If there is one name that epitomizes German Techno Metal it is without doubt Rammstein and their latest album title and associated concert tour reflects this perfectly.
Formed around 1994 and arguably taking its name from the 1988 Rammstein airshow disaster, the Berlin band - sub classified in the 'Neue Deutsche Härte' genre - owes much of its success not to outright creativity but rather to a highly enticing blend of mostly 'machismo music'. Borrowing heavily from American industrial metal band Ministry - circa 1989's The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste and 1992's "Just One Fix" from Psalm 69 [both on Sire/Warner Bros.]; - Switzerland's Coroner - circa 1993's Grin [Noise International N 0210-1] - and Germany's own D.A.F.; the sextet got the recipe just right for aggressive yet danceable music. In effect the testosterone level registers an 'eleven' on the metronomic 4/4 meter. Driving guitar riffs juxtaposed by repetitive synth sequencers and pounding rhythms are interspersed by German sprechgesang und sprechstimme as well as more melodic vox.
The somewhat pompous nature of the musical arrangements seems more defensible when viewed through the lens of their grandiose theatrics in concert or on DVD. Picture a bit of vintage Alice Cooper merged in with Special K's trio of King Diamond, Kiss and Kraftwerk. In fact, it would not be that far of a stretch to denote some visual opera cues of Wagnerian proportions spiced up with some comic and harder S&M penchants. Always craving controversy, several of their album covers, lyrics, videos and tours pushed the envelope of "bad taste" (guitarist Paul Landers own words) to the max combining partial nudity with military-esque undertones and outrageous pyrotechnics. In a nutshell this is not your 'Donny and Marie' feel good family concert.
It is rare that I evaluate 'best of' packages but just could not pass over this one for many reasons. Made In Germany is their seventh release and first compilation album; yes even metal bands can boasts of 'greatest hits' status on occasion. Three different editions are available: The Standard Edition (one CD); Special Edition (2×CD) and a Super Deluxe Edition (two CD + three DVD). I'll limit myself to the Special Edition which comprises a first CD subtitled '1995-2011' containing sixteen of the band's original tracks and a second CD subtitled 'Remixes' featuring seventeen 'RMX tracks' covered by a very diverse pool of formations. Twelve of the selections appear on both CD's permitting near-instant interpretation comparisons if one feels the need.
The presentation designed by Büro Dirk Rudolph is without doubt highly original and beautifully executed. The quintuple gatefold cardboard jacket opens up in a 'cross-like' manner; with each square panel displaying a different band member -- all sporting bald heads and closed eyes; in reality lifelike masks impressively created by Katrin Westerhausen. Maintaining a monochromatic light-gray throughout plus some minor relief touches on the front cover emphasizing the many facial features is a delight both visually and tactilely. The 'left wing' holds the '1995-2011' CD while the 'right wing' holds the 'RMX' counterpart. Included is a 20 page booklet containing all the song lyrics and usual credits. Both CD labels are color-matched with the overall packaging. Save for one, all tracks were produced by Jacob Hellner and Rammstein and re-mastered by SvanteForsbäck at Chartmakers Helsinki, Finland. Understandably being a compilation of material spanning the last sixteen years, many different recording, mixing engineers and studios contributed to the original tracks.
Starting with the first CD, '1995-2011'...
I'll spare my usual track by track sound analysis for the simple reason that the entire CD is quite uniform; uniformly bad that is. Mark you; it is no worse than the majority of metal music on CD and to a certain extent on vinyl also; although thankfully, the latter by nature imposes limits somewhat on the excesses of the 'loudness war disease'. In effect engineer Svante Forsbäck should get an award for worst and not to say wasted re-mastering job I have heard in a while. Granted he is not to blame all alone, for the original recordings were probably tracked and mixed with high compression and limiting to begin with but being the last link in the chain, the mastering engineer bears the ultimate responsibility of at least trying to make things sound right -- even more so when you take the time to re-master. I'm not exaggerating when I say that most of the songs have less than 3 dB of dynamic modulation while some are even more squashed to half a decibel only! Needless to say the tonal balance is completely of the mark producing a sustained aggressive midrange and grainy treble causing instant ear fatigue to the point of hitting the 'skip track' button every 30 seconds. This is so unfortunate and nonsensical given the fact that many of the songs are quite good and the frequency bandwidth does not seem unduly filtered in both directions but because of the compression abuse, there is no bass punch left. I find it incomprehensible that only a handful of rock studio engineers and producers seem to grasp the basics of good sound engineering -- legendary Eddie Kramer, (bad boy) Steve Albini and right-hand man Bob Weston come readily to mind, though certainly there are a few others. It is not rocket science that an hour or more of this type of sonic assault is unbearable to the ears and senses.
