In the summer of 1997, Rammstein’s second album, Sehnsucht, was released, and its impact and influence was tremendous in both Rammstein’s native Germany and across North America. This album ushered in the Neue Deutsche Härte genre of music, which combined with the burgeoning internet and services like Napster, saw a huge influx of other carbon copies and inspired bands hit the market. Bands like OOMPH! who had flirted with the genre were now getting the recognition they deserved, while other musicians like Joachim Witt changed their sound to the new format to find success. Some bands had longevity, while others, such as Toxsin and Weissglut/Silber were barely a footnote during the heyday and now lay defunct. The tide has come and gone, the popularity somewhat waned, but there are bands that still cling steadfast to the genre.
The American-based Giftstrauch is one such act that keeps the classic tanz-metal sound alive and relevant. Giftstrauch is a trio that consists of Richard von Bitter, Vanessa von Bitter, and Bryan Knisley. A German-vocal Neue Deutsche Härte band hailing from Minnesota is a strange curio indeed, and Richard von Bitter gladly speaks of the project’s genesis:
“It began way back in 1998 when a friend got me to see Rammstein in Minneapolis… He had given me a cassette of ‘Sehnsucht’ that I had been really getting into. This was at a time when I had given up on rock/pop music and was listening exclusively to classical music and Nordic Roots bands like Hedningarna, Garmarna, and such. The show changed my life. I had never seen such a performance or heard such power. (I also) never saw so much fire inside a building. At the time, I think most of the concert goers were there to see Korn, but Rammstein won them over en masse after just a few songs. I know now that Rammstein is so big that many deplore them, and I haven’t bought an album since ‘Rosenrot,’ but at the time they were a revelation and I felt a strong desire to act on what I had heard and seen. At first I thought maybe I’d put together some campy Rammstein covers a la Richard Cheese, but then songs started coming to me and I decided to try original music. I wasted a year working with a collaborator who spent all his time smoking pot, and then would produce up to thirty versions of a song, which was ridiculous. Eventually I gave up, and at the recommendation of the friend who took me to the Rammstein show, I got in touch with Bryan Knisley, who I had known years earlier, but hadn’t really seen much of since I got called up for active duty with IFOR in Bosnia in 1996. We clicked like magic. I had written three songs for ‘Schwarzfahrer’ when, much to my astonishment, I wrote a country ballad which at first we kept under the Giftstrauch moniker, but as I came up with a few more of those (back then, everything I wrote in English turned up alt-country) I decided to split it off into a separate project.”
Unternehmen is Giftstrauch’s sophomore release and has been issued an incredible six years after their debut album, Schwarzefahrer, in 2008. Richard von Bitter explains the gap and problems between releases as such:
“We started working on songs for ‘Unternehmen’ right after ‘Schwarzfahrer’ was released, but due to working full-time and other obligations, time available to work on the album was very limited. We also had placed priority on another project (Meat Raffle Road) that was booking a lot of live shows. (It’s much) easier to line up shows for a band that has lyrics in English. So the new Giftstrauch album slowly came into being in the background of many other commitments. The major obstacle was getting studio time to record the songs; all other aspects were fairly easy. The songs came together quickly and we rarely had to dump anything and start over. One exception was the song ‘Dossenheim,’ which we dropped from the album because it somehow mutated into a pop song. Many times lucky accidents which at first were mistakes turned out to be much better than what was originally intended. One example is ‘Mitternacht,’ which was originally going to have a tempo twice as fast as it is, but Bryan played the guitar part at half-tempo by accident. He apologized and prepared to do it over and I said, ‘No, that is perfect! Let’s do it at that tempo.’”
The album flirts with both German and English lyrics, a concept reminiscent of OOMPH!’s albums before their huge breakthrough in Wahrheit Oder Pflicht in which they reverted to pure German lyrics. The album runs a gamut of subject matter; some of the album’s more innocuous fare ranges from an adoration of cats in “Schwarze Katzen” to getting dumped by a girl in “Scheissegal.” However, many songs have a slight militant theme, both in lyric and in sound, in particular because of the usage of the snare. Martial and war-related topics include The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in “Teutoburger Walz,” The Thirty Years War in “Mitternacht,” and “Kein Dienst Mehr,” which is about choosing freedom after so many years in the military. Richard von Bitter expands on these themes and topics in the album:
“I think that all I was trying to accomplish with ‘Unternehmen‘ was to get the songs out of my head and off into the world. There is no theme (per se), other than my contradictory inner feelings of love/hate for the military. I was a soldier for 23 years, but somehow never a true believer. I always had a lot of skepticism about how things were run and as I increased in rank, I used what little power I had to try and protect my soldiers from whatever nonsense that I could. But I kept going back for more as some elements of army life appeal to me greatly.”
