The five albums Kraftwerk released between 1974 and 1981 are beyond compare, standing alone on a stage of their own construction, near perfect. There is no body of work that matches it in its perfect symmetry, its astounding reduction of both classical Viennese and classic pop tropes, and in its creation of a new sonic language.
It’s the astounding emptiness that still shocks after all these years, their control in leaving things out, keeping things perfectly simple, almost childlike, but with layers of complexity for those seeking more.
The genius of Kraftwerk was the way they constructed a parallel universe of materialistic, functional subject matter, a fetishization of the mechanical and electrical that perfectly encapsulated the German stereotype of engineering brilliance, and willed that subject matter to life with music that was at once alien, utopian and retro-fitted.
I remember hearing Autobahn for the first time in 1974 and thinking that – despite the clinical beats and absence of conventional instrumentation – it was kind of dated. After all, we’d already heard Walter/Wendy Carlos’s striking and scary synth-scaped soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange and the oscillations of Silver Apples and the frightening sound effects of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on shows like Dr Who, not to mention Keith Emerson’s manhandling of the Moog synthesiser.
But rather than dated, the word I was really searching for was nostalgic, and again, that has proved to be part of the genius of Kraftwerk: its ability to harness that Beach Boys vibe, despite their cold musical architecture.
Listening to Kraftwerk now, it’s clear that they have a body of songs that has stood the test of time: remarkably melodic, astute lyrical imagery. And because it was built on that strange knife-edge between alien synth topography and calm, comforting melodies, there’s an ambiguity there that never gets old.
Listening to possibly their greatest work, 1975’s Radioactivity, that ambiguity is fully in action as the lyrics appear to celebrate Madame Curie’s invention, despite what proved to be the calamitous use of that technology. This seems especially curious coming out of the mouths of sons of Germans who took part in World War II.
Curiously, just as Paul Anka later changed the words of ‘You’re Having My Baby’ to ‘our baby’ and Leonard Cohen later changed ‘anal sex’ to ‘dangerous sex’ in his song ‘The Future’, Kraftwerk this century has turned the song ‘Radioactivity’ into an anti-nuclear manifesto.
But what is Kraftwerk this century? When the group performed at Auckland’s Town Hall in 2008, they still contained the group’s two legends, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, although the two other key members of the most popular iteration of the group, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur, were no longer in the lineup. More worryingly, since then Schneider left the group with Hutter now the only ‘legacy’ member.
Even more concerning from a creative point of view is that the group hasn’t released an album of completely new material since 1986, unless we count the remix album The Mix (1991), and Tour De France Soundtracks (2003) which really only served the purpose of extending the 1983 ‘Tour De France’ single.
It’s something that fans tend to turn a blind eye to now that the group is mostly a live exhibition, but Kraftwerk as it exists today is essentially a karaoke tribute group featuring one original member. As karaoke tribute groups go, however, they make for what Frank Zappa would have called “a real dynamite show”.
On this Blu-ray disc ‘best of’ reduction of the massive box set in which eight of their albums are performed more or less in full, we get a tantalising glimpse of shows they performed back in 2014, in which audiences were given 3D goggles the better with which to enjoy the graphic presentation.
There’s only minimal footage of the group onstage, and that’s not surprising, because they don’t do much except stand there behind their consoles and sing the odd line. Instead, the visuals weigh heavily on the background projections, some of which are much more stimulating than others.
The music itself has minor modifications to the original tracks, and occasionally bounces off into remix territory with more of a dance orientation than the original albums, notably on this disc on the second part of the previously minimalistic ‘Radioactivity’, the 13 minute ‘Techno Pop’ bracket from Electric Café, and the extended version of ‘Tour De France’. Mostly however, it’s surprisingly true to the spirit of the originals, and there’s no obvious updating in technology or instrumentation to pollute the streamlined impact of the Kraftwerk sound.
Unfortunately, it gets off to a rather boring start with a 14 minute version of ‘Autobahn’ with dull graphics, but things improve radically from there. The only other disappointment musically is that ‘Computer World’ with its references to the seminal ‘Numbers’ is compacted down to a mere 6 minutes: I could have listened to those hypnotising electronic clicks all day.
The big question is really ‘what’s this for?’ Why would a fan need more than those still-amazing, now remastered, albums? For excellent live footage of the 21st century Kraftwerk, we already have the Minimum-Maximum DVD and CD package, and personally, I don’t see a big attraction in bunging uncomfortable 3D goggles on and trawling through slightly different renditions of those albums with eye-watering 3D imagery.
This reduced-fat version of 3D, in addition to the Blu-ray disc, also contains a DVD disc, which just seems odd. Surely most consumers have BD players by now? Is it for ease of copying?
Although I guess the main benefit of all this Kraftwerk activity is to introduce the wonderment of their music and imagery to a new generation, what this crabby old fan would prefer at this point is some intelligent reflection, some contextualisation, perhaps some special features like a documentary with interviews where the group explains what the fuck all this 3D nonsense means. It seems somewhat ironic to me that 3D is almost not a thing anymore: that after years of promoting the idea, the leading companies now have put it on a backseat, preferring instead to opt for marketing the hi-res 4K images.
I don’t actually own a 3D television, so I can’t tell you if the visuals really come to life, and I don’t have a surround system either, so I can’t tell you whether the Dolby Atmos 5.1 sounds super good. Certainly, the 2 channel mix sounds pretty good on my humble system.
So then, is 3-D 12345678 surplus to requirements? Well, it’s nice to have it, but first, please make all the ‘proper’ individual remastered albums available in NZ. For some reason, they’re as scarce as hens’ teeth. I’ve got three hens, and I assure you, there’s no chompers in those snapping beaks.