Friday, November 20, 2009

Music Review: Kraftwerk Remastered - The Catalogue

With all the fuss about the Beatles' remastered box set coming out in September, few people have realized that another Fab Four are also releasing remastered albums this fall. Kraftwerk, the German godfathers of techno and electronic music, are coming out with their long-awaited box set, The Catalogue, this November. The English version comes out on November 23rd. However, I was crazy enough to order the German version (Der Katalog) from, which has already been released. This means I can give you an exclusive review and also have an excuse to write a short moderately-sized history of the group.

Why order the German version? Since 1977, Kraftwerk has released German and English editions of each of their albums, with the band providing their own lyrical translations. However, I have always preferred the German versions of the songs. Something about the German language provides a mechanical, robotic aura that the English versions just can't replicate. Perhaps it was because I was first exposed to Kraftwerk through their German stuff. Perhaps it's because I took enough German in school to at least partially understand the group in their native tongue. Whatever the reason, a bunch of would-be robots singing songs in English with a German accent sounds ridiculous to me. But a bunch of would-be robots singing straight German? The effect is chilling.

But though the vocal tracks are different, the music on both versions remains as innovative and thrilling as ever. Check out my review/history lesson after the jump.

Kraftwerk's first claim to fame was their 1974 work Autobahn, their first album to move beyond the long instrumental jams of their earlier Stockhausen-inspired noise. Frustrated with their inability to find an appropriate drummer for the ensemble, Kraftwerk founders Ralf
Hütter and Florian Schneider resorted to using synthesizers to provide percussion. The result was "Autobahn", the title track that takes up the entire first side of the album. The piece was inspired by the Beach Boys; on an American tour, Kraftwerk heard what they deemed quintessentially American music and decided to compose a German equivalent. At an immense 22 minutes, "Autobahn" is a groundbreaking song, featuring the revolutionary use of synthesizers, electronic beats, and vocoders and laying the foundation for a lot of later electronic and techno music. The second half of the album, unfortunately, is not nearly as innovative, resorting to the unstructured instrumental jams of their earlier work. Still, Autobahn clearly points toward the future of Kraftwerk, and the potentials of electronic music.

Radio-Aktivität (Radio-Activity), their 1975 album, is rife with the noises of radio static and geiger counters, and is perhaps most notable for this use of white noise and strange sound effects. A few tracks (such as "Radioaktivität") hint at Kraftwerk's skill at crafting beautiful melodies, and finding human warmth in the sterile minimalism of their songs. Still, Radio-Aktivität seems more like a giddy group delighted by new electronic tricks then anything else. By this point, Hütter and Schneider, while still the primary songwriters and frontmen, had added other two permanent members of the group - Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür - to play electronic percussion, thus giving Kraftwerk their most famous lineup.

1977's Trans-Europa Express is their undisputed masterpiece. Acknowledging inspiration from musicians as diverse as David Bowie and Franz Schubert, Trans-Europa Express is the first of
Kraftwerk's three "great" albums, and the first in which they stop merely playing electronic tricks and put their mechanical toys to good use. The title track is an epic 10-minute piece about a cross-continental train ride, laying down a funky electronic beat that hints at the future of hip hop and dance music. The song is cold, almost inhuman, but with a relentless forward drive and a wild percussion section ("Metall auf Metall") in the middle. But the real joy of this album comes not from this passionless minimalism, but from the tracks that manage to integrate synthesized music with the warmth of human emotion. "Europa Endlos" (Endless Europe) is a beautifully melodic opener, and "Spiegalsaal" (Hall of Mirrors) and "Schaufensterpuppen" (Mannequins) are tracks that mock the capitalist rat-race, somehow managing to infuse actual feeling into the music. Trans-Europa Express is, in its entirety, a remarkable album that highlights the humanizing effects of technology even as it emphasizes its isolating elements.

This obsession with the perils and benefits of technology continued into their next album, 1978's Der Mensch-Maschine (The Man-Machine). One of their most melodic albums, Kraftwerk proves here that they know how to write a decent pop song. "Die Roboter" (The Robots), the opening track, is a chilling look at the preponderance of technology, while "Das Modell" (The Model), uses a catchy hook of a melody to look at the shallowness of consumerism. The tension between the liberating effects of technology and it's inhumanity pervades all of Kraftwerk's work, but it is perhaps most effective on Der Mensch-Maschine, easily their warmest and most "human" album, despite the name.

1981's Computerwelt (Computer World) is the last of Kraftwerk's "great" albums, and pushes the group toward a more danceable, rhythmic kind of music. Tracks like "Nummern" (Digits),
and "Taschenrechner" (Pocket Calculator) contain Kraftwerk's funkiest rhythms yet. The album is upbeat and exciting, with catchy beats that underlie every track. Still, Computerwelt displays a paranoid ambivalence about technology, with songs such as "Computerwelt" and "Nummern" expressing unease at the increasing digitization of our culture. Despite the proclivity toward danceclub beats, Computerwelt also features "Computerliebe" (Computer Love), a heartbreakingly-beautiful melody in which the narrator sings about his loneliness while he spends a weekend night at home in front of a computer screen. (If that doesn't anticipate our modern age, I don't know what does). The album's only sticking point is its conclusion - the final two tracks aren't bad by any means, but they're certainly forgettable when compared to competition, and the album finishes not with a bang but a whimper.

