By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
The German electronic band Kraftwerk – which translates into “power station” in English – used to summon forth images of faceless, robot-like mannequins spinning forth icy, exacting, repetitive, metronomic sequences of notes and rhythm. There was more to them than that, of course, but that was the image. Somehow, they caught on as both a parody of themselves and as a serious proclamation of a Future World of machine music and home computers.
Now they are thought of as prophets, and indeed, the rigid, mechanized sequences that pass for much pop music today – and perhaps some of the minimalist music that we hear in the concert hall – can be traced to their example, for better and worse. Hence their position as the opening act for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s boundary-shattering, long-awaited sequel to 2006’s surprise hit Minimalist Jukebox Festival, which I hereby christen as Minimalist Jukebox 2.0.
Yet the four fellows who made up the current lineup of Kraftwerk at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday night don’t seem like faceless robots anymore, even while standing behind their four podiums manipulating their electronics to the accompaniment of stunning 3D computer videos. They seemed more human now, their faces illuminated as they bobbed slightly back and forth to the beats. The sounds they produce from their equipment (only co-founder Ralf Hütter actually fingers the lead lines on his keyboard) are warmer, richer in texture, the tempos a little slower, the rhythms more ponderous yet less mechanized. Maybe it’s the technology that has matured, not so much our ears. Or have we been bombarded with sequenced, Auto-Tuned, unvaried, demographically-tested music for so long that Kraftwerk’s odes to European trains, autobahns, pocket calculators and such now seem comfortably tucked into the mainstream? In any case, the old chill has warmed into something cool, in the literal and hip senses of the word.
I caught two of Kraftwerk’s shows in one night as they were wrapping up their survey of the last eight of their eleven studio albums (they’ve disavowed the first three). The Mix is really an altered Greatest Hits album – edited, remixed versions of their best-known compositions, usually with more of a dance-beat emphasis – so a Kraftwerk newcomer could get a good idea of what the previous shows were like. It wasn’t a literal run-through from end-to-end, though, for they scrambled the order of the CD to make it roughly chronological, and they added extra tracks to fill out the 97 minutes.
Issued after a 12 year gap since The Mix, Tour de France is Kraftwerk’s latest studio recording (2003); it also their most European-sounding album with a sleeker, sophisticated, percolating set of rhythms gliding down the road. Again, it wasn’t quite a note-for-note account since there was a little juggling of the order and some editing, and it was followed an hour of older material that recapped what we had heard during The Mix concert. Tour de France holds up beautifully when heard in the context of Kraftwerk’s classics of the 1970s, with the catchy, somewhat re-orchestrated “Vitamin” qualifying as a new classic. That track was in heavy rotation on my iPod during my trip to Dresden a couple of years ago; its precise, moody beauty evoked today’s Germany to me – a beautiful country that works. Here, it was accompanied on the screen by tumbling vitamin pills and bubbles from a fizzing pill in a glass coming at us in 3D so that you could almost touch them.