Wednesday, April 24, 2013


The most influential and legendary progenitors of electronic music of the 20th century, Kraftwerk is the most direct ancestor of virtually all of today's dance and electronic-music trends. It is no overstatement to state that without Kraftwerk, dance music would not be the worldwide phenomenon it is today.

Together with other German Kraut-rock groups of the late 1970s like Neu, Can and Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk spawned a movement which later gave birth to ambient, house, techno, drum and bass, trance and a million other permutations of the dance genre. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kraftwerk would constantly push the envelope on electronic music further than any other act, until the 90s, when there was a noticeable slowdown in their output.

First formed as Organisation, an avant-garde ensemble by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, they later formed Kraftwerk and concentrated on utilising then-nascent synthesizer technology to create a unique brand of minimalist "robot pop".

Their first three albums, 'Kraftwerk 1', 'Kraftwerk 2' and 'Ralf and Florian', were basically experiments in making new shapes out of the fledgling electronic-music movement, with complex layers of effects, melodies and rhythms, bound together by an austere production style and a noticeable absence of any guitars or other "organic" instruments.

However, it was their fourth album, 'Autobahn', that signalled their first real breakthrough. Adding Wolfgang Flur and Klaus Roeder to their line-up, 'Autobahn' was Kraftwerk's first attempt at clear, discernible melodies; the title track was a repetitive, droney motif that nevertheless became a necessary standard in the Kraftwerk repertoire. An edit of the title track was a key hit in Britain in early 1975, and Autobahn is today widely regarded as one of the seminal works of the early electronic-music era.

Their fourth album 'Radioactivity', a concept album of sorts, exploring a broadcast-communication theme, was released in 1975. 'Radioactivity' utilised effects like static, interference and oscillation to enhance the overall thematic concept, encapsulated in songs like the melodic title track, the minimalist 'News' and the pulsating techno prototype 'Antenna'. It was also at the time of 'Radioactivity' that Roeder left the band, to be replaced by Karl Bartos. 'Radioactivity' was modestly acclaimed at the time of its release, but its radio-related samples are direct precursors to the modern era's widespread sampling culture.

The next Kraftwerk record has been cited as the most influential electronic-music album ever, and has been plundered endlessly for samples and ideas. 1977's 'Trans Europe Express' was, like its title, reminiscent of a futuristic train journey through Europe, taking in the sights and sounds with a cold, dispassionate robotic eye. Pristine, severe and mechanical to a fault, 'Trans Europe Express' included influential tracks like the whimsical 'Franz Schubert', the expansive 'Europe Endless', and perhaps most of all, the precise, propulsive, relentless advance of the awe-inspiring title track.

Riding on the massive 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', another classic electro-pop record containing influential singles like the detached, mechanical 'The Robots', the shimmering 'Neon Lights' and even a hit British single, the droll, radio-friendly 'The Model'. Kraftwerk concerts also started featuring robots on stage and machines that played themselves. It was increasingly hard to tell the humans from the machines.

Kraftwerk then took an extended leave and sequestered themselves away in their Klingklang Studios in Dusseldorf, denying requests for interviews and generally shunning human contact. This self-imposed exile was broken in 1981 with the release of 'Computer World', a bemused observation of a world ruled by rampant technology. It detailed the various facets of the modern world, including living in a 'Computer World', using a 'Pocket Calculator' and a 'Home Computer', and the tribulations of technologically aided romance in 'Computer Love', but overall, it was a noticeable step down from the futuristic majesty of 'Trans Europe Express' and the robotic frigidity of 'The Man Machine'.

After 'Computer World', Kraftwerk again ducked below the radar to spend a few more years in seclusion. They did emerge briefly for 1986's 'Electric Cafe', but it was a derivative, by-the-numbers work bereft of any innovative ideas, and certainly not coming close to match the past apexes of 'Autobahn', 'Trans Europe Express' and 'The Man Machine'. However, bright electro-pop tracks like 'Techno Pop' and 'Music Non Stop' did have their moments.

Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur left the band prior to the release of 1991's 'The Mix', a retrospective with a difference; all of the tracks had been remixed or redone. Quintessential Kraftwerk cuts on 'The Mix' included 'The Robots', 'Computer Love', 'Autobahn' and 'Trans Europe Express', and all were successfully remodelled, revamped and given an even more futuristic sheen. 'The Mix' was to be Kraftwerk's last known sighting for nearly a decade, before they quietly re-emerged in late 1999 for a single commemorating the Expo 2000 exhibition in Hanover, Germany, unimaginatively entitled 'Expo 2000'.

In 2003, 'Tour de France Soundtracks', the first Kraftwerk album in about 15 years finally appeared, albeit it contained mostly rehashes of the band's 1983 theme for the iconic Tour de France bicycle race. Nevertheless, it was welcomed with open arms by patient fans who thought they had seen the last of these Teutonic eccentrics.

Kraftwerk embarked on an extensive world tour in 2004, taking in Europe, the US and Japan, and released a commemorative double-disc live album the following year, 'Minimum-Maximum'. The live set featured sleek, updated versions of Kraftwerk classics like 'Trans Europe Express', 'Autobahn' and 'The Model', with a sprinkling of new tracks from 2003's 'Tour de France Soundtracks'.


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