Rammstein's Rite of Fire
After the Finnish warm-up band Apocalyptica had left the stage, the large crowd in the Nottingham Arena fell silent, but it was a pregnant silence and one could hear the whispers and sense the buoyant expectancy among the multitudes who had come to see the notorious East German heavy-metal musicians known for their hypertheatrical act. Those of us in the front rows were asked to beware the fire and the heat, and take cover if we were worried about the thunderous explosions.
"Reise Reise" was the title of Rammstein's tour featuring their new album and taking us along on a journey which I will describe with particular attention to the theatrics and concert-dramaturgy of the five musicians and their pyroctechnics engineers.
The title track from the new album, released in late 2004, means "Journey Journey," or "Travel Travel" and as the concert opener it started as softly, with subtle ambient electronic sounds and voices in the distance, as it ended, surprisingly, with a melancholy melody played on the accordion, fabled instrument of sailors and their songs of travel and lost love. This soft opening was but a prelude to a Wagnerian overture slowly building up to a suspended climax, during which the arrival - one by one- of the instrumentalists resembled a kind of lowering of the castle-gates, guitarists beamed down on hydraulic metal elevator-platforms, the drummer in a throne way up in the heavens on top of the battlement, and, finally, heavy-set tall singer and frontman Till Lindemann stumbling through a central portal onto the downstage area which seemed to have widened in scale, a clearing resembling the deck of a ship that extended far back into the smoke-filled distance, as if Nosferatu's vessel was moving slowly towards us, carrying the plague on board.
The tottering walk became a noticeable mark, as if the leading soldier of the battle ship were tired from the turbulent sea or worn out from wearing heavy leather armor, metal overcoat and boots. The wardrobe was peculiar since it tended to "disfigure" the musicians; they wore bizarre fragments of black accoutrements, ripped armature with torn sleeves, their arms and shoulders smeared with charcoal as if they had escaped some disastrous fire. Scarred survivors, scare-crows: rhythm guitarist Paul Landers was naked but for short Bavarian leather pants, and a little fur hat with feather; drummer Christoph Schneider enjoyed wearing fishnet stockings along with his leather shirt, and keyboardist Christian "Flake" Lorenz, the strangest of all, seemed to have stepped out of a movie cross-over between Dr Strangelove and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. He nurtured a maddening comic demeanor, casting himself in the role of a skinny lunatic Buster Keaton (and Lindemann's sidekick), often riding around the stage on a motorized synthesizer or practicing a strange-looking spastic hop of a scared kangaroo.
And so the show tumbled straight from Wagnerian overtones and military costume trappings into Grand Guignol and Dario Fo-like comedy of the absurd, a theatrical tour de force that took the audience on a ride of escalating self-mockery. I am not a regular rock concert goer, so some of my responses here are speculative, and I am not sure whether there is a body of criticism that can delineate different or changing phases of rock's more self-conscious and self-exposing parodies. With Rammstein, we'd meet the self-mockery of a deadly serious heavy metal act which knows that it cannot be taken seriously, and thus we were plunged into a conceptual dance that was difficult to fathom. The problem, in part, is also the hear-say reputation and the scandal, the ambiguities exploited and heightened in the choice of stage behavior, costume, and lyrics (especially with the song "Mein Teil" dedicated to the cannibal Armin Meiwes who roasted and ate the private parts of his voluntary victim), reminding us of the accusations -- about fascist style aggression or Nazi imagery used in videos -- which were also periodically thrown at the Slovenian band Laibach in the 1990s (and other bands in Germany or the US as well. The stage behavior and reception of Marilyn Manson might be interesting in this connection). Writing a humorous song on cannibalism of course guarantees misunderstandings, as did their use of footage from Leni Riefenstahl's 1936 film for the Olympics in the promo clip for "Stripped." Bands like Rammstein and Laibach also have bad reputations since they attract a skinhead and Neo-Nazi following in the fan base.
