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Class ?

Main Category: Electronica
Also applicable: Avantgarde, Dance Pop
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



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(released by: ORGANISATION)

Year Of Release: 1970

In case you wanted to know, Kraftwerk originally started as a full-fledged "rock band" (I'll explain the quotes later), starring not only the future robot whiz kids Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, but several other members as well, namely, bass player Butch Hauf, drummer Fred Monicks, and lead vocalist Basil Hammoudi. They called themselves Organisation and they sucked real hard.

I suppose that the 'lead vocalist' was kind of a fluke, though, as this one, the only album they released before they realized they really sucked so hard and went their separate ways, doesn't feature any lead vocals at all. It doesn't really sound like early Kraftwerk, either: these guys are actually trying to make music, you know - noisy, atonal, discordant, monotonous and repetitive, but it's still music, while early Kraftwerk is mostly industrial noise. It's bad music, though, because none of the musicians could really play anything. Well, Schneider's flute playing is tolerable, and that Monicks guy is actually a nifty percussionist, but when you got nothing to concentrate on but percussion, you know you're ultimately in trouble.

The entire first side of the album is occupied by the title track, and it's plain ridiculous - a minimalistic proto-ambient drone driven along by Monicks' proto-ethnic rhythms, while the other band members just dick around. Okay, I suppose somebody will eventually show up and flame me, saying that these guys were worthy disciples of Karlheinz Stockhausen and understood a lot more about modern music than I will ever do - I think 'dicking around' is not only a shorter statement, but also a far more vivid and colourful one. Compared to what other Krautrock bands, namely, Can and Amon Düül II, were doing at the time, this stuff is positively tame and completely lacks any real atmosphere or imaginativeness. Not to mention catchiness, of course: running a bit ahead of our time, let me state that only when Hutter and Schneider discovered they could pen catchy melodies did they begin ascending their real heights.

Side 2 isn't much better in that respect - so what if it's divided in four tracks? Who cares? It's the same principle. The main gimmick of 'Milk Rock' is a grotesque bubbling synth solo that sticks onto you like some parasite and you can't wait for it to go away. 'Silver Forest' is supposedly gothic in its essence, with a grimmer and spookier atmosphere than its predecessors, but it's still a childlike imitation of what more seasoned acts had already achieved by the time. 'Rhythm Salad' does show us Monicks' skill on percussion, but four minutes of ethnic percussion? And that has to be the most listenable track on the album? Or maybe it's the relaxing 'Noitasinagro' that closes the album with a bunch of dissonant violin solos?

Heck, whatever. The only reason I'm adding an extra half star is because it is, like, music, if you ever had any doubts, and maybe just to show some respect for the fact that these guys were young, daring and pretending to be innovative (when they weren't). Unfortunately, atmospherics and ambience is a thing that has to be done very carefully - where, say, a pop melody doesn't necessarily have to be particularly atmospheric because it can be saved by the catchiness factor, true atmosphere can't be achieved by simply putting down a sequence of two synthesizer notes and adding a bunch of echoey effects. I'm well aware that some people might actually dig this; but I think that after hearing Amon Düül II's Yeti, that came out the same year, most normal people would never put this one on again. Simply put, Krautrock isn't good just because it's Krautrock: there's good Krautrock and bad Krautrock, and unfortunately, Organisation's only record falls into the latter category. Krautrock historians and diehard Kraftwerk fans will probably need this record in their collection - everyone else, please stay away and don't waste your hard-earned cash. Particularly if you have a synth at home - I assure you, you can do better than this.



Year Of Release: 1971

As much as I'm not a true admirer of Kraftwerk in general (at least, not until the 'robotic' period), I need to say that their debut album is far weaker than anything else they ever released since then (even if it's definitely an improvement over the wretched Organisation album, both in essence and purpose). Kraftwerk exposes Herr Hutter's and Herr Schneider's talents in a rather dubious way; apart from the opening track, 'Ruckzuck', there's hardly anything even remotely connected to "music" to be found anywhere - well, bits and pieces of something 'harmonic' do crop up in the rest of the "tunes" from time to time, but essentially Kraftwerk is just noise: sometimes rhythmic noise, more often completely dissonant noise.

Now of course, noise isn't all that bad per se. The question is - from a historical point of view, is that noise "innovative" or "influential", and from a synchronous point of view, is that noise "cool"? Answers may vary; but from my point of view, the answer to both questions is no and no.

Concerning "innovative". Kraftwerk, in their Hutter-Florian-Plank combo, arrived on the scene in 1970; seems like the entire Krautrock movement was just beginning by then, but in fact it had already been active for at least a couple of years, and you know that in rock's key period (1966-75) basically every single month was significant, roughly according to a ten or twenty years' period in classical music. True, neither Can nor Faust nor Amon Düül were all that interested in finding out the undiluted, vintage power of electronic noise - at that time, they mainly used electronic noise as a supplementary backdrop to their musical techniques. In that respect, Kraftwerk's debut may be called innovative: the band took one aspect of early Krautrock and developed it to "full form". But they developed it to an absurd form, too, and a very primitive form at that. The electronic noise which Can would produce just a few months later on Tago-Mago would blow these caveman sounds away (even if I can't call myself an 'Augmn' fan either).

