Rammstein's Europe tour had a spectacular downbeat in the city of Gelsenkirchen. What is it like to experience a Rammstein concert for the first time? DW music editor Rick Fulker describes his baptism of fire.
For decades, I've hosted and produced a radio program of classical music at Deutsche Welle that is broadcast overseas, so the concept of cultural export is nothing new to me. Beethoven and Bach are important protagonists here. But when it comes to current reach, Rammstein is often called one of Germany's most successful cultural exports, having sold 20 million units by early 2018.
How to explain this fascination? I've long wanted to go to one of their concerts to find out. And not just any. I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the first show in their new Europe stadium tour, in the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen on May 27.
Released 10 days before, the album Rammstein sold 260,000 copies in one week in Germany alone: the most successful start of an album here in the millennium.
The show had been hyped for months.
What can one expect from a Rammstein concert? Spectacle, scandal, pranks, fire, and most of all: noise, that much is certain. A hint, or a warning, of the latter came in the form of ear plugs that were handed out along with the press ticket.
People in black and provocative accessories
On this cool, cloudy evening it seemed that just about everybody on the grounds was wearing black. A woman walked by carrying a bloody baby doll on her back, and I felt queasy. Rammstein is famous for breaking taboos. Necrophilia, cannibalism, incest: no subject too hot for them to touch. But do their fans revel in breaking taboos too?
It didn't seem quite so horrifying from my vantage point way up at the top of the arena with its 62,000 seats.
After a recording of George Frideric Handel's "Fireworks Music" was played as an intro, the Duo Jatekok from France were the warm-up act. The duo, formed by classical pianists Adelaide Panaget and Nairi Badal, played pieces from the album Rammstein – XXI – Klavier.
Heavily amplified, the sound of the pianos took on the rumbling, threatening quality of a typical Rammstein song, but the duo also showed how bewitchingly beautiful the band's often melancholy melodies can be.
The big bang
And then, there they are: front man Till Lindemann in silver, Christian Lorenz in a glittering gold outfit and bear-chested drummer Christoph Schneider, accompanied by guitarists Paul Landers, Oliver Riedel and Richard Kruspe. "Was ich liebe" (What I Love) from the new album sounds out.
But "sound" doesn't come close to describing the experience. What the band produces penetrates to the bone marrow. My classically trained ears aren't all that sensitive, but I insert the ear plugs to see if there's a difference. None. The chair and the table I am seated at vibrates along: I even feel the organs in my body pulsating to the beat.
Fog, elaborate lighting and fire — lots of it — comes out from the stage and various locations in the arena. Columns of fire that perfectly fit the rhythm and seem like exquisite sculptures lasting less than a second. You can feel the heat all the way at the top of the arena.
Till Lindemann speaks or sings his texts in a simple German that is perfectly understandable over the racket. No wonder Rammstein is one of the most effective propagators of the German language abroad.
Disgusting and funny
New and old songs are played. "Deutschland," which recently made headlines with its controversial video depicting 2,000 years of — mostly brutal — German culture, is performed here minimalistically on a darkened stage, the musicians wearing illuminated costumes that make them look like line-drawn figures.
In the song "Puppe" (Doll), where the lyrics go, "Then I'll rip the head off the doll," Lindemann aims a fire cannon on a huge buggy and sets it on fire. In the song "Mein Teil" (My Part), when the band sings "Man ist was man isst" (You are what you eat), Christian Lorenz sits in a soup pot, it too heated by a flame thrower.
In contrast, the song "Diamant" (Diamond) is performed on an empty stage with no frills. In "Ohne dich" (Without You), tens of thousands of tiny fires dot the arena panorama, coming from lighters that had been handed out at the entrance.
The band members take their bows. It can't be over yet!
No, it's not. After a few minutes, the six Rammsteins and the Duo Jatekok emerge together on a raised platform in the middle of the arena to perform "Engel" (Angel) together, that beautiful, sad song. Afterwards each of the six steps into an inflatable boat and is transported in it on the hands of the audience back to the stage.
The encores are a substantial part of the show, which ends when Lindemann fires soap bubbles into the crowd from a cannon and the band is pulled upwards in an elevator. Another big bang, and after two and a half hours, it's indisputably over.
The show is part of the experience
Rammstein's music, although not very diverse stylistically, has enchanting melodies and harmonies that can go straight to the heart. I've always said: These guys could only have come from a culture that brought forth Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Sometimes their works take on epic dimensions.
The subjects of their songs are life itself, as it truly exists — although definitely skewed towards the dark, troubling aspects. Rammstein shakes at the foundations of the subconscious, bringing uncomfortable things to the surface and often provoking harsh criticism.
But I don't think it's just about breaking taboos. The band plays with cliches and displays them to the public. They're often misunderstood, they stimulate discussion — and are loved or loathed on various levels and for various reasons. As is any serious art.
It's possible, as I did, to approach Rammstein from the musical side. But to truly understand the phenomenon, I've discovered that you have to go to one of their shows. Probably their next tour though. This one, lasting till August 22, is nearly completely sold out.