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Few bands have found their way to the top of the musical mountain without, at one point or another, finding themselves serving the whims of fashion and popular taste. Rammstein, however, have plotted their own path, far from the homogenous mainstream, using their various kinks and peculiarities as hooks with which to haul themselves into stadia. Children of the Neue Deutsche Härte (New German Hardness) dance metal movement of the 1990s, the Berliners have bolted on elements of chugging industrial, latex-clad gothic and hard rock bombast to reinforce an inherently theatrical package unlike any other in heavy music.
This singular sense of direction has been reinforced by a line-up that has remained stable since 1994. Multi-talented frontman Till Lindemann (a talented swimmer shortlisted for the 1980 Olympics, but scuppered by injury) has always been the block-headed face of the band, yet every member has become integral. Guitarists Richard Kruspe and Paul Landers, bassist Oliver Riedel, drummer Christoph Schneider and brilliantly weird synth specialist Christian “Flake” Lorenz all play their part and have attained varying degrees of celebrity in their native Germany.
Their back-catalogue boasts a similar consistency. With every track striving for a visceral emotional reaction, however – be that busting moves on the dancefloor, getting rhythmically turned-on or feeling stomach-churningly disgusted – there’s a particular pleasure in ranking our Top 20 listening experiences. Let’s hear yours in the comments.
With depressing inevitability, Rammstein – easily the highest-profile German band of the last three decades – found themselves subject to allegations of ultraconservative (read: Nazi) political affiliations just as their star had truly began to rise. Links 2 3 4 is their straightforward riposte. Translated as 'Left 2 3 4' they are stressing their liberal (left-leaning) personal philosophies, while the 2-3-4 marching beat is an ironic reference to the goose-stepping fascists to whom they are being compared. Incorporating that tempo into their crunchy industrial treatment made the point potently: that for all their militant precision, these were sounds better stomped along to on a sweaty dancefloor than any political rally.
The fifth track and third single from Rammstein’s first album unfolds with a fragility, vulnerability and sincerity that has gone virtually unmatched across the two-and-a-half decades since. A ponderous love song dealing with uncertainty and heartbreak, it sees Till extending an invitation to ‘Komm in mein Boot / ein Sturm kommt auf’ (‘Come in my boat / A storm is rising’) as the bass-led composition swells and subsides like waves on troubled water. The singer initially thought it was the only real commercially-viable prospect from on Herzeleid and, although he has since been proven incorrect, it retains a special place in many fans’ hearts. Ironically for such a downbeat composition, it was also the first to receive the band’s legendary rubber-dinghy treatment in the live arena, having since been replaced by the more party-hearty Ausländer.
Growing up in Soviet East Germany (the German Democratic Republic), Rammstein had a different formative relationship with music than many of their fanbase. Listening to Western radio and the music played on those stations before the 1991 fall of the Berlin Wall was considered subversive and deemed illegal. Consequently, it became a form of low-key rebellion and cherished escape for many of the youth at the time. The second single from 2019’s untitled LP is a simple celebration of that small liberation. ‘Jedes Liedgut war verboten / So gefährlich fremde Noten / Doch jede Nacht ein wenig froh,’ sings Till as the pulsing synths evoke heroes like Kraftwerk from the other side of the divide. ‘Every song was forbidden / Such dangerous foreign notes / But a little happy every night.’ The controversial music video – featuring a forbidden broadcast and listeners unnaturally besotted with their wirelesses – was every bit as memorable.
Another heartwrought ballad in the style of Seemann – albeit one delivered with more heavyweight authority and orchestral grandeur – Ohne Dich (‘Without You’) finds the band processing their grief for list loved ones. There is a particular sense of poetry in lyrics like ‘Doch der Abend wirft ein Tuch aufs Land / und auf die Wege hinterm Waldesrand’ (‘The evening is throwing a cloth over the land / And upon the ways beyond the edge of the forest’), while many fans have found an environmentalist message in their description of retreat into the wilderness and lamentation of a time when the birds have disappeared from the wild. Proof of the band’s underrated emotional reflexivity.
