Keyser Söze, the nebulous archvillian in the film The Usual Suspects, was famously compared to the devil; the popular line goes his greatest trick was making the world believe he didn’t exist. In the music world we find a parallel in Rammstein, Teutonic purveyors of a devilish brand of industrial-based metal. For such loud musicmakers their presence in the United States is rather quiet, consisting almost solely of “Du Hast” (“You Have”) showing up in The Matrix.
It’s been 12 years since Rammstein left Germany to tour the U.S.–their desire cooled by political climate, their reputation last staked and stoked by Columbine’s young killers (the band’s most infamous fans). In that absence, their live shows seemed built on conjecture instead of tangible evidence. Stories raised their pyrotechnics to the level of myth; YouTube videos suggested mechanical costumes extending and enveloping the musicians. A brief visit to the States in 2010 hinted at nightmares made real, and a recent greatest-hits release made the veil of rumor drop away completely.
Rammstein took over an April night at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, the sports arena’s concrete and metal forms able to withstand the sextet’s elements better than other local theaters’ creaky wood and plaster kindling. They began their musical and thematic conquest by carrying torches through the crowd and then over it, on a catwalk that took them from their production board on the arena floor to their main stage. Against shifting backdrops of scaffolding, tentacle-like synapses and lighting rigs, Rammstein pounded and pranced their way through 90 minutes of fire and brimstone.
The martial stomp of early work like “Asche zu Asche” (“Ashes to Ashes”) and “Rammstein” found guitarists Richard Kruspe and Paul Landers singing into burning microphones and lead singer/pyrotechnician Till Lindemann performing in a literal ring of fire. “Bang Bang” featured flame spouting from their heads; later, on a small stage back across the catwalk, it was water.
Lindemann, a brick wall of a human being, is the pivotal part of Rammstein’s live experience. His gutteral opera conceits are a deceptively simple complement to his bandmates’ crunch during “Ich Will” (“I Want”) and “Sehnsucht” (“Longing”). He’s also the source of much of the show’s onstage heat—his costume arsenal includes flamethrowing wings during “Engel” (“Angel”), he squirts foam from a roving penis cannon on encore track “Pussy,” he launches fireworks from an archer’s bow during “Du Hast.”
Where props and stages are involved, theatrics can’t be far behind. There was constant acted discord between Lindemann and treadmill-running keyboardist “Flake” Lorenz, from rude gestures all the way up to suggested cannibalism during “Mein Teil” (“My Part”). Drummer “Doom” Schneider also cross-dressed the part of a dominatrix, leading the rest of the band on leashes between stages. There was even a hint of cold mechanical beauty in the achingly slow descent of a huge fan element at the start of Rammstein’s encore.
Kruspe once stated in an interview that the stage show exists because many Rammstein audiences can’t follow their German lyrics—lure them in with the sound, keep them there with the fury. The admission is a little sad, in that fans might be cheering songs that wouldn’t otherwise jibe with their own tastes or beliefs. It’s also more than a little fortunate: Rammstein combine their Neue Deutsche Härte power-groove with Cirque du Soleil from the surface of the sun, creating nights of unmatched sensory overload.