Kanye West's new album, 808s & Heartbreak, has already generated a storm of controversy among fans. West takes a radical departure from his usual, straight-forward rapping style and actually sings (with some technological aid) most of the tracks on this album. Already shaping up to be the album listeners either love or hate, 808s & Heartbreak is dominated by synthesizers and the Roland TR-808 drum machine (referenced in the album's title), giving it a robotic, detached feel. No matter how much the CD sells, one side benefit may be the rediscovery of 808's predecessor: Kraftwerk.
Often dubbed “robot pop,” Kraftwerk's sound indeed evokes machinery and technology. Founding members Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, classical music students at the Dusseldorf Conservatory, first formed a version of the group in 1970. Renaming themselves Kraftwerk (German for “power station”), the duo experimented with minimalist, automated sounds, relying on homemade drum machines and Moog synthesizers. “Singing” consisted of chanting particular phrases, the voices sounding as robotic as possible (achieved through vocoders and voice-enhancement software). They finally gained worldwide attention in 1974 with Autobahn, eventually scoring a hit in Germany and America with an edited version of the title track. Subsequent releases such as Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, and The Man Machine explored themes of radio communication, transportation, and automation, increasingly focusing less on live instruments and voice and more on pure technology. Their 1981 album Computer World addresses an increasingly computerized life.
After that release, their output became more sporadic, issuing albums every five years or so. By the mid-80s, computer-dominated sounds became commonplace, and their stature dimmed. But West's new album illustrates how Kraftwerk continues to influence modern music. Their bleeps and blips can be heard in everything from hip-hop to house to pop. For example, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” a landmark single in rap and hip-hop, heavily samples Kraftwerk tracks “Numbers” and “Trans-Europe Express.” The New Romantic movement of the early 80s owes a great deal to the visionary German band, Human League being the most obvious example. Other 80s artists such as Howard Jones, Depeche Mode, New Order, Thomas Dolby, Art of Noise, and Gary Numan borrowed heavily from Kraftwerk's robot pop. Remember “"Da Da Da I Don't Love You You Don't Love Me Aha Aha Aha" by German band Trio (now best known for its appearance in a Volkswagen commercial)? The song serves as a not-so-subtle tribute to the band.
Admittedly it took me a while to fully comprehend Kraftwerk's sound and mission — at first their sometimes monotonous “singing” and computerized tones made for a cold, detached listening experience. But then I heard “Trans-Europe Express” on an Internet radio station, and became intrigued. The song is so minimal in nature, with an electronic drum beat and synthesizer pounding out a driving beat. German-accented robotic voices repeat the title phrase throughout the song, which lasts almost seven minutes. Subsequently I dug further into their back catalog, perhaps best connecting with 1981's Computer World. That detached sound perfectly encapsulates our fascination — and fear — of technology, particularly since home computers were in their infancy. Listening to tracks like “Numbers” and “Computer Love” remind me of that initial excitement and trepidation we felt, that uncertainty of whether we would control this new technology — or if it would control us.
Kraftwerk newcomers will want to try their three most well-known, if accessible, albums — 1977's Trans-Europe Express, 1978's The Man Machine, and 1981's Computer World. For maximum effect, listen to the albums more than once, even through headphones. In the case of Computer World, consider the time period in which it was released. Also, remember that while electronic music seems commonplace now, it was a brand-new concept when Kraftwerk began experimenting with robot pop on their first release, 1971's Kraftwerk 1. Since the two founding members began as classical music students, listen for similar flourishes in otherwise minimalistic sounds.
After absorbing Kraftwerk's pioneering music, listen to West's 808s and Heartbreak. Clearly West incorporated that detachment and minimalism to his own work, thereby evoking the pain and isolation present in his life. Also give another hearing to electronica, particularly Daft Punk, Moby, Justice, and Björk; Kraftwerk's fingerprints are all over their music. Incidentally, Kraftwerk occasionally regroups for albums or tours, surfacing this year for a series of international shows.
First-time listeners may find Kraftwerk aloof and lacking soul, as I did. After listening to their albums, however, I developed an appreciation for their unique sound, revolutionary approach, and ability to convey that robotic effect. Has our world become overly automated? Kraftwerk may not provide definitive answers, but their music continues to mesmerize and permeate music of various genres.
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