Computerwelt is catchy while still pushing the boundaries, poppy without being boring, experimental without being off-putting. It's Kraftwerk at their most accessible, the bridge between the avant-garde electronic music of the past and the synthesized beats and Autotuned voices of the present. But all was not well within the group. Increasingly reclusive, they began to shy away from interviews, and it becomes harder to discern the full story. The band began to develop robot versions of themselves that would be used in some live shows, and Hütter expressed interest in eventually replacing their live performances entirely with these robots. Supposedly the band did their studio work only in the dead of night, arguing over the philosophical implications of their music while ingesting gallons of coffee during the day.

Then Ralf Hütter took up biking. Convinced that he could become his own "man-machine" while cycling, Hütter persuaded the rest of the group to adopt the habit. Soon, they were biking miles and miles every day. Hütter and Schneider were gung-ho about the hobby, but percussionists Bartos and Flür, already feeling marginalized, became increasingly wary of what quickly became an obsession. Hütter envisioned a concept album based on cycling, and the catchy 1983 single "Tour de France" points in this direction.

But Hütter himself suffered a biking accident that year, putting him in a temporary coma. The accident delayed Kraftwerk's next album, and the band never really fully recovered. By this point in the 1980s, digital music had replaced the need for analog instruments. By the time Hütter was back in the studio, the group was unsatisfied with the quality of their previous music. After a struggle to convert their studio to a digital one, which spanned years, they released the lackluster 1986 album Electric Cafe. The first side of this album is underrated, containing a catchy rhythmic instrumental number that spans three tracks, but the second side suffers from a lack of ideas. "Der Telefon-Anruf" (The Telephone Call) and "Sex Objekt" are tracks that come across as creatively barren, delivering nothing but forgettable electronic pop with digital instrumentation that doesn't sound all that great.

Not having mastered the transition to digital, and stuck in a creative rut, the band fell into decline. Flür and Bartos, feeling increasingly marginalized and fed up with the forced biking, left the band in the late eighties. Desperate to retain some kind of relevance, Hütter and Schneider released The Mix in 1991. With no new compositions, The Mix takes Kraftwerk's old hits and, well, provides a new digital mix. In a strange way, this is Kraftwerk's most dated album, despite being one of their more recent efforts. Tinkering with classic songs in no need of revision, The Mix supplies a bunch of lame sounding dance rhythms to fill in the background of the formerly glorious minimalism of their earlier stuff. It's not bad, but it's certainly unnecessary; whenever I listen to The Mix, I ask myself why I'm not just listening to the original, better, versions of these songs.

And then...nothing. Kraftwerk even stopped touring. Silence from an already reclusive band led most critics to believe that the group was done. But then, in 2003, their long awaited bicycle-
concept album surfaced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France. Kraftwerk fans took a deep breath when they purchased Tour De France Soundtracks, doubting that a band who hadn't released original material in over twenty years would be able to create anything worthwhile. But surprisingly, Tour De France Soundtracks is far from the disaster that some predicted. The beats are now thoroughly influenced by the newer electronic music that Kraftwerk helped make popular in the first place. If the music is not particularly innovative, the warmth and trademark sly humor of their "great" albums has returned in sufficient quantity to make this album more than just your run-of-the-mill synthesized dance music.

And that brings us to the present. Florian Schneider has since left the group, after 38 years of musical partnership with Ralf Hütter. Kraftwerk still exists in name, nominally working on a new album, but Ralf Hütter is Kraftwerk the way Axl Rose is Guns n' Roses - one man does not a band make, and the fans know it.

I'm digging the new box set, of course, because it's given me an excuse to dig deep into their material again. I'm not an audiophile by any means, but the remastered sound quality sounds good to my ears, especially on the first five albums. Autobahn and Trans-Europa Express sound especially clear. The vocals are more audible and lucid on Der Mensch-Maschine. The bass on Computerwelt seems to have been upped, which makes for an album that provides more of a raucous electronic dance party than ever before. Kraftwerk fans will relish the fact that songwriting and performance credits, a longtime mystery, are finally included, along with large-format booklets with pictures of the original album artwork.

There is one strange aspect of the new release. Electric Cafe has been renamed to its original working title, Techno Pop, and an excluded track, "House Phone", has been restored to the album. The new track is nothing special and this seems like a strange piece of revisionist history, as if trying to make the album suck less. (It doesn't.)

The Catalogue is not quite perfect. Kraftwerk purists will lament the exclusion of their first three albums (which remain unreleased on CD), and there have been some complaints that the pops and aural anomalies of the earlier albums were part of their mechanical appeal. But I have no complaints about the sound quality. The Catalogue supplies one not-so-great album, one mediocre remix, three good titles, and three indispensable masterpieces. It ain't the Beatles, but it's an important step in the creation of dance, house, electronica, techno, and rap, and there's certainly enough musical growth and innovation on these albums to merit a deep exploration. If you're already a die-hard Kraftwerk fan and own all these albums, I don't know if the remastering is enough to make you drop everything and buy a new copy (though it might be worth it just to invest on individual copies of the remastered Autobahn and Trans-Europa Express, where the sound is notably better). If you're like I was, a Kraftwerk fan with gaps in his collection, the box set is well worth your time. If you're interested in dipping into Kraftwerk for the first time, I recommend the critically-acclaimed live album Minimum-Maximum, or any one of the three albums (Trans-Europa Express, Der Mensch Maschine, or Computerwelt), from Kraftwerk's creative apex.

Just get the German version if you can. That is, unless you really like robots who roll their 'R's.