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For a long time, electronic music was not meant to be aesthetically pleasing or commercially viable, which is something of an irony considering the proliferation of electro-pop in the 80s, and dance and house music in the 90s. Although Kraftwerk are synonymous with electronic music, they were by no means the first to create it. Pioneering works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varese and the peculiar works of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were so bizarre to the ears of most people that electronic music was firmly relegated to the margins of the musical spectrum. But it was Kraftwerk who really demonstrated what could be done with electronically created music, and bring it to a much wider audience by distilling some of their work into more readily digestable capsules of pop music.
Before the release of their seventh album, 'The Man-Machine', Kraftwerk had taken a bumpy ride to reach this form. Their 1975 effort 'Radio-activity' was an interesting listen, albeit a minimalist and very 'bleepy' one, with not much focus on melodic aspects. And the full length version of 'Autobahn' is downright confusing. With 'The Man-Machine', Kraftwerk realised electronic music's pop potential. Purists might argue that such commercial value is a very bad thing; alternatively, there's every reason to praise a band for opening a portal to an otherwise secluded musical world.
Even before the album starts the cover is a harsh, modernist affair - the harsh linear design and striking black on red just hinting at the mechanical, emotionless dark past of their German home. Yet Kraftwerk are not without a sense of humour; tongues are to be found in cheeks, and under those blank, frosty faces runs a seam of self-aware humour and even, dare I say it, earnest emotion. 'We are the Robots' bloops into life like a freshly booted-up android, clinking about almost delicately while the distorted voice mechanically repeats 'We are the robots...' If you close your eyes and detach from it as an album, it really does sound more like a machine than a recording by a band in places. Surely this is how they would like to be thought of, given the band's tendencies to cut the wires to speakers in elevators so they could listen to the whirring of the motors within, finding it more beautiful than ghastly piped Muzak.
Listening to 'Spacelab' now, it is a strange mixture of sounds that are both dated and futuristic. In it are shades of Queen's soundtrack to 'Flash Gordon' (dated) and the vocoder sound from ELO's 'Mister Blue Sky' (even more dated), but the liquid synths and pulsating beats are utterly timeless. It quite hypnotically conjures up mental images of the tranquil expanse of outer space. Everything on here is so meticulous, so precise, so stereotypically German that it's almost funny; that may even be the point of it all. The electronic drumming is mathematically precise but understated, keeping time on everything like a metronome with an imagination.
'Metropolis' is a droning, almost sinister song coupled to some upbeat drum tracks. Clean vocals soothingly croon 'Meeee-troooo-po-lisssss' over some athletic-sounding synthesizers which ape the incessant rhythms of transport and activity of our cities. Its mesmerising sounds are almost trance-inducing, much like the predictable, rhythmic click of trains over tracks and the hum of power lines. Kraftwerk's music is very much a mirror of its inspirations, recreating the effects and images of the electronic and mechanical aspects which define our modern culture perfectly. Sometimes it's hard to tell if Kraftwerk revel in or mourn this way of life; the title 'Man-Machine' suggests that western culture is so far entrenched in electricity and all its technological off-shoots (more so today than ever) that it is not something with which we should be too comfortable. The homogenity and anonymity of its stark, electronic landscapes warns us of our own state and fate.
But it's not all mechanical harshness. 'Neon Lights' is almost a love song, a subtle nod to their love of schlager music and romantic pop songs by the likes of the Beach Boys. Ralf Hutter's vocal is one of genuine emotion, celebrating the light to be found within the aforementioned Metropolis. Some deftly-created synth sounds emerge to mimic a choral chant, belying the romantic notions of it all.
Possibly their most famous track, 'The Model' is pure pop hooks in electronic form, but carries with it a sting in its tale. A story of a fashion model's lifestyle, it's a subtly clever play on words, likening her habits to the lifeless plastic function of a mannequin, and that her routines and desires are pre-programmed and predictable. Fellow Germans Rammstein covered this as a much more crushingly heavy re-interpretation, and lost quite a bit of subtlety in the process. But for an electro-pop song it's very succinct; it could almost have been written by Gary Numan on one of his good days.
