Heavy Metal being one of the few musical forms I've never been all that interested in (with only Country music being of less interest to me), I can't say that I've ever followed Rammstein's activities in any detail. To be sure, I'd heard all the rumors that there was something very ... "Teutonic" about the band, but I dismissed it as just your run of the mill guilt-by-association, with music that would be taken on its own terms elsewhere acquiring a sinister cast in the eyes of onlookers because of who happened to be singing it.
If this New York Times profile is to be believed, however, there's a lot more to the association than that: these guys have gone out of their way to flirt with Nazi imagery, even while denying that they're doing anything of the sort.
The members of Rammstein report themselves puzzled - and wounded - by the controversy over their music. So, too, with the uproar over their use of a clip from "Olympische Spiele" - a Leni Riefenstahl documentary commissioned by the Nazis in 1936 as "a song of praise to the ideals of National Socialism" - in one of their videos. They had, they said, used it only because it was so pretty.
Sure, right ...
At precisely 8 p.m, Exilia, the warm-up act, began, and the audience suffered it politely. Then the group left the stage, and a man beside me pulled out a pack of cigarettes and ripped off some filters to stuff in his ears. "Reise Reise," now the No. 1 German single, began with the sound of lonely waves and seagulls, an ominous warlike pounding, the primitive chanting of sailors on a galley. According to the band's official translation, the title means "Voyage Voyage." But it can also be translated as "Arise Arise," and that is how the audience took it.
A huge curtain dropped, revealing a row of massive Potemkin amplifiers that flashed with the band's insignia, something like a swastika. The guitarists descended from the ceiling like gods, and the audience was steamrollered by smashing drums, violent bass and the sound of a full choir, amplified to unspeakable levels.
Most compelling is its lead singer. Dressed in an imperial German military uniform, Mr. Lindemann gave off an air of such brute masculinity and barely contained violence that it seemed that he could have reached into the crowd, snatched up a fan, and bitten off his head. He commands a low, powerful bass rarely used in contemporary pop music, untrained but electrifying. The audience members, enthralled, began pumping their fists in the air.
The band then introduced one of its most notorious songs, "Links," with the sound of metrically precise, marching jackboots. Links means left, and the band claims this song is an expression of its left-wing sensibilities. The jackboots were followed by a furious chorus: "Links-Zwo-Drei-Vier! Links-Zwo-Drei-Vier!" ("Left-Two-Three-Four! Left-Two-Three-Four!") The German language lent itself to the powerful, rhythmic song. The keyboardist stomped about in a German military helmet. Mr. Lindemann performed an exaggerated goose step. The crowd shouted "Hi!" in unison, which sounded just different enough from "Heil" that the resemblance could be denied.
An "imperial German uniform": now that's subtlety for you! And what about all that "Reise! Reise!"* and "Hi!" business, or the goose stepping? These guys know what they're selling, and the audience knows it too: the thrill of playing with the ultimate taboo in a land where going any further would actually be illegal. I'm not saying that this makes Rammstein some sort of extreme-right group - playing with taboos has long been standard-fare throughout the English speaking world, hence the Sex Pistols and Marilyn Manson - but I think it's utterly disingenuous for them to pose as misunderstood martyrs whenever they're challenged about the associations they've gone out of their way to invoke.
*A German play on an English word ("Rise") to get around the taboo on using "Erwache" - very clever.