The militancy of Rammstein, regardless of their occasionally brutal and cynical song-writing, was rather modest onstage and full of poetic melancholy; their name's allusion to an American airshow tragedy in Germany in 1988 seems incidental (over 80 people were killed when airforce fighter jets collided in mid-air and fragments fell to the earth), were it not for a recurring darkness in the poetry of their songs which bemoan the dead birds that have fallen from the trees after the fire. Such allusions, at times, cut deeper, if you think of growing up in the East after the Second World War, with the signs of devastation in cities like Dresden or East Berlin barely removed, the rubble of bombed and scarred buildings still visible in 1989 when the Wall fell. The end of the war and its devastations is also something that doesn't go away, as each spring time politics, media, and various sectors of commemorative culture revisits and re-lives the trauma. While the mainstream cultural references to the historical disaster might be considered pious, increasingly superficial and commercialized (and thus made palatable), Rammstein's references can be downright creepy, as are their videos. They are not your common industrial hardcore or death metal band, and their emphasis on playing their live instruments also distinguishes them from predecessors like Kraftwerk and Laibach who preferred a machinic and synthetic sound.
After the first ear-shattering explosives, the air filled with fog and knifed with white search-lights, the ship embarked on an avalanche of heavy bass and rhythm guitars, setting the tone for the night, a pounding extravaganza of bone-rattling and stomach-turning deep sound driven by Oliver Riedel's pulsating bass and Lindemann's staccato vocals. His voice a full-throated bass, more a monotone Sprechstimme from the underworld than the ironic worldly style used by Kurt Weill for his Brechtian operas. But plenty of irony and distanciation we encounter in the course of evening -- perhaps more than I would have imagined possible for a macho heavy-metal concert in front of a huge no-nonsense crowd of death metal fans dressed in all shades of black.
Weiter, weiter ins Verderben
[Onward, onward, into doom
Immediately noticeable to a German speaker, Lindemann accentuates a hard-edged pronunciation (especially of the "r" and "s" consonsants) and oratorical style which has linguistic affiliations with singers and rhetorical sensibilities of the pre-war era, an overproununciation that I remember on almost all the records of the baritones and tenors that my father liked to play in our house when I grew up after the war. The lyrics, at the same time, have a Germanic and romantic tonality reminiscent of Hölderlin's poetry refracted through playwright Heiner Müller's cadences and cluster words. Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubauten, darkwave music like The Cult or The Cure, and Müller's "Hamletmachine" underlie Rammstein's lyric sensibility which is no doubt brilliant, and so is their musicianship. Paired with their pyrotechnical wizardry, the stage action soon takes on an air of high drama: it is as if we become involved in a spectrum of self-consciously perverse Nordic phantasms, stretching all the way from Germany's Black Forests ("Ohne Dich") to Grimm's fairy tales, from Erl Kings ("Dalai Lama") to Icelandic myths and cosmic stars ("Morgenstern"), a panoply of imaginary exiled Kings and Vikings - at the end of the cold war. In "Dalai Lama," which re-visits Goethe's and Schubert's "Erlkönig" poem, the king and his child are no longer riding on horseback but are imagined flying toward their doomed destruction in an airplane, the furious wind demanding a sacrifice. The cadences and rhythms of this song are astonishing, and so is the singer's actorly interpretation of the poem and its fearsome, escalating story - Lindemann here has a command of voice that resembles that of actors, and he embodies the character of the "father" convincingly while, to our surprise, we hear choral harmonies in the dark refrain:
Wir sind gut zu dir
[We are good to you
With equal sinuousness, Lindemann performs the sarcastic dismissal of global commerce in "Amerika" and the mock-celebration of a "Moskau" waiting like a whore for her lovers. These phantasms, tickled by unexpected instrumentations (mandolin, accordion, harmonica), travel in a pas de deux with brutal love stories that end badly, the brutality always also touching upon kitsch. "Ohne Dich" is a love ballad one can immediately sing along with, indulging in sweet despair. "Stein um Stein" is a ballad where the lover seductively describes the new home he building for the beloved, a kind of Bluebeard stone castle without windows or doors where the loved one's body is mixed into the cement.
The band delights in this heavy landscape of doom that is brilliantly lit by the stage engineers who accompany the music with an extraordinary arrangement of differently colored moods and spectral lighting that evokes a ghostlike and yet very visceral presence of "tragedy." Large batteries of motorized lights (on trussses of 50 or 60 instruments) slowly rise and descend on the upper stage behind the musicians; backlighting is the preferred method. Associations to Nuremberg rally lighting effects (Leni Riefenstahl's and Albert Speer's aesthetic of cathedral lighthing) are of course coincidental, since such lighting may be familiar from the whole tradition of bombastic stadium rock reaching back to the cannons fired when Emerson, Lake and Palmer started out on the Isle of Wight thirty-five years ago, but the dramaturgy is so calculated and suffused with ironies that it would be a surprise if Rammstein were not aware of the historical echoes to a totalitarian aesthetic, even if they seem meaningless in a rock concert.