So is this stuff really "cool"? I don't think so. See, while all the "industrial noise" aspects are already implicitly present in Kraftwerk's sound, they haven't yet worked out their schtick. In too many ways, this is similar to George Harrison's Electronic Sound - 'let's try out this knob, see what it can do'. There's no musical philosophy behind this stuff yet, no "human robots", no "industrial music", nothing like that. Just a bunch of guys happy with their array of synthesizers. Oh yeah, I could say that it's all "dark", "creepy", "ominous", etc., but you know, there's a certain background to everything. Did I already mention Can? I suppose I should also mention Amon Düül II's Yeti that came out before this; now that one was a really creepy album, with complex, fascinating music alternating with carefully thought-out noisy parts, all based on immaculate production (Kraftwerk's debut sounds like it was produced in somebody's basement). I suppose some might speak of "genial simplicity", but hell, if this is genius, then everything is. This is crap trying to pass itself for genius. Yeah, it is significant historically - as the beginning of that lengthy chain that led to Kraftwerk's "classic" period (Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express, etc.), and then led to Bowie's Berlin trilogy and eventually to robotic synth-pop (well, that one's not that good an idea), but it certainly sucks by itself, especially when taken in the context of the more complex, atmospheric, and truly innovative Krautrock like Amon Düül II and Can surrounding it. Yeah, I realize the whole idea was to pursue a more 'minimalistic' pattern, and that this album is a direct inheritor of Terry Riley etc. etc. etc., but I look to music for emotional power and thrill, not "knowledge", and there's hardly any true thrill here.

That said, I really like 'Ruckzuck', at least the more musical parts of it. It has that steady, gripping German beat and excellent flute parts - almost in an Ian Anderson way. Kicks tons of ass for sure. Unfortunately, after some time it goes away, replaced by chaos, but it comes back at the very end to tease you some more. And the ending of 'Vom Himmel Hoch' is pretty gruesome too (in a good sense) - that's where the "robots" really come in. But believe me, I'm not gonna sit through all the synth boredom again in order to get to the better parts.



Year Of Release: 1972

Okay, arguably this is even worse than the Organisation debut. Subjectively speaking, this is minimalistic crap passed for high art and while I'm pretty sure certain people will be ready to kill anybody refusing to admit this album's genius, these people are twats. I have barely managed to sit through this twice and I'm definitely not going to risk a third time. Apparently, Hutter and Schneider decided that even with all the minimalism of the previous record, it was still saying too much, so Kraftwerk II doesn't say anything at all. Based on Terry Riley's legacy, the band transforms their second record into a celebration of repetitive tape loops and noise loops that a two-year old could have put together to better effect.

Ever heard 'Kling Klang'? It opens with a disjointed series of kling klangs indeed and then goes into a primitive synth loop that proceeds to bug you for seventeen minutes - sometimes it transforms into something else (usually a similar loop with a different melody), sometimes it gets a wee bit sped up or distorted, according to the famous Kraftwerk philosophy of building up a cyclic 'groove' and then playing with the loud/quiet, fast/slow, etc., effects, but essentially it's all the same. Oh, surely it is influential - no doubt about that. For instance, the Who's 'Baba O'Riley' is based on a similar synth loop - and, by the way, the tune itself partially borrows its name from Terry Riley. But take away 'Baba O'Riley's melody and singing and leave just the loop for seventeen minutes. What do you get? A genuine Kraftwerk epic.

Another Kraftwerk epic is 'Wellenlange' ('wavelength', is it?). Let me try to describe it. You put a guitar-imitating effect on your synthesizer, then start pressing the knobs one by one and putting on a 'slide' effect and a couple echos. The sequence and the pauselength between pressings don't matter. This goes on for five lengthy minutes, during which the only thing to detract you from the waves is a gentle bass pattern in the background. The next five minutes are just the same, only the bass pattern is faster and the echos longer. In this way, Kraftwerk successfully predict Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon, which would be based on the same principles of endless repetition (only there, the synth background patterns would be going on for more than sixty minutes). Only where TA was at least pretty, plus, it was never intended for anything else but background effects, 'Wellenlange' is tedious and frustrating.

But that's not all. As a bonus, you get a lot of shorter "compositions", none of which make any sense. 'Atem' ('Breath') is three minutes of breath - probably a synth imitation of breath, or maybe an amplification of somebody's real breath, I can't tell. Very avantgarde, but not exactly something within my personal paradigm of values. 'Strom' is perhaps the most 'musical' experience on here, but as far as I can tell, the main theme has even less notes than 'Kling Klang'. 'Spule 4' is a quiet, unobtrusive collage of random noises. And 'Harmonika' is a three-minute obtrusive collage of synth and harmonica notes.

Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against avantgarde per se. But I really hate it when somebody gets so outrageously avantgarde that he breaks the essence of music itself. Music is not noise, after all; you can make music out of noise, but in order to do that, you have to follow certain rules. Kraftwerk did realize this, eventually, because their following albums are far more listenable than this nonsense; but Kraftwerk II is the peak of their self-indulgence. That said, I can visualize a person who would sincerely dig this album - not just as a matter of showing off - but that wouldn't be for musical reasons. Some people could see a special kind of "sonic philosophy" in all this: exploration of sound, the way sound relates to the brain, etc., etc. I'm not going to touch on these subjects as my primary criterion is - music should be enjoyed and felt with the heart, destined for direct emotional impression, certainly not presented as some kind of philosophic treatise. So get this stuff out of my way, and get on with the big Autobahn breakthrough.



Year Of Release: 1973

What happened? What the frig? Kraftwerk actually making music? Like - you know, music? Real music? Chord sequences and danceable rhythms and tonalities and all? GODDAMN FUCKIN' SELLOUTS!!!!!

No no, of course, I'm joking. On the contrary, I think that Ralf & Florian marks a turning point in the band's development: realizing that bunches of anti-musical industrial noise will only lead to a dead end, the boys decided to revolutionize music in a new way. Granted, I am not an expert, but if this is not the very first true "Electronica" genre record put out by anybody, it certainly gotta rank up there with the very first ones. You could argue, of course, that Kraftwerk were mainly just expanding on stuff like Pete Townshend's synthesizer loops on Who's Next; but "expanding" on something is just as innovative as actually "inventing" something, after all. Didn't the Beatles "expand" on British pop music and American rock'n'roll?

That said, I can't say I like the record as much as whatever followed it, still. With all their dedication, Kraftwerk were still struggling to find their style and the perfect place to apply their talents, and most of the songs don't exactly cut it for me. The biggest problem with the album is that nothing really goes on, whether we're talking of the shorter tracks or of the longer ones. This is the typical Kraftwerk bane, yes, but here it's particularly visible: if you've heard twenty seconds from each of these songs, you may consider yourself as having heard all of them. So it's "proto-ambient" music as well, but it's a poor case of "proto-ambient". Ambient music has to be soothing; the things that Ralf and Florian do on here are not at all soothing...

...well, apart from the final track, the lengthy 'Ananas Symphonie' which is very cool indeed. You can almost see where Brian Eno took so many of his ideas from (except that Eno improved on the formula by improving production values even further). At its fourteen minutes, it's hardly overlong because, well, it has to function as an ambient track, and when you have an ambient track, the length doesn't matter - you can shut it off any time you like, but in a perfect situation, you'll patiently wait for it to end, because you should be so entranced you'd simply forget to push the stop button at the right minute. Plus, let's not forget that 'Ananas Symphonie' actually consists of two parts: midway through, a nice mid-tempo rhythm steps in and you get a pleasant balladeerish shuffle. And don't forget that it's partially guitar-based, too, which is such a rarity for Kraftwerk. Yeah, the track will probably lull you to sleep, but that's the point of ambient music. "Why does that music make me wanna doze off, man?" "It's SUPPOSED to, silly!"

Apart from that, I don't have anything particularly welcome to say about the album. Atmospheric, isn't it? It is. Moody, too, cool, calm and relaxed, but even the most relaxing and soothing tracks on the first side are so short and so poorly produced that I find it difficult to praise them. Well, I guess 'Heimatklange' with its soft piano/flute patterns is kinda cute, but I'd better it be included as a third part into 'Ananas Symphonie'.

The other tracks, by the way, are somewhat more disturbing... guess I shouldn't have used the plural when speaking of the 'most relaxing and soothing tracks'. 'Elektrisches Roulette' is chaotic and swirling, but it seems like a song that can't determine where it goes - one second it wants to be a quiet and 'introspective' number, the next moment it gets a crashing drum pattern and almost starts 'rocking'. In a very insecure and unconvincing way. What the...? 'Tongebirge' just gets us a lot of flute racket and synth cackling which is probably innovative but give me Jethro Tull over this any time of day. 'Kristallo' bounces along, driven by furious dissonant synthesizer solos, but the band sounds as if they were sleepwalking - no concentration whatsoever. Finally, 'Tanzmusik'... well, it doesn't even claim to be ambient (the title speaks for itself), and by today's standards it hardly sounds different from a young caveman beating out a tribal anthem on a stone drum. That was a metaphor, of course. I'm not saying that Kraftwerk were cavemen. Everybody knows Kraftwerk were androids.

