Rammstein at Madison Square Garden

December 11, 2010 was an important day indeed for industrial music fans in America. Rammstein, arguably one of the most successful industrial metal bands of the past fifteen years, returned after nine years without playing a single concert on US soil for a one time only show at Madison Square Garden. It required a bit of creative transportation, but I made the trek down to New York City to take in the show that sold out blisteringly quickly. Seats were in the second level of the bowl, the 300 level halfway down the stage right side of the arena. The lighting rigs and speaker systems threatened to potentially obstruct viewing of parts of the stage, but it didn’t look like it would be too much of a problem. I sat down and got ready for the opening band.

Combichrist comes to us heavily from the tradition of Skinny Puppy. Their music, while not heavy in the classical crunchy guitars sense of the word, is certainly aggressive. What is heavy, what makes them not out of place opening for a band like Rammstein, is the double barreled drumming attack from two kits on either side of the stage. The drummer closest to me focuses on an unrelenting hi-hat assault, a disco beat from hell, while his compatriot rumbles forth with a tribal tom beat. What results is a massive wall of percussive sound that manages to perfectly emulate the pulse of a drum machine with bad intentions while remaining organic and real. Lead singer and Combichrist founder Andy LaPlegua stalkes to stage, resplendent in Mad Max finery and a platinum silver Mohawk. He’s ready for war, and the way her screams into the microphone, doubling over in painful passion makes you sit up and take notice. The lyrics themselves are mostly the sort of juvenile nonsense that the me who saw Rammstein three times in Junior High and High School would have loved. Lots of unnecessary cursing and aggressiveness I’ve learned to leave behind in my older, wiser years. Indeed, when the triple LED screen behind the band flashes on with the blood red COMBI-FUCKING-CHRIST running across it in giant letters, I can’t help but chuckle. Lots of random imagery follows, like upside down crosses dripping blood and other things designed to inflame and impassion the young disaffected metal head that would find himself at a Rammstein show.

It’s all nonsense (and I really mean nonsense), but the music itself is actually quite good. It’s aggressive and abrasive, but never loses sight of being music. Beats contain the madness. Melodies float from the keys amidst the din, catching the ear with brief pleasantries. Combichrist is what Nine Inch Nails would or could have been if Trent Reznor hadn’t been so obsessed with synth pop and Ministry. Heavy without relying on a guitar assault, they offer the perfect foil for Rammstein’s sonic wall of crushing guitars. The set is short, only thirty minutes, but quite effective. Many terrible opening acts have taken up stage space and time without deserving it. Luckily, that was not the case with Combichrist.

The lights dim after half an hour, and the crowd can barely contain itself. It’s easy to tell that quite a few of the spectators had never seen a Rammstein show, and possibly thought they never would unless they chose to leave the country in order to do so. Probably purposefully, the ambient music emanating from behind the black curtain covering the stage seemed to last an eternity, as the crowd got louder and louder. Eventually, two spotlights pierced the black curtain, as guitarists Richard Kruspe and Paul Landers broke through the black with sledgehammers, standing silhouetted in the bright spotlights, guitars at the ready. Soon enough, a bright red spark ignited the center of the curtain, slowly traveling along an established path creating the unmistakable shape of a door. Til Lindemann kicks his way through the opening to the delight of the crowd, as the opening strings of “Rammlied” waft out from Flake Lorenz’ keyboard rig hidden behind the black. The curtain drops accompanied by the first fireworks of the evening as the entire band is revealed, backed by a black curtain with random tears in it that looks like someone took a very large knife to it. Till is dressed up in red ruffles and appears to have swallowed a light bulb; every time he opens his mouth, you can see the inside of his mouth lit up (presumably with some kind of LED thing inside his cheek?). It’s quite the spectacle, with the crowd chanting along to the band’s namesake in the chorus. “B*********” follows, and is notable for being one of the only songs they play all night featuring no central gimmick or pyro of any kind. They just play it and move on to “Waimann’s Heil,” in which Till spends the song carrying around a giant, oversized hunting musket.

[TIME FOR AN ASIDE!] Here’s the funny thing about Rammstein live, that I find to generally be both a cool thing and a detriment at the same time; the props and the fire and the explosions tend to overshadow the songs themselves, but not in a way that is completely destructive. The prop dominates the performance. You see Till walking around with a giant musket and YOU WANT TO SEE WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. It becomes more important than the song. Luckily, most of the actual subject matter of the songs themselves tends to be somewhat interchangeable (especially for an American audience with every song in German), and the music is obviously well suited to the pomp. Compared to a band like Disturbed, whose live show is sickeningly staged to the point of no return, with all emotion surgically removed from everything, Rammstein is still a breath of fresh air. Everything happens the same way every night, this is true. Essentially, Rammstein live concerts are elaborate stunt shows. But there’s a certain Weimar Republic-era Cabaret feel to the proceedings. They know it’s theater. They know it’s designed to captivate audiences with the spectacle. You don’t see Rammstein because you want to see emotional songs played by heart-on-the-sleeve singer-songwriters. This isn’t a Tori Amos show (and that's no slight against Tori Amos, who I find to be awesome). It’s fucking RAMMSTEIN, and despite the silliness, it works. [END OF ASIDE!]

