Picture it if you will. It’s 1997. MTV still knows a thing or two about airing music videos as a main attraction; not just a sideshow between promoting teen pregnancy for fame and misfortune. The venereal disease known as Boy Bands is running rampant through the day’s female youth, and though it’s always been lurking there in the underbelly of the culture it’s really taking on a new shape and ferocity; moving on from a simple chlamydia-esque nuisance to full-blown AIDS that the country will never really recover from.
American music is drowning in saccharine sweetness, and the hair-band metal that once drove MTV to national stardom has all but died. Metallica’s already put out Load, and what a load it is. A big steaming one that pissed everyone off and drove metal further into the shadows by taking all the metal out of Metallica. They’re hard rock now. They’re Van Halen. Even Van Halen isn’t Van Halen by this point. It’s even worse than Van Halen. Some dickhead frontman from Extreme is Van Halen at this point because Sammy Hagar had more tequila-oriented things to do. It is the first anyone’s even heard of Extreme, and the last we’ll hear from Van Halen for a while.
All the metalheads are either disappearing into their underground clubs or jumping ship to ride out the last couple years of the gangster rap wave, because metal is fucking dead in 1997. It’s a bleak, horrible time and the handful of metal bands out there still struggling by for airtime are starting to assimilate into the greater rap movement by either fusing rap lyrics into their own drop-D tuned guitar riffs or touring in weird hybrid shows like Korn’s Family Values Tour – where you can see Korn, Ice Cube, Limp Dickshit (oh, that’s Bizkit, right…) and Orgy all in one fantastically shit-filled show.
But all is not lost! For in the middle of that shitty little tour that got way too much fucking hype and legitimized way too many hacks, a bomb fell. It rained out of the sky in the shrapnel leftovers of a Germain airshow disaster, and it had two words scrawled on its casing we just had time to appreciate before being swept away by the blast: DU HAST.
Rammstein had come. Thank fuck.
Rammstein was America’s introduction to something that had started in Germany a few years earlier with OOMPH!’s second album, 1994’s Sperm: Neue Deutsche Härte.
I’m not even going to attempt to lay out the history and definition of the so-called New German Hardness. If you don’t know Rammstein by now you’ve been living under a rock. DU HAST was everywhere in the late 90s and early 2000s, and you could hardly escape it in movie soundtracks (The Matrix, anyone?), night clubs, and house parties.
That was the point.
If you took Pantera’s groove metal sound and threw it in a blender with a bit of dance club electronica, a healthy dose of Nine Inch Nails industrial and started screaming German profanities while the blades did their work you’d get NDH/NGH. The Germans could dance to it, the Americans could mosh to it, and if you didn’t speak German you could still enjoy it for the musical aptitude it took to balance all the moving parts.
Hell, in the case of some Rammstein songs it was pretty much a blessing if you didn’t understand German. Trust me. Some songs are just best left mysteries, because you will never feel clean listening to them again otherwise.
But this isn’t a music blog, and I’m not one of those “experts” who like to babble about genre defining moments, the technical perfection of one song over the other, or get into the discussion of the heavily masculine and occasionally homoerotic imagery one finds in NDH music. No, I’m just a fan of good music and a writer who can’t help but expound on the things he finds interesting.
See, in 1997 I was fifteen. My musical preferences were just starting to form into what they are today. Up until then I’d been every other mid-western kid listening to the same classic rock radio station as everyone else, drinking deep on the radio-friendly strains of Van Halen’s David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar years, the southern rock mainstays like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Foreigner, and occasionally getting a glimpse of Dio, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden that made me yearn for that classic METAL sound instead of the classic rock endemic in my area.
Rammstein was something different. It was metal, it was foreign, and it was something German I, as a youth of largely German descent, could actually be proud to claim some tenuous connection to after having spent my entire grade school career learning absolutely nothing about Germany past WWII and the Nazis. It showed me there was more to metal than the American hybrid crap on MTV.
No one had bothered to tell me back then half the metal bands I actually liked back then were English, or that metal itself was not a strictly American invention but more a bastard child of the blues created after American blues artists had been paraded through the UK in the 50s and 60s and their sound had influenced a whole generation of early rockers. It was just not in the musical education of the time, and the Internet was young enough back then I’d have had no way to learn anything about those roots.
Rammstein opened that door for me, though, and once it was open there was no going back. I still listened to some American bands, but I got a lot pickier about which ones I let past my quality filters. I went delving into a world of British and European metal and found a whole host of acts who weren’t just interested in putting their name on TV and selling a bunch of merchandise to get rich. Sure, they wanted that stuff too, but they weren’t selling their souls to the cannibalistic, incestuous nature of the American music scene to get it done.