In any case, while R&F is truly a vast improvement over the show-offey noisemaking of the band's first albums, it still doesn't amount to much; nice as a historical curiosity, but hardly worth repeated listenings. I'm not the kind of cruel soulless guy who says that Kraftwerk should be respected as innovators, but their music has awfully dated - albums like Man Machine still sound positively awesome, even today. But unfortunately, I can't say the same about Ralf & Florian. Sorry. Consider my lips sealed by the seal of Solomon.



Year Of Release: 1974/

Ah! Sehr gut, meine Herren. Schliesslich anfangen Kraftwerk zu... eh, sorry, been listening to the "fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn" too long. Anyway, to use some particularly mellow expressions, zis is vhere Ralph und Florian finally beginnen zu pull their Dummkopf out of their Hintern... and make a perfectly good album. Okay, not "perfectly" - I doubt that Kraftwerk ever made a perfect album, but this one's a good one.

Basically, Kraftwerk weren't without talent, but what they sorely needed was a sense of purpose - their first two or three albums were just bunches of avantgarde noise and that's it. Ralf & Florian was slightly more concentrated, but it was still all over the place and lacked any particular direction. When it was rhythmic, the noise could at least be passed for enigmatic music; when it was chaotic (like on most of Kraftwerk II), it was absolutely untolerable. Autobahn brings this purpose to the listener, on the wings of freedom. And that purpose? Why, to make the listener realise the unrealised, experience the unexperienced, uncover the covered, penetrate the impenetratable, grasp the ungraspable... eh, sorry.

Not that I'm wrong (I just got carried away): the "music" of Autobahn is really very intriguing and thought-provoking. The eternal honours mostly go to the title track which was even a European hit in edited form, but hell if I know how this twenty-two minute electronic freakout could ever be edited without completely ruining the experience. Okay, so maybe it could be edited - take away four or five or even ten minutes of it and it will still be a lot of fun, but reduce it to a single? It's supposed to represent a twenty-minute voyage on the autobahn, after all. At three minutes, you'd not get any further than a suburban supermarket.

Well, single or no single, it mostly rules. Legend has it that Kraftwerk actually rolled along the highway themselves with a microphone stuck out of the window and recorded all the highway sounds which were later incorporated into the final product. All kinds of squeaks, puffs, wind flashing as the other cars speed by, and all excellently incorporated into the main repetitive rhythm of the road. And over it, from time to time, come the glorious lines "wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn" which the English audiences were probably mistaking for "fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn" and thus acquiring direct analogies with the Beach Boys' 'Fun Fun Fun' - well, originally I acquired one, too, and I don't suppose it wasn't intentional. The whole experience doesn't really require any serious getting into - either you buy into this kind of paranoid electronic trance at once or you don't buy into it at all. I buy into it, because I find it creative, innovative and, well, fun. It also presents the whole 'tripping picture' in a completely new light - a brilliant mix of futurism with psychedelia.

The second side is certainly not as gripping, yet still a serious improvement over Kraftwerk II. The two 'Kometenmelodien' are interesting, atmospheric collages (and I mean true atmospheric collages - you really get the impression of comets slowly and solemnly advancing through the sky), 'Mitternacht' ('Midnight') is creepy like the title suggests, and 'Morgenspazierung' is impressive - I find the idea of 'electronic birds' singing over 'electronic winds' and 'electronic waters', all against a melody of real flute, quite invigorating. Can't give this a higher rating than three and a half stars, though, because repetitiveness is repetitiveness and quite often I just find my attention slipping away onto other things, but then again, maybe that's the point?

So what happened? The Big Breakthrough - like some young boys who grew out of their childish silliness period and started finally working with a clear and rational aim. And a clear and rational aim, when combined with talent, is precisely what it takes to pump out solid product. Note, also, that Autobahn is the last Kraftwerk album that doesn't rely exclusively on synthesizers: bits of guitar and flute crop up from time to time, so if you're particularly pissed off with all of their "robotic image", you might as well try this one. An epochal record indeed, and I'm not even going to cite all of the things it influenced. Hah! Can you imagine the Pet Shop Boys or Duran Duran without Autobahn? Okay, maybe I shouldn't have started on that one...



Year Of Release: 1975

Slightly disappointing - stylistically, this is a little bit of a retread towards the minimalist dissonance and noisemaking of the band's earliest period. While Kraftwerk can't be really accused of packing up too many different musical ideas in one go even during their most creative peaks, Radio-Aktivitat (there's also an English version of the album, but on my version the title and all the song titles are in German) is far worse than whatever followed. Only the title track and perhaps three or four others have distinct and real melodic themes in all; the rest is, well, collaged together. More pseudo-industrial crap?

