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Although 'Autobahn' might be one Kraftwerk's best known albums, famous for its title track that captures the hypnotic monotony of a very long car journey in music, it is probably far less revolutionary than its 1975 successor, 'Radio-Activity'. It marked a turning point in the band's career, fully completing their metamorphosis from a weirdo Krautrock outift that dabbled in electronic swooshes to a fully realised electronica band. Ditching the harsh proggy sounds that started way back on 'Tone Float' and 'Kraftwerk 1 and 2', all association with flutes, guitars and anything even remotely acoustic and lacking in some sort of electronic nature was ditched, dismantled and considered obsolete. From now on, only sounds generated by the flow of electrons through AND and NOT gates would be allowed onto record. Sehr gut, meine herren, nein?
Far from being the first ever fully electronic album, it is definitely striking in its absence of any kind of conventional sounds associated with pop music. And while the group may have been having all sorts of fun in their bonkers studio-cum-science lab, wiring up all sorts of bizarre bits of kit to coax out the bleeps and bloops with which to create this album, they may just have become a bit too excited with their new toys and forgot to focus on writing some proper songs. This is an album that really does sound like a bunch of oscilloscopes and half-fizzled circuit boards come to life, and it is far more of a big, sonic soundscape than anything else.
It is, at times, quite pretty and mesmerising, and at others, rather dull. It opens up in a very soporofic manner, with 'Geiger Counter', which is, unsurprisingly, the sound of a Geiger-Muller tube picking up clicks at an increasing manner. Is it a sinister bit of political commentary on the escalating numbers of nuclear weapons, or just to lull us into the pun of the title track, 'Radio... (wait for it)... Activity!'. While Kraftwerk may be seen as the archetypal humorless Germans, with everything precise and inaccessible and secretive, this record goes to show that they do at least know how to play with words when they want to.
'Radioland' has a bit more impetus to us, replete with vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys, of all things. It foreshadows the melodic pop which they honed on subsequent records, and shows that they could use things like theramins and weird home-made synthesizers to cook up memorable tunes. 'Airwaves' sounds very cool and unbelievably cheesy at the same time, being zapped and bleeped with weird 70s sci-fi sound effects that turned up on the soundtracks to all those low-budget science programmes we were all forced to watch at school when the physics teacher forgot to bring their lesson plan. Tellingly I found the soundtracks to those things the most interesting part; no wonder I can't remember any of the laws of conservation of momentum, but harboured a geeky desire to rifle through BBC Radio Workshop records. Either that or it's the Clangers' fault.
There are two versions of this album available- one sung in English, the other in German. Personally, I find the German version to be more enjoyable in spite of, or perhaps because of, my inability to understand the words. The slightly menacing tones of the German vocals, whether clean or in the metallic distorted treatments, lends the whole thing a more sinister and disturbing air. It sounds like Dr. Frankenstein has teamed up with Nikola Tesla to create a demented nuclear-powered electro-bot, cobbled together with bits of synths and circuit boards and shoved in front of a microphone to rant unintelligible cyborg babblings about whatever it would be such a creature would think as it slowly falls to bits.
The electronic whirrs and clinks and clanks continue, interspersed with the sounds of radios being tuned and receiving interference. It is stretching it a bit that a whole album can be wrought from such a play on words, and as a whole it feels very stretched. 'Transistor' and 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' are remarkably pretty; all twinkling lines and subtle key changes intertwining and waltzing and harmonising contrapuntally. It's as if sent a Teutonic robot back in time on a mission to learn composition from the Baroque masters, departing with the words 'I'll be Bach'.
Sorry, couldn't resist....
In all, this is a landmark album for Kraftwerk themselves, as well as giving more direction to the electronic genres as a whole, as it showed that music could be achieved via totally unconventional means. It lacks the impetus and focus of subsequent releases such as 'Trans-Europe Express' or the brilliant 'Man-Machine', but it marks the moment where Kraftwerk cemented themselves as a totally electronic band and found their true identities at last.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Geiger Counter
7 The Voice Of Energy
9 Radio Stars
12 Ohm Sweet Ohm