I’m not saying European bands don’t change, or they don’t do anything different, or they don’t form weird hybrid sorts of genres that often leave one scratching one’s head in confusion. Certainly that happens too, and it was just such an experiment that resulted in bands like OOMPH! and Rammstein finding their voice in the world music scene in the first place. It’s just that the bands I found seemed somehow more honest about what they were and what they wanted to be and just kind of stuck with that. They might change their image a little here and there, or swap members around so fast you might not even notice, but it always felt like there was something more authentic in the European bands. Something grown more out of a love of the music and the art of composing than the American way of doing things just because they’re popular in the moment or the rights to a song are up for grabs.
Lately, I’ve been delving back into those NDH bands I’d grown so fond of. I’d outgrown them for a while, or maybe just got tired of them after so many years when I found my way into more Scandinavian ways of doing metal (sweeping symphonic epics and folklore-laden musical and lyrical themes), but with my Duolingo kick of late I felt I’d get a little bit more out of the German bands now that I’ve actually undertaken a study of the German language itself. I was not disappointed, but I was a bit surprised by just the sort of thing I’m talking about here.
See, Rammstein is great and all, but they actually weren’t my favorite of the NDH bands. They were just the first to make landfall in the States, and the most popular. Even OOMPH!, who are largely credited with inventing the genre, never found a foothold in America. I’m not sure my favorite NDH band has ever even toured in America. If they have, I never heard of it.
They’re called Megaherz, and I found them right around the time their 2004 album, 5, came out. It was their first album with their second singer, Mathias Elsholz, and the only album he did with the band. Their original singer and band founder, Alexx Wesselsky had left after five albums, but here’s the thing: I didn’t know that.
I only had a scattering of songs acquired through various peer-to-peer protocols, and no full albums, and all the real information on the band one could find on the web at the time was in German. I’m usually pretty good at picking out tonal differences in voices, but Wesselsky and Elsholz sounded like the same dude to me. I didn’t know the difference between songs from the band’s first NDH album, Kopfschuss (their third actual album, but the first two were more alternative than NDH) and 5.
Nor did I know that when the next album, Heuchler, came out with Alexander Wohnhaas behind the mic that it was yet ANOTHER different singer. It just didn’t sound like it. Somehow, the band had managed to keep the same sound through three singers and so many member changes that only guitarist Christian Bystron and bassist Wenz Weninger have actually been with the band since the first album.
Some albums are a little harder than others, some songs are a little more explicit than others, but Megaherz itself has managed to exist as an entity faithful to the sound laid down in Kopfschuss in 1998 right down to today with their 2014 album, Zombieland – a feat achieved in no small part by their odd habit of updating popular songs for the new singers.
Mind you, I’m not entirely thrilled with the name Zombieland (the only non-German album title they’ve ever had) or the fact the band is presently rocking the zombie look pretty hard because the title track of the album is a bit of cross promotion with the German advertising for The Walking Dead, but musically the album still sounds like the Megaherz I know and the zombie look doesn’t quite fit the band’s actual sound or lyrics very well. But hey, if a little Walking Dead coattail riding is what it takes to get one of my favorite bands a little extra notice, fine. So be it.
Hypocritical of me, I know, but… Megaherz, motherfuckers.
So, by now you’re all Googling Megaherz, or searching them up on Spotify so I don’t have to explain that the title of this post is an allusion to their band mascot, a clown face that’s appeared on several albums since Wer bist Du? and is currently being portrayed by singer Alexander Wohnhaas in his zombie make-up on the new album, right? Right?
But, I had another reason for bringing up Megaherz besides espousing my love for the weirdness that is NDH metal. See, way back when I was writing the first half of my novel I tried to keep a running document full of notes. I had this idea that a writer has to write out his inspirations, his characters’ personality traits and key features and other details to keep straight what was going to happen and how they were going to evolve.
Crazy, I know.
Some people may work like that, but I just don’t. I just write, and write, and write, and mostly manage to keep it all straight in my head by the power of sheer genius alone. Back when I was keeping those notes, though, I was listening to a lot of Megaherz. I might have actually spent more time daydreaming about the story and potential film/TV adaptations than I did actually writing the fucking thing, and Megaherz was the soundtrack I had in my head for that time.
Notes on those early chapters actually include things like “Du Oder Ich for this scene”, “Glas Und Tranen for this one,” and so on. I hadn’t even finished the damn thing. I only got twelve chapters finished in 2008 before I put the whole thing aside for seven years, but I was scoring it in my head to Megaherz with only a lyrics-search understanding of German at the time.
After a while, my regular listening shifted and though I’d get the odd Megaherz lyric in my head here and there I hadn’t listened actively to the band in years until this week. The second half of the book was written largely under the influence of Wintersun – which I’ve expounded on before – but now it’s all kind of coming back around again as I sit here listening to Megaherz and thinking about how I’m going to get back into the story of those early chapters after so much time without really thinking about them.
I’d edited them down a little bit when I started on the second half, but I wasn’t in the same headspace I’d been in when they were written. I suppose the hope is that this little exercise will help bring just enough of that back up to pull my own hybridization feat; to merge the old stuff with the new and unite the two halves of the book into one cohesive voice again.
You know, before I turn everything on its head and get back to writing the second book.