Not quite, because this pseudo-industrial crap actually makes sense: this concept album is dedicated to the exact topic stated in the album title. Or, rather, exact topics: Ralph and Florian cleverly utilize the ambivalent meaning ('radioactivity' vs. 'Radio Activity') to explore subjects that are related either to the problems of nuclear fission ('Geiger Counter', 'Uranium'), or to the problems of radio and its influence of people (most of the other tracks), or to both at the same time ('Nachrichten' = 'News', where a report on Germany's upcoming atomic power program is read on the radio). The tracks really convey certain moods and flow together quite fine - even sequences like 'Radio Sterne', with just a few deep booming vocal lines repeated over and over again to the rhythmic pulsation of synthesizers and an eerie organ humdrumming, have their justification. One could argue that such stuff can't be rated as music, but in this particular context, this is just a statement of fact rather than an actual accusation. And 'Die Stimme Der Energie' ('The Voice Of Energy') is another step forward for Kraftwerk - this is where the famous 'robotic voice' makes its first apparition. Creepy apparition, too - I love it how they make that hideous voice so hoarse. Now this is one robot that sorely needs some Menthol, heh heh. And finally, 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' is hilarious: a triple word-game, because of a) 'home sweet home'; b) 'ohm' = measure of current resistance, important for electricity and Radio Activity; c) 'ohm' = 'Om', directly hinted at by the solemn mantraic (and robotic) chanting of the title. Say what you will, these guys certainly had a nice sense of humor. For a German, that is. At times.

Still, this is all gimmickry - intelligent and innovative as it is. The actual musical themes are what counts, and they are certainly not that hot. Now okay, I'll be the first to admit that the title track is a true and just Kraftwerk classic and a worthy sequel to the main theme of 'Autobahn'. It is indeed hard to believe that the track was written in 1975: it sounds like the true prototype for just about all the synth-pop and dance music of the Eighties and partly of the Nineties. Just speed it up a little and add a bit more gloss, and there you go. However, the two other slow drones, 'Radioland' and the main musical part of 'Ohm Sweet Ohm', have nothing in the way of memorability ('Radio-Aktivitat' did have that marvelous synth riff, after all), and while they're not tremendously overlong to bore the heaven out of me, they don't add anything interesting to the German canon. In fact, the only other number that somehow approaches high musical quality on here is 'Antenna', which hides a pretty nifty pop melody behind all the hi-tech synths. The rest is... ehh... curious.

Count it as such, therefore: a star and a half for the title track, a half star more for 'Antenna', and a whole star for being interesting, unlike, say, Kraftwerk 2. I don't really mention 'innovative' here, because it goes without saying that most of the things Kraftwerk did in the Seventies were quite innovative. The funniest thing, of course, is that what with all the seriousness on one side, and all the veiled humor and lightweightness on the other, you can't really get the message these guys are trying (or pretending to be trying) to push through. Is 'Radio Activity' actually a positive or a negative side of life? On the surface, it seems rather negative; but running deeper, it would be a very hard chore to call the album 'gloomy' or 'pessimistic'. On the contrary, it seems to be one of Kraftwerk's cheeriest records ever - yes, and don't you forget that even the robot gets a sore throat. Perhaps these guys were just trying to tell us the exact same thing they'd always been stating in their interviews - 'machines are here to stay, and machines are all right as long as they're controlled by humans, which they will most certainly always be'. Perhaps I got a part of that message wrong, but I'd like to think otherwise.



Year Of Release: 1977

This is just one of those epochal and tremendously historically important records that time hasn't spared all that much, in my opinion. Arguably the best-known and most universally revered work by Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express was, at the same time, a great musical progression and a great curse for everything that would come in its heed. Basically, this is the album where everything comes together for Kraftwerk: the cold robotic beat of old is finally tamed and made to work perfectly, and their mechanical rhythmic pulsing reaches a peak... and is also responsible for those millions of crappy, worthless synth-pop outfits that had flooded the airwaves, TV shows and minds of the younger generation in the Eighties. True, this is the genre that gave us Eurhythmics, but it's also the genre that eventually gave us Modern Talking (at least us the Europeans - the Americans seem to have luckily missed on that hideousness), and believe me, there were definitely more Modern Talkings in the Eighties than there were Eurhythmics.

Anyway, back to the album in question. My damned MP3 version of it misses one composition, dedicated to that old Schubert guy; I'm still guessing whether it was a big loss or not, but at least everything else stays firmly in place. And that everything else is five lengthy, never-ending electronic drones that a) all sound good and b) all go on for so long that I'm ready to howl. What I mean is: they all sound good, because they are all atmospheric and they are all based on slightly different patterns and moods that prevents the record from being truly monotonous. But they don't develop all that much - in fact, they don't develop at all, as Kraftwerk just dig into the groove at the very beginning and don't add anything to that groove during all of the song's length, be it eight or ten minutes. Now it would be one thing if these compositions were defiantly 'ambient' - having to assimilate Brian Eno records has resulted in my exaggerated tolerance towards such things - but they're not ambient at all, they bounce and bop, and are supposedly just innocent neat thingies to which you're supposed to do your beloved variation of break dance or whatever you prefer to do with all those flexible parts of your body. It's, like, 'reflective dance music', and I hate that kind of thing. You either reflect, or you dance. Why pass these compositions for 'serious art', then?