There’s been so much saucy kerfuffle around Liebe ist für alle da’s lead single over the years that some fans forget how much of an earworm it is in its own right. The track first saw the light of day when its sexually explicit, Jonas Åkerlund-directed music video (featuring each, er, member of the band in X-rated action) was launched on porn site Visit-X. In the live arena, too, it has been accompanied by Till riding his (probably) oversized penis canon across the front of the stage and “ejaculating” over the first few rows of the audience. Its message is a politically charged one, though, with that unforgettable hook ‘I can’t get laid in Germany’ actually opening into an abstract commentary on the phenomenon of sex tourism as the communion of guitars and synth build to their explosive, ahem, climax.
The lead single from fifth album Rosenrot wholeheartedly embraced the pyromaniac tendencies that would make Rammstein stadium metal champions. Titled with the German word for gasoline, it sees Till fantasising about the fuel the way an addict would about drugs. ‘Brauch' weder Arzt noch Medizin,’ he promises, managing a little lubricated innuendo. ‘Brauch' keine Frau, nur Vaselin - etwas Nitroglyzerin!’ (‘Don't need a doctor nor medicine / Don't need a woman, just Vaseline – a little nitroglycerine!’) A typically low-key intro fizzles and ignites into one of their most blazing showpieces. The inspired music video – featuring the band as out of control firefighters – was another gleeful tease.
For many unindoctrinated observers, the fifth single from Mutter defines everything they know about Rammstein. Translating as ‘Fire Freely’ (the German military equivalent of ‘fire at will’), its escalation from plonky synths to blaring air-raid sirens and roaring riffage was all OTT bombast. Meanwhile, Till’s pseudo-sexual lyrics feel alien enough to add another level of threat. ‘Geadelt ist wer Schmerzen kennt,’ he declares. ‘Vom Feuer das in Lust verbrennt / Ein Funkenstoss In ihren Schoss / Ein heisser Schrei Feuer frei!’ (‘Exalted are those who know pain / From fire that burns in desire / A shock of sparks into her womb / A hot scream, fire at will!’) The song blew western audiences away when it appeared in absurd 2002 Vin Diesel (fitting name, that) action flick XXX. It’s taken on another dimension live, too, where several members of the band will don flamethrower-masks, burning just centimetres from their faces, and shoot flames several metres into the air. Toasty.
It takes something truly fucked-up to be considered the most twisted Rammstein song, but in 2019 Puppe delivered just that. Throbbing, understated riffage lays the basis for the tale of a lonely young boy stuck at home while his sister goes about her daily work in the next room, prostituting herself to a line of anonymous men (and couples) who leave her screaming in pain. Our narrator, watching through the keyhole but unable to intervene, has been gifted a doll (the titular Puppe) to keep him company and medicated to calm his nerves, but two minutes in he comes unglued, ripping the toy’s head off and chewing at its insides. The song stands apart a towering, glowering showcase of Rammstein’s ability to draw startling contrasts even between emotions as notionally close dead-eyed misery and furious rage.
The second single from Liebe ist für alle da mightn’t have packed quite the same immediate shock value as Pussy, but it whipped up a storm of perverted controversy in its own right. With a title translating as ‘I Hurt You’ and lyrics deconstructing the complex interpersonal dynamics of sadomasochism – depicting the use of ‘needles, pliers and a dull saw’ and the insertion of barbed wire into a man’s urethra – the German BPJM (Federal Review Board For Media Harmful To Minors) initially forced the song to be censored before ultimately relenting in 2010. Live performances have stressed a farcical outlook on the OTT injury being described, with Till being seen to beat Flake down onstage before literally bathing him in “burning” pyro.
