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R.I.P Florian Schneider: Revisiting Kraftwerk’s Classic Albums

May 11, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
Kraftwerk

The music world lost Florian Schneider this past week at the age of 73. Born in what would become Baden-Wurttemberg, but was then known as the French Occupation zone, Florian would go on to co-found Kraftwerk alongside Ralf Hutter in 1970. This meeting of two art students would fundamentally alter the sound, shape and face of both pop music and culture at large. When arguments inevitably rage over the most influential groups or artists in music history, Kraftwerk’s name typically slides right in behind The Beatles.

The electronic revolution that birthed everything from synth-pop and abstract electronica to modern club music and even hip hop started with Kraftwerk. Technology would no doubt have led to these genre’s creation in due course, but it’s hard to imagine the world sounding remotely the same without Kraftwerk and Florian Schneider’s ingenuity. In this light, music history can neatly be divided into BA and AA (before Autobahn and after Autobahn). Kraftwerk not only broke new ground sonically speaking, they challenged the notion of what music could be and how it should relate to its audience. Before Kraftwerk the idea that architecture, motorways or train tracks could be described in sound, let alone produce beautiful pop music, felt absurd (a pretension fit for Gershswin and the classical halls rather than the charts). Florian Schneider changed that preconception and his shadow looms large not only over pop music – where the desire to alienate and entice simultaneously with the strange sounds of the urban environment still dominates – but in the conceptual art sphere. Supposedly cutting edge artists in 2020 are filling galleries with eerie and  ambient sounds in the guise of being subversive or other, but they are merely following in the footsteps of Kraftwerk.

Beyond talking about the music itself, there is little to say. Florian Schneider (and Kraftwerk as a whole) are incredibly private people. To this day we are not 100% certain what instruments Florian played or what parts of the music he was responsible for. However, a hint comes from Ralf Hutter, who labelled a Florian a perfectionist, central in shaping the band’s aesthetic values. In this light, Florian may be the most important member of all: the man who steered the band away from the loose Krautrock of Neu! (founding members of which were bandmates of Hutter and Schneider) and towards Kraftwerk’s immaculate, not a hair out of place, space aged sonics.

The truth is we will likely never know. Florian valued his privacy and his family life. Kraftwerk want to maintain and project their unflinching image as a synthetic hive mine, more machine than man (Florian once joked that they instruments play them). So with this in mind and to celebrate Florian’s life, 411 has decided to focus on the music and briefly re-review the 5 classic Kraftwerk LPs.

 

Autobahn (1974)

Kraftwerk’s debut cannot help but sound silkily and sublime to modern ears: the sound of intrepid humans staring with awe in their eyes at a new technological horizon. Back in 1974, Autobahn was alienating in the extreme. Their initial tours were not a success and when the band came to the UK, they made their debut on Tomorrow’s World (a technology programme) and not on Top of The Pops. Engines rev, cars zip by and motors chug, but there is no sense of pollution or even danger, Autobahn is defined by a utopian optimism almost entirely lacking in 21st Century pop culture. Kraftwerk are often painted as unfeeling, but their debut is full of warmth and evocative playing. Schneider’s classical background clearly comes to the fore as the title track’s long interpretive stretches marry the natural world to the industrial with florid guitars, interpretative flutes and serene horns. There is a hint of coldness to the synthetics and, of course, Kraftwerk’s deadpan delivery that veers dangerously close to a brainless slavery to utopian propaganda. Are they marvelling at human ingenuity or lost in a devoted stupor?

Autobahn continually subverts expectation. The dark machinations of “Kometenmeoldie 1” are counterbalanced by delicate piano keys and iridescent gleam of “Kometenmelodie 2”. The tempos may be slower than anything likely to be heard in a nightclub in 2020, but the melodies and tonal leitmotifs prove ungodly addictive and immediate all these years later. Autobahn ends with two gambits toward the future of sound. “Mitternacht”, a more macabre offering that seems to decay and eat itself amid synthetic animal howls, and “Morgenspaziergang”, a naïve coda that revists the LP’s core melodic hooks on flute. This marriage of traditional folk and sleek abstract electronica was critiqued at the time as a vision half realized, but to modern ears it feels cutting edge, representing the kind of symbiosis artists like Julia Holter have attempted to achieve.

Autobahn is ultimately an alluring first step. Kraftwerk dip their toes into the world of automation, but it is their humanity that shines through on the robots’ most moving and humane record. [9.5/10]

Radio-Activity (1975)

For their sophomore LP, Kraftwerk delved deeper into their conceptual underpinnings and withdrew from the elegant beauty of their debut.  Their humanity was draining away as the band tried to bring to life both the transformative power of radio communication (a natural unifying force for good) and the spectre of nuclear apocalypse that gripped the world in the Cold War era. Radio-Activity if full of static hisses, nods to morse code and soft whispered words winding their way through the wire and across the air. The result is a crossroads record that sits at the intersection of what would become ambient electronica and the experimental classical compositions of John Cage.