Now this is where the, ehh, historical importance comes in. See, nobody wrote stuff like that in 1977. Not David Bowie, who is warmly mentioned in the title track ('from station to station to Dusseldorf/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie'), not the ex-Beatles, not the punk generation, definitely not the disco masters like the Bee Gees, and not even any of the other Krautrockers: sure, Can were also reprofiling themselves towards all these 'weird dance' rhythms, but they never sounded as robotic, as synth-based, as mechanic and monotonous as Kraftwerk. So it's only natural that, well, you know... you know how it goes. The album really shocked the minds and was proclaimed an immediate masterpiece. But since then, the synth-pop genre has been mastered by just about everybody, and even some of Kraftwerk's own later albums were better as far as pure musical quality goes. That's why the typical reaction of today can only be something like 'EH?'

That said, the basic themes of the album are still good, and I have no problem whatsoever in giving this stuff the coveted three and a half stars. The main synth riff of 'Europe Endless' is hilarious - almost like a Leisure Suit Larry theme or something. (But nine minutes? Man!). 'The Hall Of Mirrors', with its stern, philosophic atmosphere and the chilly refrain ('Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass'), definitely rules; you just have to set the atmospher right for it - you know, darkness, headphones, brief candles, the usual shit, and it GETS you. 'Showroom Dummies' is a nice swing at the world of showbiz, with a few more memorable synth riffs. And the medley of 'Trans Europe Express'/'Metal On Metal', while it has absolutely no right to drag on for, like, fifteen minutes or so, is also based on certain memorable ideas.

Come to think of it, the only thing that completely butchers this stuff is the length. This is not ambient material, nor is it dynamic prog rock. Just gimme some breathin' space, right? So perhaps if you wanna have a better taste of it, you should be seeking out some singles from this album - Kraftwrk actually took care to abridge the title track and put it on a 12-inch. There's also a TEE EP release, I believe, with both the full-length and the short-length version. Whatever. I'm not a big expert over the extremely complex Kraftwerk discography (with all those parallel German and English versions, too - starting from TEE, most of their records actually came out in both languages), but perhaps it would be wiser to become your acquaintance with the band by acquiring a handful of single releases.



Year Of Release: 1978

It took Kraftwerk seven years to deliver their masterpiece, but they did deliver it. Simply put: if you only want one synth-pop album to own, choose this one, as it adequately corresponds to the following two conditions: a) it is pure, undiluted synth-pop and b) it rules mercilessly.

It's not exactly flawless: the songs still go on for far too long from time to time, but I really couldn't care less, as the grooves are so impeccable. Obviously, the band was going in a more commercial direction, with less 'excessive' noise, tighter, snappier arrangements and relatively simpler messages. But that's all right: they were simply reinstating the balance between experimental and accessible. The Man Machine perfects and completes Kraftwerk's main philosophical message: the gradual dehumanization of mankind and art in particular. The music itself they used to describe as 'beauty with a touch of horror', and they really hit the bullseye with that one: on one hand, 'robotization' illustrates the triumph of intellect and the perfection of human knowledge, on the other hand, it's the loss of soul and emotionality we're actually dealing with. An old topic, but presented in a different and exciting manner.

And nowhere else is it as visible as in the lead-in track, 'The Robots', which is my favourite Kraftwerk song of all time, simply put. The repetitive main riff is 'beauty with a touch of horror' indeed, and the main vocal melody is insanely catchy and insanely spooky - and I would never believe that monotonous electronically encoded chanting of the line 'we are the robots' could ever send shivers down my spine. It CAN. It's creepy. Damn those pesky Germans with their nightmarish vision! Funny thing is, the song also features a few lines of Russian ('Ja tvoj sluga, ja tvoj rabotnik' = 'I am your servant, I am your worker'). Why Russian? Did they mean Czech? (As far as I know, it was the Czech writer Karel Capek that first introduced the word 'robot').

The ominous darkness of 'Robots' is then replaced by the 'romantic darkness' of 'Spacelab', a quiet, somewhat soothing instrumental based on tape loops and weird 'astral' noises - a good illustration to a routine spacecraft working process. Could have made a great addition to a Space Quest movie soundtrack. I don't like it nearly as much as its follow-up, though, which is the depressing, gray-tone 'Metropolis': this time, Kraftwerk descend from heaven upon Earth to picture the dull, colourless, lifeless existence of a large city, obviously populated by robots. Eh?