Which begs the question: What are they teaching nowadays in sound engineering courses? 'How to make it sound louder even more'! It is not so much the fact that everything is constantly high in level but rather than there is no lower levels left for the ears to relax and recuperate. This explains why an average (programmed) SPL of 90 dB with 25 dB of modulation on the meters is tolerable and pleasant when tonally balanced while an SPL of 70 dB with a mere 3 dB of modulation is both boring and conducive to ear strain leading to quick disenchantment. Therefore in order to evaluate the musical merits of the album, a solution had to be found.
As Metallica's James Hetfield would surely endorse, I decided to...
Fight Fire with Fire...
Basically there are three solutions when one desires to restore some semblance of dynamics to a 'contaminated' recording. You expand, re-EQ or apply a compressor; say what?
That's right but not any kind of compressor; a multi-band compressor. I'll come back to this in a moment but first let's examine why the two other options are not ideal. To use an expander would seem at first glance to be the logical 'cure' for restoring squashed dynamics and indeed the latter is by and large, the exact opposite of the former using similar terminology and complementary circuits. Trouble is without the exact attack and release times and companding dynamic ratios of each song, not to mention each individual instrument track, there is no way you can approach the unprocessed tracks without adding pumping or sonic 'fakeness' and besides you don't have access to the pre-mixed multi-track. This situation is akin to the old 'non-matched' Dolby or DBX NR between Playback and Record curves found on many decks; any mismatch led to unnatural results. Using an analog or digital equalizer is a better choice for at least toning down that aggressive exaggerated midrange and punching up the bottom end and kick region. Although this gives back some bass 'swing' modulation, the character of the sound gets quite altered and often it robs too much of the live 'raw' sound away by taking on the chosen EQ signature. That is why a multi-band compressor when used with care is in my opinion the preferred method if not of sonic bliss then surely of sonic relief. (Note that if you are into active tri-amp’ing, that also could be a rudimentary or limited option but it is not that widespread out of the Professional milieu).
For those who would like to emulate my alternate or re-mastered version, I'll briefly share my recipe. I extracted each song with EAC and stored them on my hard disk. Then I used a Steinberg multi-band compressor software plug-in via Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge on my digital station. By separating the full bandwidth in three sections - below 250 Hz and over 4 kHz, I applied roughly 5 to 8 dB of non-linear compression in the midrange section while around 1.5 to 2.5 dB at the lowest levels in the bass and mostly none in the treble; minutely trimmed and saved for each of the sixteen songs before burning a Verbatim 'Digital Vinyl' CD-R at 4x. All in all, this took me about eight hours work and resulted in an average of 6 dB to 12 dB modulation on the meters (depending on the song) and most importantly much better sound. Just like you cannot put the Genie back in the bottle, you cannot put back all the original dynamics in the mix once they've been altered or eliminated but you can recreate new ones that approach something natural or pleasant. I encourage anybody who has the tools to try it out at least on a couple of songs to 'get the feel of it'; you may be pleasantly surprised with the final outcome. I know for me it was the only way I could get through the entire CD. The whole thing being quite laborious, you will understand I was in no hurry in putting in another days' work and opted to postpone the same treatment for the RMX CD for the time being. As such I prefer not going into great detail on the sound of the latter, for it too suffered the same poor faith and is in dire need of a major overhaul. That said, musically none of the RMX versions on the second CD really captivated my interest, which I found to be the exact opposite regarding the extremely original remixes of Radiohead's King of Limbs album.
('1995-2011' CD only)