Given the utterly stacked tracklist of Mutter, it was inevitable that a quality cut or two would be overlooked. Even still, it feels strange that Halleluja (originally a B-side to Links 2 3 4) would be one onto which the fans didn’t latch. Arguably the band’s most openly provocative offering, the song addresses sexual abuse in the Catholic church with Till’s deep, malevolent vocal line and the crunching riff contrasted against harking organs and a child’s choral rendition of Halleujah. Unflinching in its depiction of the abuse against which it rails, the song runs on a righteous energy and sense of authentic disgust that stands apart from much of the rest of their pantomime posturing.
If fans had missed the point, the second single from Reise, Reise confirmed emphatically that Rammstein have little interest in conforming to the transatlantic pop-cultural norm. A commentary on the United States’ near-monopoly on cultural imperialism and political propaganda – not to mention their self-perception as a Team America-alike global police force – the deployment of two verses in ‘Denglisch’ (‘We're all living in Amerika, Amerika ist wunderbar...’) and inspired name-checks for Coca-Cola, Wonderbra, Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse showcased Rammstein at their most sarcastically quick witted. An uncharacteristically on-the-nose interlude – ‘This is not a love song, I don't sing my mother tongue...’ – ensures no room for idiots to take it as an endorsement.
Telling the simple, suggestive story of a foreigner (the ‘ausländer’ of the title) who frequently travels without stopping for more than a few hours in any one place, the third single from 2019’s untitled LP can be read a few different ways. Perhaps the band are musing on the punishing, impersonal nature of life on tour? Maybe they’re “imagining” a slew of one-night-stands around the world? Possibly, like Pussy before it, the song is a rumination on the phenomenon of sex tourism? ‘Come on baby,’ Till begs. ‘C'est, c'est, c'est la vie!' Dropping expressions in Russian, Italian, English and French and overloading an irresistible techno beat, we imagine that message is informed by personal experience, either way. The powerful, unapologetically controversial music video gets bonus points for its scathing indictment of Western imperialism in the developing world.
The title-track and fourth single from Rammstein’s landmark third album gives a rare, intimate insight into the upbringing and cracked psyches of some of the band’s most integral players. Echoing the narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it explores the stirring resentment of a neglected creation metamorphosing into the eventual desire to kill the creator along with himself. Failing to end his own life, the creation ends up in a worse situation than before. Although the plaintive composition (punctuated by the sound of young children playing) and troubling commentary on the upbringings of Till and Richard feels unsettling on first listen, the lasting impression is one of cleansing catharsis, and of resolution not to repeat the neglect of generations past.
Engel opens with a probing question: if those who are good in life become angels when they die, why can’t you see them when you look to the sky? The lead single to second album Sehnsucht (translated as 'Yearning') didn’t hold back in its existential escalation of the band’s themes. Querying the value of organised religion – debunking the very belief in any kind of hereafter – it walks a thin line between sardonic nihilism and hopeful humanism, compelling listeners to seize life rather than waiting for an afterlife. Its chugging riffage, female vocals provided by Christiane "Bobo" Hebold of the German pop band Bobo In White Wooden Houses, and spacey synths – evoking images of UFOs rather than any more heavenly host – are among the band’s most memorable, while the flaming angel’s wings Till sported has in the live arena are a peak prop.
Even if Puppe recently displaced it as the most psychologically unsettling Rammstein cut, Mein Teil remains their gross-out masterpiece. The lead single to 2004’s Reise, Reise came with understated artwork featuring a motorway-services-restaurant style knife and fork. Its title (translating as 'My Part') was perniciously suggestive. The actual content was a full-on horror show. Inspired by the March 2001 case of Armin Meiwes and Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes – two forty-something men who met, cut off Brandes’ penis and consumed it together before Meiwes (consensually) killed Brandes and ate the rest of his remains – the blend of hellish Gothic bombast with truly twisted humour comes on like the soundtrack to some horrible fever dream. Dubbed the "Kannibalensong" (cannibal song) by German media, it thrust the band to even greater notoriety in their homeland, even rising to number two in the local charts.
