toiling endlessly with heavy machinery and covered in coal dust, endeavor futilely to please Snow White with the riches they unearth, only to be treated with complete disdain? Where Snow White spanks the dwarves and does lines of gold dust, and eventually the dwarves find a half-full syringe of it, administer an overdose while she’s in the bath, and then carry her in a glass coffin to a mountaintop, only to have an apple shatter the apparatus? It can! Somewhere in a poorly lit Parisian office, a younger Thomas Piketty watched this video and now we have Capital in the 21st Century. 

Do you remember the Armin Meiwes story? About the guy who posted an ad stating that he was “looking for a well-built 18- to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”? And then he got exactly what he asked for, even though you can’t seem to find a decent Ikea coffee table despite spending a week on Craigslist? And they started with severing the victim’s penis and attempting to eat it together? There’s a song for that — Mein Teil (“My Part”) — on the fourth album, 2004's Reise, Reise. The unsurprisingly clever refrain is Du bist was du isst, und ihr wisst, was es ist (“You are what you eat, and you all know what that is”). Then, another perfect back-to-back track arrangement in the heart of the album juxtaposes Amerika and Moskau as a balletic couplet. Amerika is a brazenly unapologetic critique of American cultural hegemony — and the video is just so magnifique — and drives the point home when Lindemann switches over to English, in the chorus and bridge respectively, to exclaim, “We’re all living in Amerika” and “This is not a love song.” Moskau, on the other hand, lovingly paints the Russian Third Rome as a well-worn prostitute who still titillates despite numerous failures to cover up her age, and is loved both despite and because of that fact (Sie ist alt und trotzdem schön, “She is old and nevertheless beautiful”; Sie schläft mit mir doch nur für Geld / Ist doch die schönste Stadt der Welt, “She sleeps with me but only for money / she’s still the most beautiful city in the world”). 

There are plenty more songs in the hopper, but my word count suggests I not delve further. So, I’ll close with this: prior to 2010, Rammstein had not played stateside in over ten years. They announced that they were going to play a one-time only show at Madison Square Garden on December 11, 2010, which remains by far the best thing I ever learned of on Facebook because of something I put in my profile in 2007. I took the train to New York, had a lovely time visiting a friend of mine there, went to the show, was transported to my happy place, and returned home to DC content that I managed to finally see one of my favorite bands live. It was a fun weekend trip, a great show, and I was happy. 

Rammstein, Thomas & Mack Center (Las Vegas), May 21, 2011.
As it turned out, the rapid sellout of that show and resultant fan reaction from those who were unable to get tickets or lived nowhere near New York spurred the band to embark on a North American tour in Spring 2011. The next to last date on the tour was May 21, in Las Vegas. The most Rammstein place in America in Las Vegas, and it’s not even close. So, I got a ticket, booked a flight and hotel room, and waited three months. Upon my arrival, I stocked up on bourbon and lemonade, and immersed myself in the human carnival of an ill-advised desert metropolis ignoring spring and moving right along to summer. People were free-falling from a tower out my window (and on a dedicated closed-circuit channel on the room TV), I played a thing called “bikini blackjack,” which is easily the best $5 minimum table you can find if you don’t mind your cards flying everywhere, and you like jello shots. I go back to the room, [REDACTED], then about an hour before the show I start to get hyped. It’s time to go play a little blackjack to pass the time before catching a cab to the venue, so I head downstairs and sit down at a half-full $10 minimum table. I ride the low-variance wave, never far above or below my small stake, but effectively passing time, until I look at my phone and see it’s time to head over. I’m up a little, so I toss a $25 chip on the table and say it’s my last hand, after which I am dealt two aces. I split them, toss another chip on the table, and am promptly dealt two face cards for a double blackjack, and it becomes clear that this night is headed in precisely the direction I had hoped. 50 US dollars, you guys — the night was mine to seize. 

The show was at the Thomas & Mack Center, the House that Jerry Tarkanian built, and I was so taken by the retired jerseys of those early 90s UNLV teams hanging from the rafters that I tried to text my friend a picture of them, temporarily forgetting that he was in Ireland at the time. I was sitting behind a woman with the R+ logo in flames on her left shoulder blade. Everything about this situation pleased me to no end. There was an electricity running through this crowd, more highly charged than New York, and it erupted as soon as the band took the stage. I immediately and unabashedly lost myself in the culmination of a perfect mini-vacation without fear or loathing, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I gazed long into the abyss, the abyss gazed back, and we gave each other fist bumps and threw metal hands into the air. 

Sometimes, you know when you’ve just done one of the most fun things in your life. Sometimes, that realization happens when you see a man hop on a giant phallus attached to a dolly track that shoots white foam into the crowd. Sometimes, that realization is confirmed when shortly thereafter, a man wearing flame-throwing angel wings is blasting waves of fire into the air. Thusly enlightened, you walk blissfully back to your hotel in a fortuitous desert breeze. You arrive back at your room, awash in all manner of delicious neurotransmitters, and note that you have hit on 6 of your 8 sports bets for the evening. You smile quietly to yourself, chase a pull of Wild Turkey with a swig from a 2-liter bottle of Country Time lemonade, and watch the people jumping from a tower out your window. One more, and you shower and head to the bar on the 108th floor; not to jump, but to remember the city as it was that night — energized, expansive, and entirely at your feet.

— Duane Gibson

Previous Entries in "In Defense Of":
Jon Mann, In Defense Of: Oasis

Chris Buckridge, In Defense Of: Gin Blossoms

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