Kraftwerk

Much of Kraftwerk's output is hardly what you'd call ambient, but their technological innovation and machine minimalism has informed some of ambient music's sources - art rock, electro lounge, ambient techno - in a myriad of ways. Much electronic music in the new century would be unthinkable without them and no collection of electronica can even approach completeness without at least a couple of these albums.

artist:
Kraftwerk

country of origin:
Germany

style(s):
Synthpop, ambient, electro, Krautrock, experimental

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Kraftwerk 2 (1972)
  • Ralf And Florian (1973)
  • Autobahn (1974, Warner Bros)
  • Trans Europe Express (1977, Capitol)
  • Man Machine (1978, Capitol)
  • Computer World (1981, Warner Bros)

Reviewed by Mike G

From the shiny synth pop of The Human League and Ultravox to the metronomic machine beats and metallic synthesised strings of Detroit techno, the legacy and influence of Kraftwerk resonates deeply throughout modern music. Much of their output is hardly what you'd call ambient, but their technological innovation and machine minimalism has informed some of ambient music's sources - art rock, electro lounge, ambient techno - in a myriad of ways. Much electronic music in the new century would be unthinkable without them and no collection of electronica can even approach completeness without at least a couple of these albums.

Kraftwerk took the synthesiser and made it an explicitly rhythmic instrument. They were the first, and in usurping the traditional drum kit with electronic beats they fundamentally changed modern music. Like the Berlin-based Tangerine Dream, the music of their formative years was inspired by Pink Floyd and a host of classical avant-garde sources including minimalist composer Terry Riley and, particularly, fellow German Karl Stockhausen.

But while many of the Berlin bands explored psychedelia, over in Dusseldorf Kraftwerk eventually chose the path of clarity. They made electronica rhythmic, sparse and precise. The music was a both a powerful reflection of the industrial environment of their Dusseldorf home and a remarkably prescient vision of the coming techno and computer age. The band's technological bent was matched by their physical appearance: clean cut, well-dressed technicians whose image on successive album covers eventually metamorphosed into robotic mannequins. Today their music sounds startlingly, brilliantly ahead of its time.

Early albums

The creative nucleus of the band was always classical music students Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, who first worked together in the late 1960's in a band called The Organisation. After releasing the rather self-indulgent album Tone Float (1970) the pair departed The Organisation and reformed as Kraftwerk, taking their name from the German word for "power plant". Among their cohorts during the first few years under the Kraftwerk banner were guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger. Although this line-up was never officially recorded, the foursome did perform a number of live shows in 1971 playing material that resembled the ambient-industrial-psychedelic rock sound of Neu, the much-revered band that Dinger and Rother left to form soon afterwards.

Hutter and Schneider continued the band as a duo. The mostly-instrumental early albums Kraftwerk 2 (1972), the often ambient Ralf And Florian (1973) and the break-through album Autobahn (1974) chart an at times difficult but consistently fascinating course. Beginning with progressive rock stylings and avant-garde experiments in texture and dissonance, the smooth electropop for which the band is renowned gradually evolves over these albums. All three were recorded in nearby Cologne at the studios of legendary producer Conny Plank and at this stage the band's sound still included conventional instruments: organ, flute, electric guitar. But Kraftwerk 2 is also a watershed: all the drum sounds are generated by Schneider's homemade drum machine. This absence of acoustic percussion was something entirely new and paved the way for pop music generated entirely by electronic means.

The Autobahn album marked a surprising break into the Top 40 album charts. The hypnotic 20 minute-plus title track - with its computer-voice chorus, car sounds and soaring Moog synthesiser melody - was released as an edited single and became an unexpected hit in Europe and the USA. For the first time, here was clean electro beats being embraced by the mainstream. It's a revelation now to watch a video clip of the band performing the track on television in the mid-70's, surrounded by wires and banks of equipment while Schneider looks about and grins like a child who had just discovered a wonderful new toy. It was also extraordinary that in 1974 a hit record could be made by a European band that didn't model itself on the dominant UK/American rock bands of the day in order to court acceptance. It was also pop with a uniquely German stamp which had a significant grounding in the melodies of German classical and folk music.

Autobahn is essential for its title-track alone - the remainder of that album jumps back and forth uncertainly between the band's newly-fashioned pop sound and the more abstract experimental music of its earlier releases, as does the non-essential follow-up album Radioactivity (1975).

Three classics

The group's innovations are well and truly perfected on three standout albums: Trans Europe Express (1977), The Man Machine (1978) and their final masterwork Computer World (1981). By this stage the line-up had stabilised into a quartet with additional members Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos. Bartos had made history several years earlier by inventing his own electronic drum pads, while Flur's deep affinity with pop music had played a significant part in leading the band from their early avant-garde experiments into the pop mainstream they were now redefining. Also underrated but crucial to the band by this point were the contributions of conceptual and graphic artist Emil Schult, whose lyrics and cover design ideas expressed Kraftwerk's uniquely futurist vision.

The sound was now crisp, the beats utterly precise, the grooves surprisingly funky, and the textures as gleaming as a brand new Mercedes-Benz. The spare, repetitive rhythms and gorgeous looped melodies of the lengthy title suite from Trans Europe Express sounds like the minimalism of Terry Riley or Philip Glass removed from its avant-garde origins and placed in an entirely new context. The result? Electronic pop, a fusion of elements from disco and minimalism that Kraftwerk invented more or less single-handedly (but not quite - Italian producer Giorgio Moroder was also significant). Shorter tracks like "Europe Endless", "The Model" and the chilling "Hall Of Mirrors" are all fully realised songs featuring Hutter's deadpan and curiously affecting vocals. Banal vocal refrains like "I am the operator with my pocket calculator" pop up on occasion, but much of the music is instrumental and perhaps just as well. An album full of lines like that could easily become infuriating.

Later years

After Computer World, a minimalist masterpiece which shows Kraftwerk's clearest links to Detroit techno and its UK/European spin-offs, the group slowed down. Except for two mediocre studio albums and the odd single, no more new music has come from the band. Perhaps that's a good thing. By the mid-80's electro and synth-pop were everywhere and the ineffectual Electric Cafe (1986) suggested the group had little new to say. After nearly a 20-year gap the digital laptop music of Tour De France Soundtracks (2004) was pleasant enough but hardly cutting-edge in a world now changed utterly by the very techno and electronica which Kraftwerk inspired. Live shows and touring continued well into the new century, though by 2010 Hutter was the sole remaining member from the band's classic line-up.

Legacy

Indeed, today the band's legacy can be detected almost everywhere. It starts with the UK synth pop of the late 70's and 80's which in turn triggered the explosion in electronic dance music that followed. Modern dance music in all its diversity - particularly electro, house and techno - remains in one way or another fundamentally grounded the innovations of Kraftwerk and a handful of other German acts. For Kraftwerk that influence is particularly strong in a rhythmic sense but also, like Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, texturally and melodically too.

Kraftwerk's status only grows with each passing year, particularly in the techno community where knob-twiddlers from Detroit to Rotterdam continue to pay respects to the Dusseldorf quartet. In the band's 70's heyday the music was often dismissed as cold, soulless, technologically limited. But technology, and humankind's ambivalent embrace of it, was very much the point. Hindsight reveals a soul in the machine. "It's shocking to hear how emotional their music really was", said Q Magazine in a 1999 review of the re-released Man Machine. Indeed, the best of it has a simplicity, humanity and sly humour that’s aged beautifully.

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