'The Model' is one superb pop tune, very appealing for the consumer and very transparent as to its message (actually, that same lyrical topic was already explored in 'Showroom Dummies' and several other songs). One can only wonder that while Hutter and Schneider could write songs that catchy and impressive, they preferred to spend years doing that avantgarde industrial crap. Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm very close-minded. I'm also braindead. But if I go down, Herren Hutter und Schneider will have to go down with me! Hear that? It's all or nothing! 'The Model' is a great song, wish I could pound out such a brilliant synth riff.

'Neon Lights' confuse me. Also catchy, also atmospheric, but... but... it's a cheerful song? Optimistic atmopshere? Major keys? What the hell is that? Selling out on the track before last? But golly gee, am I glad it's there. After the depression and spookiness of the previous stuff, this one's a real joy to listen to. Except that I don't see any particular reason for it to go on for nine minutes, apart from the space-filling thing. The only reason I docked the album half a star - next time I listen to this album, free from the shackles of reviewing, I'll remorselessly skip the second half of the song. So there! Because I can't wait to get to the title track, which reverts us to the atmosphere of 'The Robots' for the reasons and in the ways which I'm sure you can already imagine.

Damn that Kraftwerk, of course. Damn 'em! It's them that are responsible for the fact that so many lameass 'performers' said: 'Wow, these guys are just bashing out a few primitive synth riffs and thinking of themselves as robots and they're so popular! I wanna be like them!' Except they all missed the 'genial simplicity' of Kraftwerk and went on to bash out primitive synth riffs indeed... Buy this album, please. It's genius. It makes me breathe a sign of relief - thank God I didn't lose faith in Kraftwerk halfway through to it. I knew there was something to it.



Year Of Release: 1981

Left... right... control A... access denied... oops, sorry, 'scuse me for a bit while I shut my inner robot down. Okay, now that we got 'er fixed, where were we? Oh yes. Computer World, one of Kraftwerk's most popular albums. I have both the German and the English version if it, but I'm kinda used to the German version more, so bear with me! And besides, you can study some regular correspondences between German and English phonetics.

Anyway, Computerwelt is significantly different from its predecessor. It is, at the same time, more and less commercial. Less, because it is nowhere near as clearly dissected into separate song sections: the album has to be taken as one conceptual whole, there's no way you can tear out something like 'The Robots' or 'The Model' and successfully market it as an independent single. And the tracks themselves are 'electronic grooves' rather than 'electronic songs' - the lyrics are kept to an absolute minimum, while the tape loops are kept to a maximum. But it is also more commercial, because stylistically, Kraftwerk move closer and closer to the abysmal Eighties' synth-pop style - most of this stuff is highly danceable and excellently suited for club music. It's still inventive and risky music, but it also uncovers the main weakness of Eighties' Kraftwerk: what was once daring, revolutionary and unimaginable in the hands of anybody else is now rapidly becoming the NORM in popular music. The New Wave bands are arising, synthesizers, loops, drum machines and robotic incantations are now practiced by anybody. Even the Police include 'em now, and I'm not speaking of Ultravox! And Devo? They're not already there, they're on their way out already!

Which leaves Ralf und Florian in a really complicated position. After all, they were never the God-sent geniuses like Lennon and McCartney; for them, it was much harder (probably) to keep their heads up among a sea of competitors than it was for the Beatles, who found themselves in a somewhat similar position from around 1967. Yet for some time, they bravely crept on, and made their last commercially successful album.

Which isn't really bad, but, in my humble opinion, leaves a lot to be desired. Kraftwerk really went out of themselves to overhype this release. The original liner notes explicitly stated that this was music that could have been made by real robots, except that so far the robots weren't technically capable yet to make it, and as if simulating "robotic behaviour" on stage wasn't enough, Kraftwerk's live shows at that time included the band performing at the back of the stage with their 'robotic twins' standing in front and simulating performance. However, the actual quality of the music doesn't quite live up to the hype. It's... it's merely okay. Completely devoid of any kind of emotional response, too - and I don't mean that in a good way; I know this kind of music is expected to be non-emotional, but well-written non-emotional music (as on 'The Robots') is supposed to shock through its "non-emotionality", while the tunes on Computerwelt are just a bit boring.

The main theme has a nice vibe to it, and a synth pattern that's as memorable as anything, but the groove doesn't develop at all throughout its five minutes (or the reprise section either) and leaves a feeling of unfulfilled purpose. 'Nummern' ('Numbers'), which in parts sounds exactly like the intro to Paul McCartney's electronic experiment 'Temporary Secretary', has some novelty value but not more than that. 'Heimcomputer' ('Home Computer') is a bit more interesting because it at least has different sections to its groove, but all of these sections have their funny curious side, on one hand, and their dinky stupid side, on the other. And the closing number 'It's More Fun To Compute' is thoroughly unremarkable... well, then again, basically it's just a third reprise of the main theme.