Translating as 'I Want', Ich Will became a particular breakthrough track for Rammstein with Western audiences perhaps for its relatively simple, rhythmic repetition of that central mantra and a mastery of tone that meant it felt understandable even to those listeners without any knowledge of German. Demanding the attention and adulation of the masses, its call-and-answer climax surges with a rare euphoria. ‘Könnt ihr mich hören? Wir hören dich / Könnt ihr mich sehen? Wir sehen dich / Könnt ihr mich fühlen? Wir fühlen dich!’ (‘Can you hear me? We hear you / Can you see me? We see you / Can you feel me? We feel you!’) The heist-set music video adds another wrinkle, satirising the insatiable hunger of the media for more stories and the (particularly German) irony that it is often wrongdoers who garner the greatest fame.
Starting life as an entrance theme for legendary heavyweight boxing champion (and current Ukranian politician) Vitali Klitschko, whose name was the song’s working title, Sonne would eventually transmogrify into the stand-out lead single to their greatest album. The remnants of that original purpose are still clear, however, in the lyrical description of the enormous power of the sun flowing from hands meeting face, and in that iconic (almost) ten-count. It’s inextricable for most fans, nowadays, from the unforgettable music video based on Grimm’s German fairy tale of Snow White, with the band playing the dwarves and the titular heroine (played by Russian actress Joulia Stepanova) reimagined as a drug addict: her poison-apple swapped for a syringe.
Ten years since their last full-length release, Rammstein needed to return with a statement. Deutschland was just that. Provocatively named after the fatherland, the song delves into the band’s love/hate relationship with their home country, reaffirming their (obvious) nationalism but acknowledging that there are parts of Germany’s chequered past (and present) which they truly hate. The higher they climb, the further they fall; the greater the national pride, the more potential there is for it to be corrupted into something unsavoury. Daring to delicately subvert the lyrics to Nazi-era national anthem Deutschlandlied (‘Deutschland über alles’ becoming ‘Deutschland über allen’) and appearing in the stunning, 10-minute, Specter Berlin-directed music video dressed in concentration camp uniform, it showcased the band in 2019 as artists finally willing to directly face up to a most challenging elephant-in-the-room subject matter they had previously only skirted around. Also, it absolutely slams.
Appearing on the mega-selling soundtrack to 1999’s The Matrix, Du Hast was one of the earliest introductions of Rammstein to the Western mainstream audience, and felt perfectly matched to the foreboding industrial aesthetic of that classic sci-fi romp. Playing on the homophonic similarity in pronunciation between the German phrases du hast (you have) and du hasst (you hate), its ostensibly extreme lyrical simplicity and thrusting riffage (openly indebted to Ministry classic Just One Fix) were – and remain – the easiest imaginable way into the band. Listeners should be careful not to mistake the song’s minimalism for unsophistication, though. There is a world of meaning to be read into those sparse lyrics, on the festering resentment that can grow from certain long-term relationships.
Epic. Insidious. Utterly unstoppable. When Rammstein dropped their greatest hits collection Made In Germany 1995-2011, Mein Herz Brennt ('My Heart Burns', Mutter’s outstanding opener) was the only track featured not to have previously received a single release, and was promptly presented as the promo to sum up their career thus far. Taking its opening line ‘Nun, liebe Kinder, gebt fein Acht. Ich habe euch etwas mitgebracht...’ (‘Now, dear children, pay attention. I have brought something for you...’) from famous German kid’s bedtime TV show Sandmännchen ('Mr Sandman'), the song unfolds as a reckoning on childhood nightmares and that youthful fear of things that go bump in the night. Seeming, at times when the string-section kicks in, like some crazed twist on Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and, at others, like the sort of techno-dungeon-dwelling anthem that could have only ever come from these specific Berliners, it remains the most ambitious distillation of the elements that have made Rammstein great. A piano-led version was released in December 2012, too, proving that even with the fire and brimstone toned down, their songwriting lost none of its harrowing impact. Hearts on fire, indeed.
What music has dominated your past 12 months? Cast your votes in this year’s Kerrang! Awards now!
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