So long story short, Till ends up shooting the musket up into the lighting rig during the bridge, leading to part of the rig exploding into fireworks and showing sparks down to the stage, which lights some fire strips down by the monitors that burn slowly for the rest of the song. What follows ends up being the only song from Reise Reise of the evening, as the signature vertical air jets of “Keine Lust” shoot forth from below the stage as much headbanging commences. They proceed to go old school afterwards, bringing us back to the mid nineties with “Weisses Fleisch,” although Till’s infamous spark-shooting boots were nowhere to be found this time around, one of the few instances of the band changing up their pyro from earlier tours. We were, however, treated with a tiny little drum solo and the first (of many) instance of Flake dancing around like an idiot. The first of four songs from Mutter came next, as the band launched into “Feuer Frei!,” which has been a cornerstone of their live show for years. Just like they did back in 2001 at the Pledge of Allegiance tour, Till, Paul, and Richard strapped on their face flamethrowers (which are basically exactly what you would expect from that description) and shot fire all over the goddamned place for the final reprise of the chorus. We’re talking a good ten feet as far as the length of the flame is concerned. Good times. And, of course, the perfect way to follow up with the bombast of a song like “Feuer Frei!” would be to have a lonely little lamp next to a gramophone, as the string section that kicks off “Wiener Blut” bubbled through the PA. Just before the guitars kick in, there’s an extended pause, giving time to set up the central conceit of the gimmick, which consists of dozens of little baby dolls hanging from the light rigging, all of which have been fitted with green laser pointers for eyes. It’s pretty damned creepy, and the perfect fit for what might be the best song Rammstein has ever produced. Of course, because this is a Rammstein show, dammit, the dolls all explode at the climax of the song, littering the stage.

The band takes the time to slow things down at this point, a more than good decision considering the sonic assault of the last three songs. Ollie Reidel (oddly enough) opens the next song with the acoustic guitar part of “Frühling in Paris,” which was a bit of a surprise considering Ollie normally plays bass. As the first chorus hits, which features Till singing the chorus of “Non, je ne regrette rien,” the backdrop falls (no pyro this time), revealing these columnar structures built up around what looks somewhat like buildings, as well as three honeycomb lighting rigs that have a pretty wide range of movement. The rest of the song passes without incident, which is not something that can be said for “Ich Tu Dir Weh,” the pyretic climax of the show. Right as the song gets to the bridge, oft abused synth player Flake Lorenz decides to take matters into his own hands, dropping down from his rig to push Till over when he’s not looking. Till, of course, doesn’t take kindly to this, and catches Flake as he tries to run away, dumping him into a steel bathtub that had been sitting quietly behind Paul for most of the song. At this point, the spectacle jumps into overdrive, as Till hops up to Ollie’s part of the riser, and a hidden platform lifts him about fifteen feet into the air. He’s carrying a milk jug. With some flames licking out of the top of it. He then proceeds to pour the jug into the waiting bathtub, showing molten sparks and fire into the resting place of Flake Lorenz (presumably, he’s hiding below a false bottom). A couple explosions later, and the sparks run out, and the song finishes. As the lights dim, Flake emerges in a glittering jumpsuit, dancing his way across the stage until he returns to his synth rig. Then, for no real reason, he explodes again, which starts a conveyer belt below his rig that stays on for basically the rest of the show. For just about every song for the rest of the night, Flake is walking in place to the beat of the song. He just might be the hardest working man in show business.

“Du Riechst So Gut” brings us back to the band’s first ever single from Herzeleid, as the stage is awash in green, but otherwise bereft of pyro during the fan favorite. What is more of a concern is the gas station fuel pump that is added to the stage before the next song, which unsurprisingly is “Benzin,” the only song of the night from Rosenrot. During the bridge (notice a trend here? I wonder sometimes if every Rammstein song has a quiet bridge to allow time to set up crazy stunts), a man in black, presumably deigned to be a man from the crowd, starts running around the stage. Till grabs a flare/torch thingie, lights the fuel line, and turns it into a flamethrower, taking the opportunity to light the intruder on fire (naturally). He runs around for a while, stagehands trying to put him out, until he finally collapses in a cloud of fire extinguisher agent. This is also the first time we get to see the floor flame jets in all of their complete glory, shooting a good 20 to 30 feet of flames into the air. They’re quite the sight to behold. “Links 2 3 4” gives the crowd another sort of rest from the pyro, featuring a nice explosion on the first major downbeat of the song and not too much else.

