The great Teutonic goth/industrial/heavy metal band Rammstein announced themselves loudly to the world with the release of their first studio album “Herzeleid” (“Heartbreak”). What an announcement it was, and continues to be. The band, and their worldwide legions of fans, have not looked back since.
The first track, “Wollt Ihr das Bett in flammen sehen” (“Would you like to see the bed in flames”) not only kicks the album into high gear from the outset, but also vividly stamps Rammstein’s inimitable style into the psyche: like hip-hop, it consists largely of simple electronic ostinati laced with sound-effects samples (in this case, lifted from the original Doom game); the lyrics are often not sung so much as forcefully recited. Unlike most hip-hop, though, the melodies are driven by some (at times, extremely) heavy guitars, drums, and keyboards. This is solid Industrial Rock, but it’s also remarkably street-wise in its use of catchy, danceable grooves, and is even playful in a dark sort of way. Not that there isn’t some anger in there – the song ends with chants of “Rammstein!”, which not only serves to announce the band’s name, but also as a rallying cry, as it refers to a tragic plane crash during an air show at the Rammstein U.S. Air Force Base that killed a good many onlookers. I don’t know if the anger is justified, but the music certainly is: it kicks some serious ASS.
Barely pausing for breath, the album cranks it up a notch with “Der Meister” (“The Master”), which features anarchic lyrics about destruction. It’s faster, grittier, and harder. The escalation continues with “Weisses Fleisch” (“White Flesh”) – a combination that prompted many a reactionary critic to assume the band was Fascist. These people obviously don’t listen to much rock-n-roll, and/or have a tin ear for Artistic Irony. All three songs – especially “Der Meister” – are works of pure exuberance. They are dripping with cheerful sarcasm, much as Pink Floyd’s thematically similar tracks from “The Wall” (“In The Flesh (reprise)”, “You Better Run”, and “Waiting for the Worms”).
Just when you think it couldn’t get more energetic, “Asche zu Asche” (“Ashes to Ashes”) slips the album into overdrive with its speed-metal revenge fantasy that sounds like it could have come right from the Quake sound track (I’ve blasted a lot of virtual monsters to this song).
The fifth track finally allows the album to relax and breathe with “Seeman” (“Sailor”) – a remarkably spare and gentle ballad about positive change in the wake of shattering experiences. It’s in this song, with its urgent plea for sanity in the midst of chaos, that one gets a glimpse of Rammstein’s motives. They want to shake things up, yes, but to make life better. Or at least more fun. From where I stand, that’s pretty much rock-n-roll in a nutshell.
The next three songs continue the trend of diversification with a variety of styles that are all, nonetheless, infused with Rammsteiny goodness: “Du Riechst so gut” (“You Smell so Good”), another speed-metal tune about obsession; the bluesy “Das Alte Leid” (“The Old Pain”); and the black-as-pitch gothic horror-cum-dance tune “Heirate Mich” (“Marry Me”), which borrows heavily from Edgar Allen Poe’s fixation with dead lovers. But for the German lyrics, it could be a Nine Inch Nails cut. No doubt this is the one Gomez and Morticia Addams play on their anniversary. As an aside, this particular song, along with the final track, “Rammstein”, was featured prominently (and to deeply chilling effect) in David Lynch’s classic film Lost Highway.
The title track “Herzeleid” rips along next, followed by the catchy “Laichzeit” (“Spawning Time”), forming a trio of unorthodox love songs bred from an odd mix of wary realism and dark romanticism.
The last cut, “Rammstein”, exemplifies another trait of the band’s music – a kind of Spartan, poetic obliqueness in the lyrics that mostly leaves them open to interpretation. Lyricist Till Lindemann has said Rammstein’s lyrics often work on three or four levels. Quite. On top there is the literal meaning of the words, which dutifully echo the heavy-metal nihilism we expect of a rock band from the former East Germany. Below is a more philosophical (and, I suspect, politically Libertarian) subtext that speaks a sociological or political message. Below that is an emotional cross-current of dark irony. Finally, there is that tongue-in-cheek playfulness I’ve always sensed in the band’s music – the shocking, sophomoric kind of playfulness that has occasionally landed Rammstein in trouble for performing such stunts as the simulated anal sex act during the performance of “Büch Dich” (“Bend Down”) during the “Mutter” tour (and which got them arrested in the U.S. for “indecency”).
All told, a terrific album, let alone first album, for any rock band.