The vast majority of Unternehmen is fully within the Neue Deutsche Härte style of music, however, many songs have a nautical feeling to them—as if they could be sea shanties—with a lot of “ooh ooh ooh” humming. The song “Under Deck” by Funker Vogt—an aggro-tech EBM song that borrows heavily from naval songs—comes to mind when listening to some of the tracks off this album. Other times, the songs seem like they could double as drinking songs.
One track that captures the Giftstrauch sound the best is the second track, “Laufen.” A song about running combined with a hatred of former Vice President Dick Cheney, the song is fast with shredding guitars and throbbing machinery sounds that one would find in ample supply through industrial bands of the ’90s. On the other hand, the song “Im Osten,” sung in both in English and German, sounds melancholic with theatrical vocals, but it’s surprisingly accessible and catchy.
Another highlight of Unternehmen is the track “Sailing with Nemo,” which was originally released via Bandcamp on Au Bout du Monde: The Jules Verne Compilation. The themed compilation album was the brainchild of Lionel Verney of Verney 1826 and Sven Phalanx of Schattenspiel, and featured other genre luminaries such as Mars and Tony Wakeford. This is the most “nautical” sounding track on the album (for obvious reasons), and has a great call-and-response for a chorus, something that KMFDM used to do when Tim Skold was in the band with songs like “D.I.Y.” and “Witch Hunt.”
The final track of the album, “Zeit,” is a collaboration between Art Abscons and Gnomonclast, and strays away from Neue Deutsche Härte territory by adding neofolk elements into the fold. The song alternates between traditional and acoustic elements with whispered lyrics, to a more abrasive industrial chorus. The formula works, and the song is a good outro to the album. Von Bitter explains how the partnership that bore this song came to be:
“I first encountered Gnomonclast in the waning days of MySpace. We expressed admiration for each other’s music and decided to try a collaboration. Gnomonclast put their track together and sent it to us. Art Abscons wrote the chorus lyrics, and Giftstrauch added the electric guitars and heavy drums while I sang the chorus. The song was also released on Gnomonclast’s album ‘Gather Together‘ on Old Europa Café. We had planned to collaborate further with Gnomonclast, but we couldn’t get studio time to work on the songs and time just slipped away, so we lost touch with them. I would still be interested. What say you, N2 Itinitl?”
The album does unfortunately harbor a few tracks that are not up to par with the rest of the album. The cover song of “Lili Marleen” thematically fits the album, but it has lackluster execution, especially coming after the track “Kein Dienst Mehr”—one of the album’s powerhouse tracks. “Schwarze Katzen” sounds out-of-place on the album as well as its piano work is a bit more playful and whimsy. Finally, the vocal work on “Scheissegal” sounds cartoonish against otherwise decent music. These are rough tracks with their spirit in the right place, but perhaps they simply stray too far from the formula that was working with other songs on the album.
Unternehmen is available in both physical and digital versions via CDBaby. The physical release comes in a jewel case with an insert depicting the band exploring underground bunkers, as well as a collage of other live pictures and artwork inside. No lyrics have been included, unfortunately, but on the Giftstrauch Facebook page, the band does provide statements as to what each song is about so that no listener is left in the dark.
Despite a few rough songs, the majority of Unternehmen is quite good. It may not capture the same “wow factor” that Rammstein commands, but the results here are admirable and definitely worthwhile. As the And One song goes, “die Deutschmaschine lebt,” and it certainly does—in Minnesota of all places.
01) Die Gedanken Sind Frei
03) Im Osten
04) Kauf Nicht
05) Kein Dienst Mehr
06) Mili Marleen
07) Sailing with Nemo
09) Schwarze Katzen
10) Stani Lli Putzem
11) Teutoburger Walz