It has to be said, I wasn’t entirely looking forward to this release. Since 1982’s Computer World, Kraftwerk have been in a tight spot. During the 1970s, they were innovative and inventive in their development and use of electronic instruments and effects, and, when applied to their classical training and resolutely Germanic approach, the resulting albums were absolutely singular.
By the early 1980s though, the technology which had done so much so set them apart from the rest of the world was now readily available to all and sundry… so I considered them redundant in 2003, especially after such considerable periods of unproductive years. I was, at this chronological point, rather infatuated with Royksopp’s Melody AM, and various odds and sods by Junkie XL, Air, and their peers. Frankly, I couldn’t see what Kraftwerk could contribute without having the technological advantage, or even a decent run of form.
And after two plays, I congratulated myself on an excellent piece of judgement. The album maintained a monotonous, shallow groove, and showed none of the witty, catchy, heartbreaking, picturesque properties of their more noteworthy efforts. Out of curiosity and following a couple of discussions on internet message boards, I played it again… and again… daytime, early morning, travelling, at bedtime… and bit by bit, the sheer, unbridled excellence of Kraftwerk’s meisterwerk revealed itself, and my own sense of self-congratulation was undone.
The audacious lack of opacity here is stunning. It’s a concept album about the Tour de France, written by keen cyclists, and the cover art denotes both a peloton and the French Tricolore. Throughout the course of this album, there are no hidden meanings, double entendres, or word plays whatsoever. No more evident of this is on “Elektro Kardiogramm,”
where a palette of synths, effects and percussion loops, and just “Elektro, Elektro Kardiogramm; Beats per minute”, minimally performed and mixed to perfection provide all the insight one needs into the important relationship between the electro-cardiogramm and the endurance cyclist.
The opening suite, “Tour de France Etapes 1-3″ was suddenly a soundtrack to those repetitive, predictable, functional, though not dislikeable movements we experience each day. A journey to work on the train for example; it’s necessary, functional, driven, motivated, outcome-focused. It’s the same every day, only slightly different. Marginally different faces in the seat opposite, marginally different weather outside the windows… and so the suite goes. It’s locked into a groove with its passengers being the sounds, motifs, and vocoded comments embarking, remarking, and alighting every so often… and without changing the material nature of what’s really taking place.
Further on, there’s “Vitamin.” Again, in terms of arrangement, it’s a repetitive fallback to their early Krautrock days without the pop-single approach of their 1980s work. A detached voice, slightly erring towards the style of early hip-hop performers, recites the names of vitamin and mineral types in German, without any additional narrative.
“Mineral Biotin Zink Selen L-Carnitin;
Adrenalin Endorphin Elektrolyt Co-Enzym.
A-B-C-D Vitamin …”
I’d say it’s essential, but that gets overused. This album is life-affirming, and a most vital organ indeed.