To know Rammstein is to, at the very least, know the megahit that is “Du hast.” Whenever I tell someone that I speak German, especially in a club setting, I get asked if I know what the song is really about, or what the singer is actually saying. It’s at this point that I usually inform them what “Mein teil” or “Bück dich” is about. But we’ll get to the latter of those later.
After the success of their debut album Herzeleid, the Berliner godfathers of NDH (that’s Neue Deutsche Härte, or new German heaviness) had to go bigger. Truth be told, the album wasn’t as massive of a seller as one might think, but the band’s live performances helped to garner attention amongst a growing industrial metal scene. Think back to 1995, when Herzeleid was released. This was one year after The Downward Spiral, Ministry’s Psalm 69 was already three years old, and Rob Zombie hadn’t quite gone solo yet. Industrial metal was very much alive and well, but it was about to go to the stratosphere in the year of our lord 1997.
What brought them to the dance? Herzeleid has plenty of the threads that we would see in the later years of Rammstein, but it is far from the theatrical, over-the-top showmanship and lyricism that we would see on Sehnsucht and beyond. It’s very much an industrial record first and foremost, though the guitar gets plenty of workout. There are even guitar solos on tracks such as “Weisses Fleisch” and “Du riechst so gut,” and the ballad “Seemann” has one of the best bass guitar melodies this side of Primus. The grandeur comes in on “Heirate mich,” with a larger concept and lyrical storytelling. We know that Rammstein gets X-rated better than most, and we need look no further than “Das alte Leid” and the aforementioned “Weisses Fleisch” for examples of good fuckin’ songs (emphasis on “fuckin’”).
Thematically speaking, the band was just getting warmed up on Herzeleid. The success of the album in their native Germany got them festivals such as Pink Pop, took them stateside for tours with Project Pitchfork and Clawfinger, and allowed the band to support The Ramones for eight shows on their 1996 “Adios Amigos” tour. David Lynch’s surreal Lost Highway also used “Rammstein” and “Heirate mich” on its industrial-heavy soundtrack. To say that the sophomore record was highly anticipated may be putting it gently, and that’s not a word that usually comes to mind when speaking of Rammstein.
In November of 1996, the band traveled to Malta and entered Temple Studio with producer Jacob Hellner to record the follow-up to Herzeleid. By the beginning of April 1997, the band had a single in “Engel,” featuring vocals from Bobo singer Christiane Hebold. Bobo’s drummer Sascha Moser previously played with Rammstein’s guitarist Richard Z. Kruspe in the funk-metal outfit Orgasm Death Gimmick, reinforcing ties from ODG’s origins in the early Nineties. Prior to release of the iconic “Du hast,” the band remixed Korn’s song “Good God,” as well as released a Fan Edition of the “Engel” single, featuring two non-album tracks in “Wilder Wein” and “Feuerräder,” the former of which was a staple of the band’s live performances. The month of the album’s release saw both Herzeleid and the “Engel” single read Gold certification, and on August 25th, 1997, Sehnsucht was unleashed upon the world to rave reviews.
The artwork for the album was done by Gottfried Helnwein, who drew inspiration from his own work on the cover of Scorpions’ Blackout some fifteen years prior. Using surgical implements from surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch, six different covers were made for the album, one for each member of the band. While many different versions of the album have made their way out, I will be focusing on the standard 11-track version for the purposes of this retrospective.
The title track wastes no time getting to the stomping rhythm and monster riffage, as if to say, “Last time we kicked this off, we had to make a statement. This time you know who we are, so let’s just get to it.” And while the last record just hinted at sex in the opening with “Wollt ihr das Bett in Flammen sehen?,” “Sehnsucht” is very clearly about blue balls and wanting to rekindle an old flame:
“Zwischen deine langen Beinen such den Schnee vom letzten Jahr,
Doch es ist kein Schnee mehr da.”
“Between your long legs, I search for last year’s snow,
But there’s no snow there anymore.”
Then we get to the would-be mega-single “Engel,” which I would make the case for being an industrial track with shades of metal. The guitars really only make an appearance during the post-chorus, and it’s the keys and synths that get any sort of “solo” before the final chorus. Lyrically, it’s hedonistic and anti-religion, with the baritone of Till Lindemann proudly declaring “Gott weiß ich will kein Engel sein,” or “God knows I don’t want to be an angel.”
