Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Movement Called Kraftwerk

I keep an ear out for what young people are listening to, since new music is always the most exciting frontier. Among serious listeners of today, the more popular genres are EDM, trance, techno, and of course, hip-hop. I admit to not totally grasping the beauty of all of these genres, in spite of the adventures of Robert Moog and the early explorations of synthesized sound being highlights of our teen years. Jean Michel Jarre, Stockhausen and Brian Eno were high art. My friends and I frothed at the mouth as we built ring modulators and drum machines from circuits published in EFY magazine. When Casio released the monophonic VL-Tone, we went berserk with its programmable attack, delay, sustain, release option. As we got older, and taste and technology evolved, we let go of it as youthful obsessions that were of no lasting value.

One of the bands from that era that was quite unlike anything else was Kraftwerk. It was not rock. It was not dance music. It did not showcase keyboard or melodic skills of any great merit. It had no pretense of social relevance beyond the industrial/robotic angle. It was a focused, unapologetic celebration of synthesized sound. It stood at such a distance from any other form of music that it was a genre by itself. Before Kraftwerk hit Indian shores with their more successful releases, their bland, almost anti-emotional appeal earned them a good amount of disdain from the critics community; but the kids loved it. Their campus years film footage shows the kind of following they had even before they got their fingers on the pulse of the mass audience. The timing of this music with the increased interest in altered consciousness made things easier. Interestingly, their work laid the foundations for techno, synthpop, and EDM as we know them today.

The Man Machine - The Kraftwerk album that I first heard

By the time the 80s came around, the sound was accepted, their compositions and albums got better packaged for mass consumption, and their German avant-garde clinical image became an essential component of their appeal. But the music was still the same. Clever use of synthesizers and sequencers around simple composition with elementary lyrics if any. Not the kind of stuff to stand the test of time, one might have thought then.

Kraftwerk released eight studio albums and one live compilation album in its time if one counts the fully electronic years. They had numerous hit singles, some of them going to become radio evergreens - like The Model, The Robots, Showroom Dummies, and Trans-Europe Express. My favorite albums of theirs are Autobahn, The Man Machine, Radioactivity, and Trans-Europe Express. Minimum-Maximum too is a must listen, if only to get a feel for their love for what they were doing.

In the new millennium, with several personnel changes, Kraftwerk took the eight albums and turned them into a concert tour over multiple nights, calling it variously the 12345678 tour or The Catalogue tour.  They added lasers and 3D to take the experience to a new level, along with stage props and concert arena innovations.

Trans Europe Express - by this time, Kraftwerk was already a celebrity act

Like many of my generation, I have listened to their studio albums over and over again to the point you know every bar of music like the back of your hands. When you listen to the same tracks being performed live, you start realizing their creative mastery of the medium. You also start appreciating how much they enjoy performing the music that made them household names at a certain time. Added to that is the digital imagery and effects that adds another dimension to the concert experience.

The value of their music can be guessed not only from the fact that they laid the grounds for an entire generation of musicians (David Bowie, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Joy Division - the list is long), but also that their body of multimedia work has been showcased at venues such as MoMA at New York, Tate Modern at London, Sydney Opera House to name a few.

Fans will be pleased to know that a new live box set (both audio and video versions) is in the works, with 3D footage from their best performances at all of these arty venues. Scheduled for a May 26, 2017 release, 3-D The Catalogue presents live performances of all the eight albums in chronological order. For all who wondered if there would be a Ninth album, this is probably as close as it will get.

If you have not heard Kraftwerk, I strongly encourage you to go to youtube and do a search for "kraftwerk live HD" and sample some of their work.

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