Which leaves us with two really good songs - 'Taschenrechner' ('Pocket Calculator') has a brief vocal melody, a couple well-constructed synth riffs and is in general built on ridiculing all of these tiny squeaky sounds that can be produced by calculators; and 'Computer Liebe' ('Computer Love'), predicting the widespread practice of cybersex by a dozen years or so, has some really pretty themes to it, although I gotta say that being put in the context of all the emotionless stuff doesn't bode well for its memorability. But if you just swoosh it from the album, it hardly does anything without the context, so that's a dead end.

So. in general, it's the monotonousness and similarity of all the tracks that kills off the desired effect - and since Kraftwerk hate musical climaxes, you're in for one lengthy smooth boring ride. However, it's also one of the most modern-sounding and therefore least dated CDs, so if you're really into contemporary electronica, you might find it a real gas. Me, I dunno. I just think they said it all with Man Machine, and this one is just a semi-successful attempt at catching up with Ultravox and the like.



Year Of Release: 1986

A five-year layoff now, and by 1986, the last thing the world needed was another Kraftwerk album. Their motives had been acquired, their ideas reworked, their melodies recycled and their image re-developed by countless other bands. No wonder, then, that Electric Cafe became the last album of original material by the band - it's actually more weird that they decided to go in and do it after all.

The results aren't bad, but they aren't that much good either. This time, there ain't even no "robotic" concept. It's an album of dance tunes, and while the melodies and beats on here have enough twists and unpredictable effects and gimmicks to reassure you that they still retain some of their intelligence and avantgardeness, it is obviously a major sellout in its essence, and worse, it ain't innovative in the least. It's Kraftwerk catching up with the blossoming techno and industrial scene rather than vice versa this time. Do they manage? Well... maybe. But is it that important? Not really.

The album is clearly divided in two parts. Side A is the "rhythmic" backbone, and Side B provides the melodicity. Side A pretty much stinks. Not so much because I hate the actual sonic occurrences on it, rather because the number of ideas is drastically limited for such a lengthy suite (the three numbers, 'Boing Boom Tschak', 'Techno Pop', and 'Musique Non-Stop', should be simply considered as 'part numbers' for one uninterrupted rhythmic groove). They do establish a couple of interesting and witty proto-techno rhythms here, and the way the overdubbed voices go 'boing boom tschak boing boom tschak' is hilarious. But sixteen minutes of incessant proto-techno pounding is just about too much for a man like me to take. If it's a danceable groove, take it to your nearest techno club and go with it (although to say that this kind of rhythmics souds painfully dated in the XXIst century would be a grand understatement). If it's an 'artsy-ambitioned' composition, gimme more ideas, don't just hammer your stupid techno stuff around. 'Music non stop, techno pop'. I get the message already.

Side B is much better, but still not up to the level of their classic period. 'The Telephone Call' is another attempt to make a danceable pop hit in the 'Model' vein, but this time it just sounds WAY too dinky. Even the actual synth patterns, which sounded positively ominous on 'Model', are generic and uninspired, not to mention botheringly repetitive, and only the 'telephone vibe', with all kinds of bleeps and beeps, salvage the song. 'Sex Object' at least has some energy and real drive to it, plus a strange orchestral riff (I do hope these are synths, right? You don't want to say these are, like, real violins?) that's puzzling and intriguing.

And finally, there's the title track which is the only song on here I'd be happy to include on any comprehensive Kraftwerk compilation. It's presented like a, uhm, manifesto of some sort, announcing the arrival of the new 'atomic era' (in French and Italian, for some reason), and with it, of course, the 'musique rhythmique' and 'son mechanique', as if 1986 were the first year to feature "mechanic sound". But never mind, it's just a moody and somber tune with brooding synthesizer shades, a strange squeaky voice that keeps squealing 'electric cafe', and the Kraftwerk guys majestically reciting their new values. It's catchy, it's impressive, it works, in short, and adds up to the rating.

Which still isn't that grand. Kraftwerk had essentially been caught into their own trap! A wicked trap. Once, these guys were the savants and the ones who held the true wisdom. The elite, the progressive ones. Now they're just one of the multiple grains of sand in a mass culture pandemonium. And the cruel and mercyless irony of it all is that they pushed themselves into that trap, with nobody to stimulate or force 'em. Yeah, Kraftwerk betrayed the esoteric secrets of their arts! One of the first, they steered electronica towards the masses, and the masses caught up on that, and the masses weren't forgiving or forgetting.

Then again, we could just let go and take it all in a more easy way. Mass culture has been active before Kraftwerk and after Kraftwerk, and if they hadn't steered electronic music into that haven, somebody else definitely would. The good point is, they have The Man Machine behind them, and this 'Electric Cafe' thing (the song) ain't too bad either. And, hell, they did have positive influence... look at, uh, The Orb, I dunno. The crap will die out anyway. But don't bother with this here album. Part of it IS crap, and the other part ain't nothing I'd trade my left nostril for, either.


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