“Tier” is a song that could have easily been a thrashy, pedal to the metal banger that even starts out that way. Instead takes a mid-tempo route, and to its benefit, making for a more dance floor-friendly number. It’s one of two songs on the record that talk of incest, though the rape-revenge route that the second verse takes is at least justifiable.
“Bestrafe mich” is not a love song, it’s kinky and downright dirty in all the right ways. The bass guitar gets a rare moment to shine, with Oliver Riedel’s tight bassline driving the interludes between verse and chorus. There are readings of this song that make it about religion, a relationship between man and God (“der Herrgott nimmt, der Herrgott gibt,” or “the Lord takes, the lord gives,” a play on the old adage “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away”), and while it’s not my place to confirm this suspicion, it does hold water, holy or otherwise.
Then we get to “Du hast,” the song that launched a million German students or more. The double-meaning in the pronunciation is worth pointing out to the uninitiated; that is, as the song title is written, it means “you have,” but “hassen,” the word for “hate” is pronounced no differently, and the band even plays with this in the lesser-known English version of the song. The main riff is iconic, the drums that precede the verse serve as a warning to what comes next, and the showmanship and theatricality is classic Rammstein.
Then we get to “Bück dich.” Just as “Weisses Fleisch” was the sex song of its record, this song is, well, something else. Its neck-snapping pace and punishing riffing fit the loveless thrusting of its subject, sodomy. This song is infamous for getting the band in trouble during live shows, as Till has simulated anal with keyboardist Christian Lorenz, complete with squirting strap-on dildo and all the tender loving care that comes with that. In June 1999, this act would land the two in jail in Worcester, MA for the night due to the city’s stricter decency laws. The song was never released as a single, but it has a reputation all its own.
“Spiel mit mir” is as cinematic as it gets for the early Rammstein records. The strings plinking away between Till’s talk-sung lines and stanzas make for an uncomfortable listen, and given this is incest song number two, that tracks. Disturbing, haunting, and thematic is the name of this song’s game, and the line “Vater, Mutter, Kind” makes for a worthy crowd sing-along for live shows.
“Klavier” is to this record what “Seemann” was for Herzeleid, a power ballad about obsession turned deadly. Slow songs aren’t Rammstein’s usual modus operandi, but when they do decide to bring down the pace, they do so masterfully.
“Alter Mann” is a rarer cut, once again more of a techno / electronic song than a metal one. Dealing in old age, wisdom, and possession, this is a creepy track for sure, unfortunately lost to stronger efforts on this album. “Eifersucht” walked so that “Mein teil” from 2004’s Reise, reise could run. It deals in cannibalism, murder, and jealousy, and it’s a song that feels like it may have been left off of Herzeleid for whatever reason.
We close with “Küss mich (Fellfrosch),” and this is straightforward industrial metal. Samples, a heavy main riff, and more bassy goodness from Oli Riedel. Allegedly, this song has never made the band’s live setlist, and that’s a damn shame given its crowd-popping potential and accessible groove.
This album has stood the test of time for a couple of reasons. The taboo material the band wrote and played about, the blending of metal and industrial music, and a fresh sound not felt stateside in some time. Sehnsucht allowed Rammstein to tour with the likes of Hanzel und Gretyl, Skunk Anansie, Soulfly, and even a couple of Latin American dates opening for KISS. Stateside, the band found its way to the Family Values Tour in 1998, and “Du hast” landed the band’s first of two Grammy nominations for Best Metal Performance in 1999. Rammstein also earned an ECHO Award for Most Internationally Successful German Artist, and the Live aus Berlin concert film that followed went on tour, and was released on DVD and VHS.
The band wouldn’t return to the studio to record their next album, Mutter, until May of 2000, allowing for three years of touring, airplay, and publicity out of this landmark record. Is Sehnsucht their strongest record? Maybe, though some would say that the best would be yet to come, but twenty-five years later, Sehnsucht ist doch so grausam, und wir sind dafür besser.