Rammstein, Godflesh, success, and legacy

Rammstein’s Mutter was essentially the sound track to my mid-teens. It rarely left my stereo. For the Kerrang! TV generation they were something of a staple. The interesting thing about them as a popular phenomenon is the same line many of the more metallic industrial bands must walk. Too metallic for goths and cyber-goths, too commercial for metal fans when they eventually grow up and indulge in more serious endeavours. Rammstein had a unique ability to walk this line between commercial appeal, edgy lyrical themes, heavy riffs, sombre ballads, infectious grooves, hammy Europop, comedy, and melancholia. For the Nu-Metal generation they clearly fit with other key names of the era, whilst having almost nothing in common with them historically or musically. Contextually speaking their music sits very well within the canon of German Industrial, but it was support from this non-German speaking Nu Metal generation that led to their international fame.

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They subverted the often overly macho style of much Nu Metal, and indeed their own superficially butch image. Indeed in many ways their only connection with this movement was their rise to fame at a similar time and the backing of similar magazines and TV channels. It is for this reason that kids like myself took the metal route, rather than delve deeper into the industrial half of Rammstein’s influences; essentially opting for Metallica over Ministry. I opted for Metallica and never looked back. For this reason Rammstein remained anomalous in my music collection, a curiosity, a nostalgic throwback to a time when I believed their music to be something truly unique, being ignorant at the time of the context in which they were birthed.

And so, in 2009, when they released their last full length ‘Liebe ist fur alle da’, I was disinterested; especially when the lead single ‘Pussy’ fell quickly into into self-parody. I remember thinking that I do still find genuine pleasure in the music of Rammstein, but they had dropped any pretension to seriousness, they had gone where I could not follow, into camp for novelty’s sake, making music playing to a pre-existing reputation, rather than earning a new one. That was that as far as I was concerned.

Recently they released a live DVD from a show in Paris. It was playing at our local cinema The Hyde Park Picture House and I agreed to go with some friends. ‘Why not?’ I thought, ‘it costs more than most festivals to see the real thing, and their shows are such that even in the comfort of a cinema, entertainment is guaranteed’. And so we went and we were invited into Rammstein’s world. A thoroughly enjoyable evening was had that inevitably led to me go back over their back catalogue for old time’s sake, and of course, led to me giving 2009’s LIFAD a chance. It struck me how strong the rest of the material on the album is compared to ‘Pussy’. Some truly smashing singles with punchy choruses, a couple of more industrial heavy tracks and a ballad, as well as some filler but forgivable given the strength of the rest of the offerings. Rammstein finished their set in Paris with a post-encore rendition of ‘Fruhling in Paris’. A famously German band crooning about a love story from Paris at a show in Paris was an experience that made me feel wonderfully and defiantly European in the wake of everything that has happened to my beloved yet hopelessly misguided Britain of late. 8 years on from the release of ‘Pussy’ I gave Rammstein another chance, they did not disappoint, and despite everything I have learned about music since, about what it can achieve, the heights and depths it can take, and more relevantly Rammstien’s actual place in the lexicon of alternative music, the album has not left my stereo for some weeks now.

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Rammstein will never appeal to the purists of any genre from whence they draw influence. Their popularity lies in the fact that purists of my generation will always play the nostalgia card. This only goes some way to explaining their mass appeal however. Why has their appeal endured so, especially when so many other acts the Nu-Metal generation loved at that age we have now ‘grown out of’ for want of a better phrase? The answer lies in simple yet unadulterated entertainment. They remain an entertaining band to watch, with music videos that never fail to tell a story, live shows that are now world famous. And even simply on record, they are catchy, stimulating, heavy, dark, tuneful, familiar. This combination of factors has led to a considerable pull well outside the remit of alternative culture. To civilian outsiders however, they are a curiosity for the most part, nothing more.

So the question should really be, are Rammstein rated according to their desert? No one of my calibre would wish to overstress their musical importance. But music is only one part of the Rammstein package. Some would argue that all the thrills to their live shows are overcompensating for lack of musical creativity. I would say ‘so what’, it’s entertaining and never claimed to be King Crimson. Have they ever been guilty of overstretching themselves and appearing where they are not welcome?

As a compare and contrast study with all the insight of a GCSE English essay, let’s turn our attention to an entirely different beast, and one that the world is far less familiar with, Godflesh, the brainchild of one Justin Broadrick.

Justin Broadrick broke his musical cherry by providing guitars for the first half of Napalm Death’s ‘Scum’. Prior to this he was involved in early industrial outfits Fall of Because and Head of David, both fitting well within Birmingham’s tradition of hope crushing music. Fall of Because formed in 1983, and were essentially an early incarnation of Godflesh. They quickly changed their name to Godflesh, driven by Broadrick to add more electronic elements to their style, a drum machine, odd vocal effects, static noise, droning and repetitive music, essentially the things that make early industrial what it is. After a couple of EPs the debut album ‘Streetcleaner’ was released in 1989, with some new material and some revamped Fall of Because material dating back to 1986. It took the best elements of Swans and Killing Joke and combined them into the ultimate statement of nihilism, anger, despair and pointlessness, mocking in its grooviness, unrelenting in its quashing of joy. So was born the misery credo.

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Commentators and media at the time chucked Godflesh into the mix with label mates Carcass, Bolt Thrower, and Napalm Death; the late 1980s boom of extreme music in Britain and elsewhere. But musically Godflesh were a different kettle of fish entirely, so their name failed to become a staple in the same way as these bands. They garnered a dedicated following certainly, but they lacked the mass appeal required for the international fame that many of the original Earache roster were destined for. On the other side, their industrial elements were always far too heavy for a more commercial audience, or indeed a more industrial or goth audience. Since Streetcleaner, Broadrick has reinvented the sound of Godflesh several times over, sometimes more metallic, sometimes more electronic, but always abrasive, always niche, but niche in such a way that it almost appeared to deliberately alienate as many people as possible. If the sound got too metal, too commercial, he released ‘Us and Them’ for instance, an experimental industrial noise album with a sprinkle of hip hop. As an immediate reaction in the opposite direction he released ‘Hymns’, and added a real drummer to the line-up and attempted a much more rock-radio friendly sound. That’s not to say Broadrick is the kind of artist who deliberately wishes to obscure himself from potential fandom. But he has never been all that sentimental about consistency in style and quality, ruining a run of decent releases with a deliberate shift in a jarringly different direction. The best of his work has influenced the likes of Fear Factory, Ministry, Pitchshifter, NIN, Rammstein, Korn, Danzig, Faith No More and a plethora of younger artists who are unaware of the genetic makeup of their music. He has and remains the hidden puppet master behind more popular artists who claim Godflesh as an influence. When occurring, most people do not realise they are listening to music with a Broadrick antecedent.

Godflesh…in terms of their standing within music, is the exact opposite to Rammstein. The latter seem to do everything they can to please as many people all at once, a course usually destined for failure. But aside from a few grumbling dissenters fancying themselves fans of ‘real’ music, Rammstein have made a shockingly successful career out of this, and their name has earned a place in the lexicon of modern music known well outside the bounds of German industrial. Godflesh are the perfect articulation of what industrial metal can and should achieve as a serious form of music. But aside from a small dedicated following and some bigger artists namedropping them as an important influence, they have remained at cult status. In short, Godflesh are too good to be popular, Rammstein not good enough to be unpopular.

 

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