Radio-Activity’s strange sonic palette and eerie detachment continues to cast a long shadow over modern music as today’s most experimental artists still find themselves reinterpreting these early tricks, albeit in increasing abstract forms (Tim Hecker, Nicholaas Jaar, etc.). What is striking for modern listener, especially in the context of Kraftwerk’s broader catelog, is the sense of sorrow imbedded in the music. These poor fragile human beings sitting at either end of radio receiver, dutifully sending their messages out into the never ending oblivion, hoping that someone (anyone!) will hear them and issue a response – no matter how muted or distorted it may be. Radio-Activity with its themes of isolation in a world of never ending interconnections, as well as its artfully distorted and alien sonics, is without doubt the most modern and daring Kraftwerk album in the 21st Century context – even if it doesn’t have the songs or suites to rival its prodigious peers. [8.5/10]

Trans Europe Express (1977)

When Kraftwerk’s revolutionary sound is discussed the bulk of the attention is paid to their utopian futurism and those resplendent sounds that would launch a thousand mirco-genres. Their lyrics and psychological themes, by way of comparison, barely get a look in. This is a shame, because sandwiched between the sculpted synthetic majesty of “Europe Endless” and “Trans Europe Express” lies a glimpse of the paranoid unease that racked Kraftwerk’s psyche. Kraftwerk’s music is primarily about technology, its sound and its possibilities, but the band also hold up a black mirror to the human experience. On an album that practically invented the industrial aesthetic, Kraftwerk tap into the uneasy truth that our modern technologies have warped our humanity. Living in the eye of the machine our behaviors and psyches are contorted to fit new performative norms. “The Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” feel frightening prescient. Kraftwerk could not have predicted the world of social media and Instagram, but the German’s saw the logical end point of modern communication technologies: human’s forever trapped in the gaze of the camera or video lens, having to perpetually project an image of desirability and perfection (no matter how false or alien it may be).

In this light, Trans Europe Express is a haunting and genuinely unsettling listen. After being chilled to the bone, it’s almost hard to enjoy the immaculate club ready tones of the title track. The future is a cage closing ever tighter around us. Thankfully, while the terror may linger, the compositional skills dazzle. The gentle chugging of a train wheels is transformed into a killer and truly propulsive beat. The title track is a proto-banger that is only a live MC short of a hip hop classic, while Autobahn’s back end is a masterclass in sonic evolution. The album’s unforgettable melodic hook, what we’d label its “killer sample” today, anchors a series of experiments that would unquestionably inspire Trent Reznor, Brian Eno and Depeche Mode among a million others. [10/10]

The Man Machine (1978)

No album captures the Kraftwerk aesthetic better than The Man Machine. The human-electronic hybrid had arrived. Unflinching and entirely inorganic, the band and their sound had been consumed by the uncanny valley. “The Robots” were all that remained. Of course, Kraftwerk have always been an archly sardonic outfit and their ode to automation and efficiency is underwritten by that most human of qualities: humor. Florian and Ralf seems to be poking fun at both their audience and society at large, even as they unleashed the most danceable grooves and tightly constructed beats of their career (not that anyone thought in those terms at the time). Techno and House music are being invented in real time on an album that blends the coy and catchy “The Man Machine” (complete with its preposterous hook) with the sumptuous, sleek and ungodly stylish “Spacelab”. The latter is a composition so beautiful in its simplicity and remorseless in its march that it could have been released in any of the last five decades.

The Man Machine would shape our vision of the future. Contemporary cinema and modern video games would enshrine “Metropolis” and “Neon Lights” as the sound of our collective idealized future – be it floating in space or at the foot of a towering skycrapper made of some shimmering alloy of plastic and steel. Fittingly, if the album were not gorgeous enough as an ambient/dancefloor hybrid, then Kraftwerk saw fit to drop a genuine hit single in the mix. “The Model” is proof positive that Kraftwerk could have been sharp edged satirical pop stars had they only desired fame.  [10/10]

Computer World (1981)

The dawning of the 1980s signalled Kraftwerk’s complete and utter domination. Pop, rock, dance, industrial and the new emerging world of hip hop were completely moulded in their image. The future of music would be synthesised using The Man Machine’s DNA. In this light Computer World is less a revolution and more of a victory lap. Ralf and Florian were giddy school boys, albeit ones who never flinched or cracked a smile, deftly delivering both their most playful and tight grooves while loading up on their most knowing pseudo-melodies. The softness of Autobahn returned and so too had an unmistakable embrace of farce. “Pocket Calculator” is almost frighteningly prescient. The track is so knowing, so goofy, so glitched out and detached from reality it feels like a forebear of PC Music. Elsewhere terse industrial drums and seductive burbles provide the backdrop for “Numbers”, while “Computer Love’s” core riff proved so bloody catchy that Coldplay would sample it three decades later when they needed a guaranteed hit.

Computer World is a complete and utter riot from start-to-finish. The album is a rewarding listening experience entirely on its own merits, but it’s also thrilling to consider these danceable keys and thudding beats and realize that they are only a heavy guitar track away from a Rammstein anthem. Their final “classic” album might not be their most revolutionary – for all Computer World’s dynamism, by 1981 everyone and their mother was experimenting with the palette Kraftwerk had created – instead, it is simple proof that, when it came to modern music going forward: “It’s More Fun To Compute”. [9.0/10]

Notes on further listening:

Music Café/Techno Pop (1986) is easily Kraftwerk’s least revolutionary LP as the band sadly strip away the earworm melodies of Computer World. Nevertheless, Music Cafe is well worth a listen. Kraftwerk’s ground-breaking ideas had all been synthesised into the pop landscape by 1986, but what’s remarkable about Music Café is how astute an understanding Kraftwerk had of sounds emerging in Chicago and Manchester. It would be disingenuous to label the album great, but Music Cafe is a really rather good techno album that is evocative of its era while pointing to the future dominance of true dance music [7.0/10]

Tour De France (2003) sees Kraftwerk updating their classic stand alone single “Tour De France” into a full-fledged minimal house LP. Again, by this stage of the game Schneider and Hutter are less groundbreaking and more interesting in enjoying the scenes and sounds that grew out of their 1970s innovation. Despite their age, it is clear that Krafwerk could have continued to churn out modern club cuts – and extremely danceable ones at that. Say what you want about their inherent strangeness, Kraftwerk clearly had their ears to the streets in 2003. [7.5/10]


R.I.P. Florian.

article topics :

Kraftwerk, David Hayter