Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20: Kraftwerk, "The Man Machine"

Artist: Kraftwerk
Album: The Man Machine
Year: 1978
Label: Kling Klang/Capitol

"Krautrock" is somewhat of a catch-all term that is usually used when referring to an overwhelming majority of the experimental rock bands to emerge from Germany during the late 1960's and 1970's. Groups like Can, Moebius, and Faust all perfectly represent the term, yet there are a number of bands that are less rock-based that also fit the bill. Rising out of the musical hotbed of Düsseldorf, Kraftwerk are largely regarded as the first true artists of the electronic music genre. Influencing everything from "new wave" to modern day techno, electronica, and even hip hop, Kraftwerk pioneered countless sounds and styles, and perfected most of them. By the time 1978 rolled around, Kraftwerk had already established themselves internationally with the success of their single, "Trans-Europe Express," as well as their brilliant 1974 breakthrough album, Autobahn. Following this success, the group truly began to push into the avant, as the members themselves began to publicly depict themselves as robots, and their music became less and less reliant on human instrumentation, and more based on manipulation of computers, synthesizers, and drum machines. The apex of this direction manifests itself within the groups' stunning 1978 release, the aptly titled, The Man Machine.

First off, the groups' name is German for "power station," and this industrial mood permeates nearly the entire recorded catalog of the group. The group itself is the brainchild of Florain Schneider and Ralf Hütter, who met years before whilst studying classical music at the Düsseldorf Conservatory, and they quickly became heavily involved in the experimental music scene in Germany in the early 1970's. Making music that ranges from dance-hall hits to some of the most experimental music ever recorded, the group truly had no musical boundaries. Cementing this point, there are moments on The Man Machine when the group sounds like a more modern Pink Floyd (see the opening of "Metropolis" for example), as well as points throughout the album where the songs could be modern day techno or trip-hop releases. It is very much due to this diversity in musical sounds and styles that makes the group so influential on so many genres, and the fact that they were able to blend together so many never before heard sounds in such brilliant harmony is a testament to the amazing talents of the group members. While the lineup of Kraftwerk fluctuated heavily (and still does today), the membership that is present for The Man Machine is identical to that of their smash hit, "Trans-Europe Express," as well as 3/4 of the lineup that created Autobahn.

While The Man Machine only runs for six songs, spread over thirty-six minutes, the music found on the album is absolutely extraordinary. The song "Spacelab" is truly at least a decade ahead of its time. The light, airy mood, with a similarly dark feel throughout, and the speedy synth and drum lines can clearly be seen as the origins of groups like Aphex Twins and The Orb. The high speed bass and drum work also bears a striking resemblance to the sound that Blondie was using at the same time, though Kraftwerk use it in a far less "pop" approach. The amazing contrast in use of vocorder between this track and "The Robots" shows that Kraftwerk were truly masters of even the smallest aspects of all of the equipment which they used. Another aspect that sets The Man Machine aside from the rest of the Kraftwerk catalog is the presence of the song, "The Model," which is a unique composition in the entire history of the group. The song represents, by far, the most pop-based song the group ever composed, as the song actually follows the traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure, as well as being strangely short for the band, running a typical three and a half minutes in length. The song had such a "pop" appeal to it that it ended up being a number one single in the U.K. While the song is rather odd when compared to the rest of the groups' work, it is still quite good, and there is truly nothing else like it anywhere else in the groups' catalog.

Kraftwerk represent a group that were true artists in every aspect of their musical pursuits, from the music itself, to the album art, to how they themselves appeared on stage and in public. It is during the time of The Man Machine that this final aspect became clear. On The Man Machine, the music is nearly completely devoid of "live" instruments, and almost all of the music is generated, in some way, by a computer or synthesizer. The odd transition of the group members themselves and their music into "non human" entities can be seen as the basis behind the song "The Robots" as the song repeats, "...we are the robots..." In more recent years, the groups' live performances of the song have been "performed" by robots, standing in for the band members. The group completes this "robotic" idea with what is, by far, one of their most phenomenal compositions, the albums' title track, "The Man Machine." In many ways, the song is the complete opposite of "The Model," as it is formed by sparse beats, an odd, funky tempo, and it runs well over five minutes in length. The combination of the keyboard riff and the odd sound effects that are placed throughout give the song an amazingly futuristic feel, yet the funk-based "dancability" to the song is undeniable. The vocals (versions of which can be found in both German and English) are perfectly distorted, and the song is truly a musical masterpiece. While Kraftwerk has always been a group that was clearly fascinated by the future and technology, it is on The Man Machine that their love for these aspects, as well as their quest for "non-human" music comes to fruition.

Truth be told, the music of Kraftwerk stands as some of the most heavily sampled throughout the history of hip hop music, though most are unaware of its origins. Taking the term "experimental music" to an entirely new level, Kraftwerk pioneered countless musical styles, and one can make the case that without their innovations, electronic music would never have existed. Manipulating keyboards, drum machines, synthesizers, as well as their own voices, the songs found on The Man Machine are truly amazing to experience, and the diversity in sound and style from song to song shows the range of talent of the group members. From the stunning soundscape of "Spacelab" to the strangely conventional "The Model," Kraftwerk proves that regardless of stylistic approach, they are some of the most talented musicians of their era. Perhaps building off of the sudden explosion of spacey, sci-fi themed art (Star Wars had become the rage between this album and their previous release), Kraftwerk are clearly in top form for this album, and their nearly complete elimination of "human" instrumentation makes their music like nothing else at the time. Truly a band that was decades ahead of their time, Kraftwerk remain one of the most stunning bands in history, and their 1978 release, The Man Machine is an absolute masterpiece of musicianship and musical innovation.

Standout tracks: "The Robots," "Spacelab," and "The Man Machine."

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