How then does a heavy metal concert play with its ideologies and cultural signifiers? Rammstein's approach is a strange mix of high-handed humor and dark camp which frolics with the kitsch universe of power that pulsates in their guitar riffs. It is a masculine power which is here paraded as thoroughly tattered and self-deflating, oddly disfigured and creepily remembered, but the parade masks a yearning that is nevertheless ever-present in the romantic lyrics, however contradictory this may appear for the genre of heavy metal.
The pyrotechnical fire imagery in the show is the central leitmotif that carries the music visually and heightens the contradictions. The band members are "blackened," and microphones and guitars burn or emit flames as if once again a Wagnerian leitmotif of the "Götterdämmerung" (twilight of the gods) was hinted at. I am writing this in the same year in which Oliver Hirschbiegel/Bernd Eichinger's movie "Der Untergang" dramatized the ending of the Third Reich and provoked much soul-searching controversy within Germany and the country's never-ending confrontation with its catastrophic past. During one song, near the end of the regular set, Lindemann came out with huge flamethrowers attached to his arms, and when he raised them, he seemed to spray the audience with flames. He also performed archery with fireworks, a strangely mixed image that combines allusions to Schiller's "Wilhelm Tell" with the wizard duels in Star Wars. The musical instruments used as weapons, and the stage transformed into a cathedral of light and smoke, connote a macabre theology of conflagration or even self-annihilation which we tend to associate with the apocalyptic imagination. At the same time, Rammstein's lyrics in performance, driven by the pulsating guitar riffs, create a hypnotic dimension which sets the audience in trance and creates a strange mental spiral. But it is the opposite of the ritualistic trance in, say, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." On Rammstein's stage there is no actual sacrificial victim, no one is the "chosen one." Rather, it is the baroque trance of 90s techno elevated to an exaggerated level of elemental bodily rhythm expressed, literally, as a burning cauldron of bodily intensity. Perhaps this is the main stylistic and rhetorical strategy of Rammstein's dramaturgy - to play with the aggression of stomping heavy metal not to provoke an audience or to indulge in a post-punk nihilism but to "heat up" a communal sense of emotional identification with danger, sarcastically playing with fire and the more archetypal ground of the community's longing for something that is ablaze above the meaningless vacuum of day to day consumption.
As a critique of an uncontrollable yet overdetermined world or global reality, Rammstein's fire music is at the same time tongue-in-cheek: it evokes a baroque spectacle of pyrotechnic extravagance only to deflate it with its very slapstick humor: drummer Christoph Schneider's sticks explode, and Flake Lorenz is chased around the stage by Lindemann (during the hilarious rendition of the cannibal song "Mein Teil" during which Lindemann comes out dressed as a butcher who prepares his special meal while Lorenz is the "victim" caught in a large cooking pot which Lindemann sets on fire with a flame-thrower, wielding his large butcher's knives. The chorus of the song, "Du bist was du isst" (You are what you eat), which the audience cheerfully chants along, is a hymn to the theatre of the ridiculous. Everyone is having great fun, and Lorenz of course escapes and hops his Kangaroo hop around the stage, smoke coming out of his ears.
Ist doch so gut gewürzt und doch so gut flambier
[It's just so well seasoned and so nicely flambéed
Ein Schrei wird zum Himmel fahren
[A scream will rise to the heavens
But the ridiculous is of course political as well. In Nottingham, the song performance of "Mein Teil" started with a prolonged prelude of sharp sounds as if made by sharpening a knife. Lindemann tottered about with the butchers' knives wearing the bloody leather apron as if he were preparing his anatomy lesson like a gourmet cook. He grimaced when he began to sing, and the lyrics are so sweetly sardonic that one cannot help but chuckle. "Mein Teil" ("my part", in German, but also a reference to machine parts or the various sexual connotations of "part" or "tool") is a song, after all, that deals with castration and - in the context of the other songs of "Reise Reise" -- a panoply of unorthodox practices (cannibalism, S/M, pornography, masturbation, sex with animals, necrophilia, etc) and intensive modes of sexual pleasure which reveal a frivolous affirmation of masculine and homoerotic desire unencumbered by anxiety. The loosening of normalcy, considered by some cultural critics as a sign of late capitalism's dynamic of continuously diversifying and intensifiying excess in order to extract surplus-value, here receives a celebratory welcome, the songs gleefully morphing the bumbling human working class hero and his "becoming animal," his becoming unashamedly polymorphously perverse, in the wider theatre of operations, from "Amerika" ("Amerika ist wunderbar") to the late capitalist whores with fake breasts dancing on the table for you in Moskau, the East-West horizon of our expectancy of surplus-enjoyment. The future is beautiful ("sie ist wunderschön").