The title track closes the album, and given the current burgeoning 8-bit music scene one wonders if it was a source of inspiration for many a video-game programmer, sounding as it does to the intro of many a C64 or Atari classic. Oriental modes and canny key changes do much to break up its initially repetitive sounds; this could so easily have lapsed into a very dull listen, but Kraftwerk seem to know when a riff or passage is just about to outstay its welcome. It's also all very cleanly and precisely recorded, with not a speck of mud to be found on the production.
In all, this is probably one of Kraftwerk's most accessible studio efforts. It is frugal on the vocals, as much of their work is, letting the music do much of the talking. Personally, I can't stomach too much of their stuff in one sitting, but this kept my attention throughout. There's an optimum time and place for Kraftwerk, and I've found it to be the perfect soundtrack to a train or car journey through our sleepless, neon-lit, clockwork cities. Listening to this while taking the tram through Manchester at midnight is like waking up in Koyaanisqatsi. And while I'm not sure if that's such a good thing for one's mental health, as a piece of music it is a fittingly powerful one.
In a world where people such as Madonna are labelled ' musical geniuses' by over-imaginative post-modernist critics and boy band's win countless awards for their less than brilliant musical ability. I began to think about contenders for pop music 'genius' (if one has to use such a overused term), my list consisted of Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Joy Division and a German group with the unusual moniker of 'Kraftwerk'. Not only did this band make beautiful 'pop' music but invented synthesisers, electronic drums and sample machines because they were so ahead of their time that these things did not exist, out of pure experimentation they 'created' instruments and used them to make a unique 'German' sound. Kraftwerk started as an avant-garde band in the late 1960's and early 1970's but the founding members Ralf Hutter and Florian Schnieder moved continually into the realms of pop. They scored a big hit with 'Autobahn' and have never looked back. Along with Schnieder and Hutter there were two percussionists: Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos. Many have described Kraftwerk's sound as cold, robotic, futuristic and strange and I am sure they would not have it any other way. Kraftwerk's success lay in uniqueness; they were a German pop band, not something that was internationally popular back in the 1970's. The media dubbed them rather offensively as 'Krautrock'. Their Albums: Autobahn (1974) Radioactivity (1975) Trans-Europe Express (1977) The Man Machine (1978) Computer World (1981) Electric Cafe (1986) Tour de France Soundtracks* (2003) My review will be of my personal favourite 'Kraftwerk' album 'Die Mensch Maschine' (to use its German title). Everything about this album is incredible, the pulsating rhythms, the cold but rather romantic lyrics, the brilliant percussion and wonderful synt
hesisers creating a soundscape so futuristic and beyond pop music that it is transcendent. Not only is the album's music amazing but the actual artwork is too, gone is the Art-Deco 'Trans-Europe Express' look, 'Die Mensch Maschine' uses Soviet Constructivist art designs, also note the members of the band look to the east. I think it is the best album design for any of the 'Kraftwerk' albums. 1. The Robots (Hutter/Schnieder/Bartos) The album opener is a stunning building slowly over six minutes with Ralf Hutter repeating "We are the Robots". The first sound we hear is a pulsating sound that I can't really describe. Once the drums kick in (yes they are drums) and the melody too, you will realise that the music you are listening to is not only a pop song but you can actually dance to it (though I would pay good money to see anybody dance to Kraftwerk in public). The rest of the lyrics are disguised with an electronic voice distorted. Another great thing about 'Kraftwerk' is how minimalist in terms of music they are. A lot of music is over-produced but 'Kraftwerk' are incredibly simplistic and yet sound so complex, this is a great achievement in my view. 2. Spacelab (Hutter/Bartos) I love this song because it so futuristic, I imagine city lights, neon signs, masses of people and time-lapse photography. It is a quick tempo song with a beautiful melody over the fast percussion and sound effects. The only lyrics that are repeated is the lone word 'Spacelab' again Hutter's voice is distorted with what to me sounds like a mellotron. This is a beautiful song. 3. Metropolis (Hutter/Bartos) Track three is based on Fritz Lang's landmark science fiction film 'Metropolis'. When you look at all the album titles and album artwork there is a feeling of a concept at work, modernism, the future a
