Friday, May 20, 2011

Feuermusikblitzen: Rammstein Concert Review

(Sorry about the made-up German title, but I figured "Playing With Fire" was probably played out by this point, right?)

Last week was the sixth annual convocation of the Fraternitas Subterra, more commonly known as Gaming & Guinness VI.  This year's gathering coincided not only with my 44th birthday, but the first Rammstein tour to hit North America in over a decade.  To say it felt like kismet is a bit of an understatement, as I am a big fan of the band, and the idea of going to one of the world's most outlandish rock concerts with a bunch of my mates within two days of my birthday felt like a real treat.

Earl, Mike P., me, Rob, and Mike T.

Rammstein is a six-piece band from Germany who have been around since the mid-90s. They play a frankly bizarre combination of pounding metallic guitars with danceable beats and keyboard accompaniment which in many ways defies description, but they are considered part of the Nieue Deutchse Harte (New German Hardness) movement, and their music is sometimes labelled as tanzmetal ("Dance metal") in their native land.  Me, I love getting metal peanut butter on my techno chocolate, so this mix is right up my musical alley.  Be forewarned, however, that this alley can be extremely dark and sticky in places, as their subject matter covers a lot of disturbing themes, including but not limited to lust, murder, incest, cannibalism and, yes, fire.  However, many of their harshest sounding songs are actually fairly innocuous, such as "Du Riecht So Gut" (You Smell So Good), or "B********" (Buckstabu, a made-up word which means whatever you want it to).

The band is renowned for the amount of pyrotechnics they use in their shows; it is not uncommon to see rafters glowing red after a Rammstein concert, due to the number of fireball hits they take in a show.  They also use a lot of imaginative and dramatic staging that doesn't use fire, like in their entrance, when the two guitarists chopped through a black wall with pickaxes in front of a blinding backlight, prior to lead singer Till Lindemann cutting an oval into the same wall with a shower of sparks before kicking it in and striding onstage.  I'm in favour of stagey entrances anyways, but opening up with something so reminiscent of the movie Aliens to the strains of "Rammlied", the opening track of the new album, was spot-on for me.

Make no mistake, this is not a concert anyone was likely to be bored at.  I even saw a young lass with a white cane in the lineup to get into Rexall, and thought, 'Between the energy level and the fire, this might be the best possible concert for you ever."  Our group was at least 150 feet from the stage, and we could feel the heat from almost every fire effect they used; I have no idea what it might have felt like on the floor, but I am almost starting to regret not having been down there.

One of Rammstein's greatest strengths is their realism; by this I mean that they are fully aware that a large part of their audience outside of Germany have absolutely no idea what the band is singing about, even if they are singing along boisterously, as the Edmonton crowd did with "Du Hast". 

Since this is the case, they really go all-out to make the stage show entertaining, with lights, sound, pyro effects and other staging elements less easily described.  How do you sum up the innate creepiness of having two dozen dolls suspended above the stage with green lasers beaming out of some of them, prior to their exploding loudly near the end of "Wiener Blut"?  Is it better or worse to learn that the song was inspired by Austria's infamous Fritzl case?  What do you call it when the lead singer and geeky keyboardist Christopher "Flake" Lorenz stage a fight which ends with his getting beaten and thrown into a grimy bathtub, prior to Till ascending thirty feet in the air on a tiny platform and dumping a LOT of fire into it? 

Whatever you might call it, there was a lot to like, but my personal favourite had to be during "Benzin", the band's lovesong to petroleum distillates.  Throughout the song, jets of fire at least twenty feet tall shot out of the stage, which is always cool, but at one point, Till walks up to the mock gas-station pump sitting on stage, pulls out the handle, sparks up a road flare with his other hand, and after finishing the verse, ignites a huge stream of fire which he then waved about the stage to the delight of all assembled. Yes folks, Rammstein is probably the world's least carbon-neutral band.

*Not* the peak fire moment of Waidmann's Heil

Suddenly, there was some jackass on stage in a black hoodie, dancing and waving to the crowd in the classic "Looka me!" fashion, while the two guitarists shot puzzled looks at each other.

And then Till totally set his ass on fire.

All right, most of us figured out pretty quickly that it was a stunt, but at least one commenter from the floor completely thought someone had slipped past security and was wondering if he should perhaps try as well, right up to the point where the stagecrasher was engulfed in flames less than ten yards away.  Someone else reported seeing a young man get physically ill immediately after this, but this may have been due more to something he was consuming at the time than any effects of shock or heat.  As the saying goes, "Other bands play, Rammstein burns."  Good thing their lead singer is a licensed pyrotechnician, eh?

Both of my daughters enjoy Rammstein a lot, especially the songs "Links 2-3-4" and "Amerika", but given some of the band's past shenanigans and adult-oriented content, it was decided very early on that they would give this one a miss.  To be fair, most of the concert was fine, if you consider watching someone getting immolated onstage to be age-appropriate for a nine-year-old, but hey, he walked off under his own power.  I am glad to hear they are making a concert DVD of the 2010 shows at some point so the girls will get to see most of it from the safety of our living room at some point.  That said, I do intend to skip the pre-encore finale of "Pussy" (no, it doesn't mean something different in German), which reached its, er, I wouldn't want to say climax, but perhaps rather 'high point', um, no, let's call it finale, with Till wheeling out a huge anatomically inspired cannon and blasting a (presumably fire-retardant) foamy substance out over the heads of the crowds. I wouldn't be inclined to say a huge member-gun was gratuitous per se, given that one verse of the tune being played is "blitzkrieg mit dem fleisch gewehr".

The concert was a great 18 song setlist with at least two songs from all six studio albums except for "Rosenrot", with 7 songs coming from the most recent album, "Liebe Ist Fur Alle Da" (Love is for Everyone) and 4 from my current favourite, 2000's "Mutter" (LIFAD may eventually eclipse it; a very solid album).  I can never seem to recall afterwards what songs were played and which weren't, so I ended up writing them down on my arm with my Space Pen during the show.

Not exactly 'Armo virumque canto'...

I thought it looked pretty silly afterwards, but I managed to transcribe all 18 songs eventually.  Despite the illegibility, Pete was somewhat impressed; "You did that with a ballpoint pen, in another language, in almost total darkness?  And you can read any of them?  That's actually pretty suave."

The least impressive element of the entire evening was getting into Rexall place, as everyone was subjected to a physical patdown, and some of the more metallic attendees were required to remove studded gauntlets or chain belts and the like.  The audience itself was extremely impressive and highly engaged, chanting, cheering, pumping their fists and even singing along on a few tracks.  I am not often impressed with Edmonton crowds, but this one was fantastic.  I wonder if the band thought so too, since at the very end of the concert, they all came to centre stage and took a knee in a surprisingly touching salute to the crowd.

Strange as it may seem, Rammstein is somewhat like British prog-rockers Muse, in that you don't have to be a fan to make going to their concerts worthwhile.  If you are a fan of powerful music, mixed genres, dramatic staging and unrivalled degrees (Fahrenheit) of pyrotechnicity, you owe it to yourself to go to a Rammstein concert.  Hopefully we won't have to wait another ten years for their return, because I have every intention of being there; this was a great and unconventional show by a great and unconventional band.

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