We're all living in Amerika,
We're all living in Amerika
The cultural signs, broken and patched together, generate enchantment, a scissor-sharp play with the forbidden that now, in the 21st century, is Rammstein's heavy metal answer to the energetic aesthetics of ritual communion that may have driven the Orgies Mysteries Theatre of Herrmann Nitsch in the 1960s and later was thought to underlie techno as the "laboratory of the present" (Michel Gaillot, in his desperate attempt to extract revolutionary potential from techno trance and drum 'n bass). Like Nitsch's excessive sacrificial slaughters and Dionysian bacchanals, Rammstein's dramaturgy uses a full range of props and symbolic paraphernalia, but catharsis is not built on spurting blood but on amplified musical power, a ministry of sound enlarged by the ecstatic and sensual explosiveness of fire. These musicians are blacksmiths who know they are serving almost child-like fantasies of "battle" ("Star Wars") in late capitalism's media and games world - but this battle, with all the stage gestures of pathos, is cheerful kitsch that sends up the very transcendental posturing that we encounter, for example, in the recent "Tristan and Isolde" (Los Angeles and Paris) with Bill Viola's hieratic video projections in extreme slow motion. Rammstein's pathos is anti-metaphysical. Interestingly, the band does not use any film projections on stage but relies on "being in character" and performing their post-Gothic version of the theatre of cruelty, a theatre that signals through the flames in the manner of Sergio Leone's Westerns.
While it might be wise to abstain from any political or allegorical readings of Rammstein's concert, the energetic power of the music and the performance remain undoubtedly remarkable, and obviously marketable, and the success of a German band in the British context is not without historical ironies if one imagines a huge crowd of fans chanting along in a language most of them neither speak nor understand. It was strange to witness these flame-throwing heavy metal rockers sing in German, and all around me, 8000 British Goths chanting along to the chorus "Du hast, du hast, du hast.........du hast mich, du hast mich, du hast mich, (which in its second semantic meaning of the word "hassen" sounds like "You hate, you hate, you hate….you hate me, you hate me, you hate me.. " and then turns into a love poem: ".... du hast mich gefragt und ich hab nichts gesagt, willst du bis der Tod euch scheide, treu ihr sein für alle Tage, ..........nein nein nein," (You have, you have, you have…… you've, you've, you've …asked me, and I said nothing, will you be faithful to her until the final days, till death takes you apart … No, no no").
Near the end of the set, before Rammstein came back for a very long encore that included five additional songs, a well organized sequence of stage-diving into the moshpit had started, one by one the young men (there were many women in the audience as well) stepped up to the front and flung themselves into the arms of the others, but the liturgical element of this ritual was topped by the band itself when they brought out a life-saver boat during their last song, and Oliver Riedel climbed inside as the boat was passed around the huge auditorium on the outstretched arms and hands of the fans. Describing a full circle around the hall, Riedel riding inside the boat stood like a stoic captain who watched, from the distance, how the master-ship goes up in flames. Huge fireworks ended the show, thousands of tiny sparkles illuminating the darkness as Lorenz remained on stage playing soft smouldering chords on his synthesizer. The stage-craft of Rammstein's concert was near perfect, a feat of musicianship, acting, and engineering, and it is probably one of the mysteries of such perfect rock concerts that the evening ended completely peacefully, the hosts satisfied with their guests, and we take time, and "a little culture is necessary."
All photos: Johannes Birringer
Fig.1. Rammstein in concert, Nottingham Arena, February 7,
Fig.2 Drummer Christoph Schneider.
Fig. 3 Christian 'Flake' Lorenz on the accordion (left)
Fig. 4 Lindeman swallowed by cloud of smoke. Above drummer Christoph Schneider.
All Photos: (c) J.Birringer
Johannes Birringer, directs the Interaktionslabor Göttelborn (http://interaktionslabor.de) and is a Principal Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University.