nd the possibilities of pop music are explored with this album. 'Metropolis' builds slowly with synthesisers rising above each other and then the killer melody is unleashed. Listen to this song when your driving in a car and the environment, inside and out becomes alien and scary. This song conjures up the feeling that modern life is so alienating and spooky. I also love it when Ralf sings in a heavy German accent 'MEEEERTROPOLLISSS'. 4. The Model (Hutter/Bartos/Schult) This was the hit single that kind of stands out on the album for two reasons, one is that it is short and the other because of the romantic lyrics courtesy of Emil Schult (sometime lyrical collaborator). I think everybody knows this song and being only 24 and introduced to 'Kraftwerk' through a television on the '100 Greatest Albums' on VH1 last year I had only very vague memories of the song. I could only ever remember the line 'She's a model' followed by the amazing drumbeat and light synthesiser melody. 5. Neon Lights (Hutter/Schnieder/Bartos) 'Neon Lights' is my personal favourite on the entire album. I love the romantic lyrics that suggest that the city despite being a place of alienation and monotony can actually be quite beautiful. Ralf sings; 'Neon lights, shimmering neon lights, and at the fall of night, this city's made of light'. It a rather easy going number and the longest song on the album clocking in at around eight minutes fifty-one seconds but the music is hypnotic and I think incredibly moving for a band dubbed so often as unfeeling robots. 6. The Man Machine (Hutter/Bartos) The album closer is a harsh affair and sounds and feels cold but is a perfect tune to end the album with. It builds slowly but is not fast in tempo but rather layered. The lyrics are indecipherable and I can only make out the repeated phrase "The Man Machine, mach
ine, machine, machine, machine". With this album closer there is sense of looking to the future and seeing artificial intelligence and human beings merging together, the perfect synthesise of man and machine, which ties in with the constructivist movement. Russian film director Dziga Vertov said that 'A man and a film camera is the perfect meshing of man and machine" (paraphrased). I think 'Kraftwerk' had a similar idea when making this landmark album. 'Kraftwerk' imploded in 1991 when Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos left the band because Ralf and Florian were more obsessed with cycling than making music, leaving other bands to hijack and continue what 'Kraftwerk' had begun. If you are interested in learning more about this 'genius' band then I highly recommend Wolfgang Flur's brilliant 'I Was A Robot'. A tell-all book that destroys the myth of 'Kraftwerk' but also reinforces what amazing music they created, even if they were portrayed as a bunch of cold mechanical human beings (in myth).
The originators of electronic music's 1978 album is one of the finest. It is however a short album at just six tracks but it still manages to come in at 35+ minutes. I should also point out that I own a second hand vinyl copy and so I don't know whether of not the CD has extra tracks or not. The tracklisting is: The Robots Spacelab Metropolis The Model Neon Lights The Man Machine How to describe a band that have been cited as an influence by so many dance groups. Well in a nutshell they make space-age electronic music. If it were a room then it would be a minimal modernist sixties apartment – straight lines, curves, no fluffiness. Kraftwerk make absolutely no attempt to disguise the fact their sound is computer generated, in fact they positively revel in the circuitry sounds. All the tracks consist of the same basic constituents, the electronic bass drum, the beeps and the synths. Over this there is usually some sort of repetitive (but not annoying) computerised voice. There is only one song with lyrics in a traditional sense, on 'The Model'. 'The Model' was released as a single and has the lyric "She's a model and she's looking good", in case that jogs anyone's memory. This may all sound very sterile to some, however they somehow manage to build atmosphere into the songs. Whilst taking nothing away from the other tracks my favorites are 'The Model' and 'The Robots' (this one really reminds me of Tribal Gathering when I saw them live, a thoroughly recommended experience, great stage show). Should you buy this album? Well you can hear what inspired so many great groups (you can really hear how Orbital, etc. evolved from this). If you own one Kraftwerk album you probably don't really need to buy another. I don't know if this is really much better than any other album by them but if your going to buy any album by them just ma
ke sure that its got one of the big tracks on it, e.g. 'Autobahn', 'Pocket Calculator' or 'Tour De France'. I shouldn't of mentioned those tracks as I'm now going to have to buy another couple of their albums.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
5 Neon Lights
6 Man Machine