Kraftwerk (German for “power station”) began in the electronic metal trend that erupted in Germany in the early 1970s. Although quiet in recent years, the four-piece synthesizer group showed amazing resiliency for more than fifteen years, tightening its electro-pop formula to fit smoothly into art-rock and, later, disco. Kraftwerk essentially created the sonic blueprint from which the British new romantic and techno-pop movements arose, and provided the essential technology for much of hip-hop.
Autobahn is built around an epic version of the title track, a bizarre hit single that broke the band as a commercial property in numerous countries. Enchanting in its simplicity, hypnotic in its construction, the song introduces the repetition typical of all Kraftwerk music, but the record’s other pieces are less inspired synthesizer noodling.
Radio Activity coincided with a change of image that sliced away beards and hair and converted Kraftwerk from aging hippies into modern sonic engineers; greater use of repetition and purposeful self-limitation is evident, though there is no breakthrough. Exceller 8 is a compilation.
The robotic Trans-Europe Express placed mechanistic aspects of the music up front, in a brilliant epiphany of style. Rhythms and themes recur throughout, with little emotion expressed in the vocals; lyrics emphasize the dehumanization suggested by the production and delivery. Recommended.
The Man Machine further builds on the developments of Trans-Europe Express, with the one humanizing effect — background music — yielding to Star Wars noises. More work with manipulated vocals — especially on the title track and “We Are the Robots” — takes the automaton stance to the limit. Despite the science fiction themes and heavy musical repetition, the album has inventive, catchy compositions and an eerie warmth. Highly recommended.
Computer World broke years of silence, bringing Kraftwerk into a world that had largely embraced and vindicated their social and musical visions. Technically advanced machinery yields sharper, brighter music, but otherwise Kraftwerk haven’t tampered with their style, except to shift their thematic content from science-fiction to industrial documentary. Excellent synthesizer pop.
The musics Kraftwerk helped launch — British post-rock industrial sounds and rhythm-is-everything dance grooves — come full circle on Side One of the long-awaited Electric Cafe. The virtually interchangeable “Technopop” and “Musique Non-Stop” take sparse, simple, unvarying percussion tracks and add bits of treated vocals, synthetic noises and quasi-instrumental effects. On the reverse are three straightforward (albeit numbingly repetitive) songs that use actual melodies, singing and lyrics. While the second side is certainly listenable, even Kraftwerk fans will find this brief album disappointingly short on ideas and content.
There are German-language versions of many, if not all, of Kraftwerk’s albums. There have also been several compilations released in the UK. In 1988, Kraftwerk signed with Elektra, which reissued some of its catalogue. The Mix is a drastically remixed best-of.
As the synthetic pop future that Kraftwerk foreshadowed became an omnipresent reality in the ‘90s, the band made sporadic concert appearances, performing for a growing cult that revered the reclusive Germans as the godfathers of “synthetic electronic sound” (to lift a line from Electric Café). Kraftwerk didn’t release any new studio recordings, though, until receiving a commission from Expo 2000 in Hanover. Originally developing the world fair jingle as computerized a cappella singing in six languages, they eventually expanded it into a full-fledged song. The Expo 2000 EP offers four Kraftwerk mixes of the song; Expo Remix consists of six outside revisions, including three mixes by Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance and one by Orbital.
While countless artists continued to take inspiration from Kraftwerk, developing its mekanik pop into a myriad of new styles, the quartet positioned itself as curators of the style and vision it originated. On Tour de France Soundtracks, its first album of new material in 17 years, Kraftwerk revisits the theme (and cover art) of its 1983 single “Tour de France,” beginning with three “Étape” tracks and concluding with a re-recording of the original song. The group adds a few modern techno flourishes to such tracks as “Aéro Dynamik” and “Titanium,” but mostly remains faithful (or hidebound, depending on the listener’s disposition) to its long-established style and aesthetic.
A live album from a group known for such meticulously programmed concerts would seem like an anachronism, but concert ambience imparts surprising warmth to the sound on Minimum-Maximum, a two-CD set recorded at various stops on Kraftwerk’s 2004 world tour. The material selection draws substantially from Tour de France Soundtracks, but also includes songs from all of the group’s studio albums all the way back to Autobahn, as well as “Planet of Visions,” another re-working of the “Expo 2000” theme. Much more than The Mix, Klang Box (a box set of 12-inch singles) or The Catalogue (a promotional-only box set of eight studio albums), Minimum-Maximum serves as a worthwhile sampler of Kraftwerk’s best songs, and a good introduction for newcomers to this pioneering band’s work.