Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Catalogue

Much like the veteran electronic-pop exponents themselves, this new collection, encompassing Kraftwerk's eight major-label albums, is expectedly sleek and technologically advanced, efficiently packaged in a handy, compact box that is conveniently compartmentalised to snugly hold each of the albums. Name a classic Kraftwerk album, and you'll find it here, with everything from 1974's historic record 'Autobahn', to 1977's scene-defining and artistically definitive 'Trans Europe Express', to 1981's commercially amicable 'Computer World', with each track on every album meticulously remastered and polished to a gleaming chrome finish.

'Autobahn' from 1974 marks the instance when Kraftwerk made the leap into the general consciousness of popular music, with its clean break from the free-flowing, proto-ambient textures of the band's preceding three self-titled albums. The indisputable highlight here is the mind-expanding 23-minute title track, with its effortlessly paced, insistently propulsive motorik rhythm, whimsical found-sound samples and naggingly familiar vocal refrain. Other tracks like the icily elegant 'Comet Melody' and the pastoral-sounding yet sample-driven 'Morning Walk' are competent enough, but hardly matching in cultural resonance to the 'Autobahn' composition.

The albums that followed 'Autobahn' saw the Teutonic outfit venturing into concept-album territory, with oftentimes astonishing and innovative results. 'Radioactivity' from 1975 explores the topic of broadcast communications, with tracks like the pulsating title track, the appropriately robotic 'The Voice of Energy' and the quirkily melodic 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' standing out. However, it is 1977's 'Trans Europe Express' that remains Kraftwerk's artistic magnum opus, a thematic record that pays tribute to modern-day rail travel. Pristine, severe and mechanical to a fault, 'Trans Europe Express' included influential tracks like the classically influenced 'Franz Schubert', the expansive, optimistic 'Europe Endless', and perhaps most of all, the precise, surging, relentless eight-minute title track.

Riding on the commercial success of 'Trans Europe Express', Kraftwerk shed all pretensions of being human, to the extent of publicly representing themselves as androids in publicity shots. This cold, clinical persona manifested itself perfectly in 1978's 'The Man Machine' and 1981's 'Computer World', concept records that contain bemused observations of a world ruled by rampant technology. Highlights from the former include the mechanical, inventive 'The Robots', the shimmeringly blissful 'Neon Lights' and even a hit British single, the droll, radio-friendly 'The Model'. The latter was marked by more accessible, radio-friendly grooves, as Kraftwerk expressed their concerns on living in a 'Computer World', using a 'Pocket Calculator' and a 'Home Computer', and bemoaned the tribulations of computer dating in 'Computer Love'.

Latter-day records like 1986's 'Techno Pop', 1991's 'The Mix' and 2003's 'Tour de France Soundtracks' might not be as culturally resonant as their predecessors, but they do comprise some notable moments that bear more than just a cursory listen. 'The Telephone Call' constitutes pure pop pleasure, without any of the usual cloying commercial whiff, 'AĆ©rodynamik' is a glossy piece of sequencer pop, and 'Vitamin' is Kraftwerk's conscious nod to downtempo ambient, one of the sub-genres spawned from their classic music. Mention should also be made of the fan favourite 'Tour de France', a kinetically propulsive musical representation of the titular bicycle race.

Serving as a digitally efficient reminder of Kraftwerk's futuristic electronic pop, 'The Catalogue' is potent and authoritative in its own way, with each of the albums here making a good case for these German brainiacs' important position in 20th-century music. The collection also acts as a comprehensive history lesson in how Kraftwerk's brand of music has influenced innumerable contemporary pop trends, with everything from synth-pop and new wave to the present-day electronica movement (and its various, seemingly endless permutations) owing their very existences to the sounds in these pioneering albums here. A highly essential box set for serious pop-music scholars, and a genuine boon to Kraftwerk enthusiasts seeking to replace their worn-out first-generation CDs of those venerated studio works.


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