At some point, it all changed. When you think of Kraftwerk, there are essentially two distinct entities there. One is the forward-thinking, massively influential technopop band that released albums on a regular basis and consistently evolved their sound as technology allowed. The other is the group of perfectionists who treat their discography as a timeless artifact, one which requires gradual upgrading and polishing every now and then, like an exhibit in a museum. I am not exactly sure when one transitioned to the other – somehow, I feel the five-year process of digitizing and re-sampling that led to 1991’s The Mix had something to do with it – but the fact is that Kraftwerk today seem diametrically opposed to the Kraftwerk of yesterday. During the group’s heyday there was still a sense of adventure and improvisation about them; the group would perform on analogue instruments and show some semblance of personality on stage. Just watch Bartos and Schneider in this clip; they seemed to actually recognize the humor in their work, in a deadpan sort of way. Nowadays Kraftwerk is four men on stage trying to move as little as possible, to the point where you can hear people ask if they’re doing anything at all; the animatronic mannequins that take the stage during “The Robots” are more lively than the actual humans. The classic lineup has been reduced to the 70-year old Hutter and three guys you probably can’t name, even though two of them have been in the group for over 25 years (the other is someone named Falk Grieffenhagen, who may not be a real person).
Over that span, they’ve released one album and one single. That’s it. The end result was 2009’s Der Katalog, an 8-disc remastered box set which recasts the band’s discography as a complete set, one that began with Autobahn and apparently ends with Tour de France Soundtracks. All eight discs separately numbered and adorned with new, minimalist artwork, with a bit of revisionist history (Electric Cafe is now called Techno Pop and features a slightly rejiggered tracklisting). Regardless of your opinion of the music, there is something utterly inscrutable about it. Eight discs, that’s two by two by two, a perfect cube. The numbering and streamlining of the cover art almost seem to imply that the Kraftwerk of Autobahn had an eye on what they’d be doing 30 years later.
And now, this. Another 8-disc boxset of the same exact material, this time “live”, which I put in quotation marks since these are direct from the soundboard. With the audience edited out, you’d think these were new studio recordings, though I suppose their live show is so controlled and precise that there’s virtually no difference these days. Everything is re-recorded and somewhat tweaked, with the sort of small differences that hardcore fans tend to obsess over; a slightly different rhythm here, a new line there (references to Fukushima in “Radioactivity”), more futzing with the tracklistings (the albums from Trans-Europe Express to Techno Pop have all been shuffled up), and a sense of brevity, reducing most albums to around a half hour each. It’s a chance to hear the other half of Kraftwerk’s discography minimized-maximized, including the second half of Autobahn, the rest of Radioactivity, and everything else that hasn’t been included on a dozen separate compilations, stuff like “Spacelab” and “Sex Object”. Is that something that sounds interesting to you?
Personally, I haven’t really seriously listened to Kraftwerk in about a decade. It’s not that I’ve grown out of it, but rather just the fact that their music has an evergreen quality to it. They influenced half the shit I listen to and I still hear them getting sampled today. I guess listening to this is sort of akin to reading the remastered works of Shakespeare. You don’t really have to do it but it’s a decent way to spend an afternoon. Their albums are so iconic that even these little reshufflings feel pretty significant. Now is the part where I go disc-by-disc and point out exactly what the differences are….nah, just check out the tracklisting, you’ll pretty much get it. The big change is the blurring together of similar tracks, which they’ve been doing live for a while now. Most of this is pretty business-oriented, not bothering to stay in the prettier areas of their catalogue for long (“Morgenspaziergang” and “Franz Schubert” both barely go over a minute). Biggest renovations go to Trans-Europe Express, which flips the sides and puts all the similar stuff together, and Techno Pop which reverses the tracklisting and does a lot of remixing, particularly on “The Telephone Call” which drops the vocals entirely (as they were sung by Karl Bartos, who of course isn’t in the group anymore). Biggest gem for collectors is Radio-Activity, which is full of tracks that they never really perform, sometimes overhauled (“Airwaves” turns into a double-time boogie, “Antenna” becomes swingy bubblegum pop).
Warranting special mention is The Mix on Disc 7, which has a “special 3-D mix for headphones only”. Okay, this is somewhat interesting, especially since including The Mix in the first place is fairly redundant, as many of the new elements introduced on the ’91 release have been retrofitted in here. For crying out loud, “Autobahn” is exactly the same length as it is on Disc 1 – as far as I’m concerned they’re exactly the same. Anyway, the “3-D” mix here is sort of a trip if you’re actually listening on headphones, though it’s a bit nauseating and headache inducing in much the same way seeing a 3-D film is. You can feel the music in the bridge of your nose. Maybe not a good thing, but cool for a listen or two. Particularly since “Expo 2000/Planet of Visions” is tacked onto the end and given a fairly epic mixdown, which I guess confirms its place as part of the Kraftwerk canon.
Which brings us to the final disc, Tour de France Soundtracks. Christ, can you believe this is 15 years old already? Probably been about that long since I spun it in full too, though I do think these tracks sounded quite good on Minimum-Maximum. This was the disc most in need of a haircut, and 3-D obliges, lopping a good 20 minutes off the sides and condensing the remainder into five tracks. Putting the “Tour de France” single first and merging it with the acid-tinged “Etapes” is sort of an odd choice, but I think it’s a cool way of streamlining the album’s central concept. The sideways-tipped “Vitamin” is still the highlight and both “Aerodynamic” and “Elektro Kardiogramm” still drag, but as a whole I got a new appreciation of an album I never really gave much time to in the first place.
Okay, so final thoughts, impressions? Let me think here. I didn’t get the Blu-Ray set with the special 3-D visuals that make it look like you’re being impaled by the number 4, so I can’t speak to how cool that stuff is. Ultimately I think the album’s insistence on speedrunning everything kind of blunts its impact; the fact that they cut most of “Franz Schubert” and don’t give the tremendous ending of “Neon Lights” much airtime ensures that I won’t be
throwing out my old CDs deleting my old files just yet. Plus, they botch “Computer Love” again, apparently not getting that the tune is supposed to be reflective and not really suitable for dancing. But other than that I think they do a pretty good job. Any excuse to spend an entire afternoon digging through the entire Kraftwerk catalogue is a good one. I guess now, Kraftwerk can finally lay their back catalogue to rest and get working on Album #9. Just imagine…the perfect number…