The unmistakable keyboard opening of “Du Hast” leads to more fire, first in the shape of the crossbow that shoots fireworks out above the crowd that the band’s been using for fifteen years now, followed by more instances of the giant stage flamethrowers. This time, it is discovered that there are additional giant flamethrowers mounted on the lighting rig that fire just as gigantic flames back toward the band. It’s quite the scene to behold. At this point, it’s apparent that the main set should be coming to a close soon, and with the next song being the first single from Liebe Ist Fur Alle Da, “Pussy,” it’s just about guaranteed to be the last song of the initial set. And it’s a doozy. I still don’t like the song. I’ve never been a fan of the jokey Rammstein songs (your “Amerika,” your “Te Quiero Puta,” your “Kuss Mich,” etc.), and “Pussy” is probably the worst of the bunch. It’s just not a good song. That doesn’t stop the crowd from loving it, and the band from pulling out all the stops. This time, the stops consist of a giant cannon set up on a dolly between the stage and the pit, unmistakably colored to look like a giant cock. When Till mounts the cock-cannon and it proceeds to spit a white soapy substance all over the standing room only crowd, subtlety officially dies the world over. But they’re not done yet, as confetti cannons spew confetti everywhere, which is quite the sight to see looking down from above in the higher seating. It still doesn’t make me actually like the song, but it’s still quite the image.

The song does mark the expected end of the first set, and as the crowd chants for their return, I try to think of what could still be awaiting us during the encores. “Engel” seemed like a lock, but would we be treated to long time live staple “Asche Zu Asche”? Or perhaps “Mein Teil” or other songs from Reise Reise? It would be difficult to tell. Our questions were soon answered by the electronic pulse of “Sonne,” which makes perfect sense in retrospect. The flamethrowers in the stage and mounted on the lights really get a workout. The final refrain of the song features flames bursts alternating between the stage and the lights basically every second, which is quite the sight to behold. The real surprise of the encore comes next; a bunch of stagehands gather right around the space between the stage and the pit, usually indicates that this will be the song featuring Flake or Olliee going for a ride in the crowd surfing dinghy. In the past, this would have happened while they played “Seemann,” or “Stripped.” Much to my delight, this show’s nautically themed excursion would be done to the tune of “Haifisch,” the Bertolt Brecht referencing jaunty little number that’s one of the better tracks from the new album. Flake went for the ride this time, jubilantly rowing his way through the pit as they passed him along. Obviously, not being in the pit makes this section of the show a bit less interactive, but it’s a good sign, considering the other three Rammstein shows I went to did not include the crowd surfing stunt. To further the involvement of the crowd, the next song is “Ich Will,” complete with built in call and response choruses. Not much by means of pyro in this one, except a few fireworks during some of the more notable downbeats. No, this one is really all about connecting with the fans, the diehards who refused to abandon the music of Rammstein despite in many cases never having the option to see any of it played live. It’s about the fans who helped make sure the show would sell out in less than half an hour and become a giant story in New York in its own right. It’s about the people who bused, drove, flew, trained, and traveled in droves to come to New York just to see them. And when, after the song ends, the six members of the band come to the front of the stage and kneel in appreciation, you can feel the love of the crowd wash over them. Rammstein isn’t going to change the world. The music isn’t particularly emotional in the normal sense, but there is no doubt in the dedication of those present at the show. It’s something special, a one of a kind moment.

But it’s not over. There will be a second encore. And when Till slowly returns from the center ramp wearing gigantic metal wings, there’s little doubt that the next (and presumably last) song of the evening would be “Engel,” a hunch that is confirmed by Richard Kruspe whistling the refrain into the microphone. The giant metal wings are a wonder to see, creating the perfect visual for the end of such a bombastic show. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise when the chorus hits and the wings are revealed to also be flamethrowers. I mean, what else could we possibly expect? It was nice to hear “Engel” again, as Sehnsucht is my least favorite of Rammstein’s albums, so I don’t find myself actually hearing much of the music very often. While it was never as big of a mainstream song as “Du Hast,” “Engel” is still the iconic song of that album for most fans of the band. The band rumbles the song to a close, complete with additional fireworks and sparks popping all over Till’s wings, and they say their final goodbyes before the house lights go up signaling there will not be another encore.

Seeing Rammstein live is a one of a kind experience. I consider myself quite lucky to be an American that has had the opportunity to see them live on four different tours without having to leave the US to do so. There have been some rumors going around that a Spring 2011 full fledged US tour might be in the works considering the undeniable success of the MSG show. It’s a dangerous proposition, as the 15-20 semi trucks they need to bring with them to every show makes for pretty slim overheads. They might be able to sell out one show in a giant market when it’s a true event, but would they garner the same interest in Kansas City or Texas? Obviously, I hope they continue to include the US when setting their tour dates, but I also completely understand why they’re reticent to do so. Still, it was an incredible show, and anyone who has the opportunity to see this band live should not miss it.