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WIR SIND DIE ROBOTER!
The Man-machine - Kraftwerk
Member Name: cheffrey
The Man-machine - Kraftwerk
Date: 23/05/12, updated on 23/05/12 (103 review reads)
Advantages: Inventive, hypnotic, melodic, simultaneously uplifting and depressing
Disadvantages: A bit repetitive, but usually hypnotically so.
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.
Summary: Remarkably listenable fusion of electronic sounds and pop melodies