Being a mid-Nineties baby, I don’t have many memories of a world pre-Columbine or pre-9/11. I’ve been through my fair share of security checkpoints, I’ve been through my fair share of active shooter drills, and have been in lockdown situations more times than I care to count. It is a scary world we live in these days, but what doesn’t seem to change are the arguments we hear for the supposed causes of these mass casualty events. It’s the media, it’s the suggestible youth, it’s those damn foreigners, so on and so forth. To say that the music world was rocked by the events of both Columbine and 9/11 is to put it gently. Acts such as Marilyn Manson and Slayer were crucified in the media, but perhaps none was caught in the crossfire more than a band who had just disbanded months prior: the mighty purveyors of the “Ultra Heavy Beat,” KMFDM.
The band took a beating in the media due to the coincidence of their Adios record releasing on April 20th, 1999, the same day as the Columbine tragedy. Further, several of the band’s songs, namely tracks like “Son of a Gun” and “Stray Bullet” were quoted on one of the shooter’s websites ahead of the shooting, and of course the media added that and the band’s German roots and arrived at Nazism overtaking these poor lost souls.
Deep exhale of exasperation…
By the beginning of 2001, KMFDM reformed, and while Günter Schulz and En Esch opted not to partake, Sascha Konietzko and Tim Sköld, the remaining members, added singer Lucia Cifarelli, formerly of the band Drill, as well as previous co-conspirators Bill Rieflin and Raymond Watts. While En Esch lauded his creative freedom, Konietzko was happy to see a more positive creative direction, not to mention fewer egos driving the machine forward. Add to this a change of record label, from the commercially demanding Universal to the industrial-friendly Metropolis, and on March 19, 2002, Attak was released.
Fun fact: the idea was thrown around to use Middle Eastern writing to spell out the album’s title, which would have been written as Attaq, but after the shit hit the fan with Columbine, not to mention the all-too-recent attacks on 9/11, and even Kap’n K thought that was “pretty fucking harsh.” Good call, Kap’n. Of course, the next album the following year would be called WWIII, so you can’t say Sascha doesn’t know exactly where the line in the sand lies or how to cross it.
The title track “Attak/Reload” starts off with a vengeance, as Sascha softly assures “we’re gonna make you sorry for every word that you say…” What follows is an electro-heavy track with a mid-tempo groove. From the first chorus on, Lucia’s vocals dominate, doubled in the chorus by a robotic monotone. Lyrically, they’re challenging three years’ worth of frustration, singing about the “gravitational pull of delirium,” a phrase that’s aged a bit too well for comfort twenty years later.
“Skurk” is a much more guitar-centric track, with a couple of sections of fancy fretboard footwork. If nothing else, it’s a good moment for Tim Sköld’s guitar work to shine, something it almost always does. It pivots into the sleazy “Dirty” and all of its Rob Zombie-esque glory (and I promise that isn’t an insult). We also get our first self-shoutout of the record, something of a signature of the band even today. If there’s a track that I could point at and be like “this, this is the quintessential Ultra Heavy Beat sound for this record,” the finger is pointed firmly at “Urban Monkey Warfare,” with its monster riffing and Sascha’s talk-singing verses against Lucia’s vocals in the chorus.
“Save Me” is another song with a guitar for a backbone, as well as a fair amount of nu metal influence. According to Spotify’s metrics, it is the most streamed track on Attak, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s as radio-friendly as I’ve ever heard the band, the song as accessible as one can get. Things turn to dub on “Yohoho,” which is mostly chilled-out grooves with occasional guitar flourishes over Sascha’s whispered vocals. This is one of two songs with Raymond Watts getting a writing credit, and the influence is easily recognizable. “Superhero” is painfully Nineties in its construction, and even giving a wide berth between initial listen and revisit, it’s just not doing it for me.
“Sturm & Drang,” however, which would go on to be the name of their 2003 tour, comes in like a bat out of Hell and doesn’t let up. An ultra-heavy beatdown of sorts, this one focuses on self-determination and the strength within ourselves, but does so not in a coddling way, but in a “hey dipshit, get up, get out there, and make shit happen” manner. Again, the guitar work of Tim Sköld drives this one onward, both in sheer riffing and his pre-bridge solo. Following is Raymond Watts’ lone lead vocal performance on the record, “Preach/Pervert,” with another shining example of the band’s signature sound, particularly in the sung-through-Watts’-gritted-teeth chorus. The one-two punch of “Sturm & Drang” and “Preach/Pervert” might be enough to sell some on the full record, had one never heard either song before.
“Risen” features a ping-ponging of vocals between Sascha and Sköld, with the latter chugging away on the low B. Forget about a one-two punch, the previous two songs and this make for a potent combination attack, which is a shame considering the final track “Sleep.” It feels like it’s trying to be too much at once, and while I’m glad to see Lucia assuming full vocal duties, that it’s happening on a meddling track like this is a bit upsetting, and serves as a snap back to unfortunate reality.
Those who long for the glory days of KMFDM, the En Esch / Günter Schulz era of the band are long gone. Is Attak on the level of say, Symbols or Nihil in the extensive catalog of Kap’n K and his merry band of industrialists? Maybe not, but all told this is an album that suffered due to controversy, rather than some of its contemporaries which thrived on it. Sadly, the idea of the mass media wanting to tear down something it knows precisely nothing about is something we’re still dealing with today, arguably more so than we were around the time of Attak’s release.