We Lost Florian Schneider today, Here Is An Old Live Review: Kraftwerk At the United Palace, Tuesday, April 1st, 2014, Reviewed
(In remembrance of Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk co-founder, who died today at the age of 73. One of the key inventors of modern pop, I saw him and the band in 2014… IL)
In 1997 I watched Wendy Carlos at the Beacon Theater perform selections from her 1968 Switched On Bach album accompanied by a small group of musicians playing Kurzweil synthesizers. Carlos is the woman who performed the “A Clockwork Orange” soundtrack and a hugely influential musician. She brought computers into the music world and lead a path which would lead directly to the German Electronic band Kraftwerk’s breakthrough.
It was a thrill at first to see Carlos on stage but after awhile she was stymied by some of the things that stymied Kraftwerk Tuesday night at the United Palace Theater. It’s a neat idea but it isn’t visually arresting and while I may have lost this debate decades ago, synthesizers and computers work best when worked less: shading of sound and texture are the heights of a moogs gifts.
Kraftwerk, on tour of the States for the first time since 2005, figure if the thrill of four middle aged Germans standing behind podiums has a built in limited attention span, perhaps by making it a 3D concert, giving out 3D glasses when you walk in the church, and refurbishing the images we know from “Autobahn” and “Tour De France” till they literally jump out of you, will give you a way to spend the time.
Present day Kraftwerk is Ralf Hütter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, and Falk Grieffenhagen, with Ralf the last remaining Kraftwerk from the band that released “Autobahn” in 1974. Standing behind four podium in front of a 3D screen, wearing jump suits, they programmed their computers and the bleeps and bloops of borderline ambient sounds came to life? Well, was there.
This is a very very precise art form. Before the show the usher said “We know it will last precisely two hours and ten minutes, we just don’t know when it will start. It actually started at 750pm and ended on the dot of 10pm. With the timing so like clockwork, the limits of the bands performance is self evident. It might not be the equivalent of your I.T. guy reprogramming your computer though it might be the equivalent of your I.T. guy reprogramming your computer in skin tight clothes.
Yes, Kraftwerk were the beginning of much of what we call EDM today, and, obviously, Daft Punk are up to their eyeballs in the myth that is Kraftwerk, but to call it timeless is too strange. Indeed, it is the definition of timed. The man machine at the heart of Kraftwerk, whether for it on “Computer Love”, against in on “Radio Activity” or a part of it on “Autobahn” is from a different era. That ship sailed long ago and for the gifts provided in the set, the future wasn’t one of them.
In 1978, when “Trans Europe Express” broke, it seemed to split punk and New Wave sidewise, it broke pop but it broke pop alone, and the scene was set for the New Romantics and the use of the synth as a lead instrument. On stage the music seems to move forward on spurts of 0s and 1s, while the connection between the four musicians and the music is evident it is hard to pinpoint. They don’t seem to have specifically assigned parts of the song (though they do of course). I was very close to the stage and I took off my 3D glasses and tried to see what the band members were doing with their hands and it seemed like Pro Tools made easy. I could see them tweedle a nob and for a repetitive mumph repeat it over and over. And when the bass went skyward I could see them Twiddling with something or the other. Given the special effects it would’ve been much nicer to actually see what was happening, what they were doing.
The sold out United Palace had a long of fans, lot of hipsters, a few Eurotrash, foreign languages abounded, a lot of music folks coming to pay their respect, and they didn’t seem to mind and I didn’t either. If they can then why shouldn’t they take it on the road: from high sci-fi to low sci-fi (these guys once played pocket calculators on tour), they have the skills to perform (and they should provide us with anoither live album) a sound better but the same as the one already on record.
But it remains background music, it remains stuff you should hear in the distance. As you bike, or drive down the Highway, or do something else, it works as a constant digging at you subconscious: we have know the man/animal parts of our brain, Kraftwerk posit that it might be going Animal/Man/Machine. That in the 21st Century our consciousness needs to be manipulated from a distance. And when that is happening giving Kraftwerk your entire helps nobody at all.
The visuals are beautiful though a little “Tron” ish. I once tried a virtual reality game and the immersion wasn’t unlike this. Whether it was the endless stretch of the Autobahn as a Volkswagen speeds by or black and white film of the Tour De France (Ralf is a big time cyclist), the images are lovely and you can sink into them. The numbers on “Numbers” is like Sesame Street on acid only no, clearer and more rigid than that.
When Kraftwerk released “Autobahn” World War II had been over for thirty years and the thought of uber-men machines had connotations it doesn’t now. But Kraftwerk weren’t extolling anything really, and still aren’t, they were considering where men were and were going and they made a guess and it was a good guess. Lyrically, they intone words which are used as blueprints for the visual but the connection between the images and the sound take a leap of imagimation. Radioactivity” with its “Harrisburg, Chernobyl…” litany isn’t much different than “The Man Machine”. Similar sounds going to similar places.
Thirty years after “Hiroshima” came Kraftwerk and forty years after that they are still dealing in the same language, even the same musical language, and Kraftwerk are still dealing with good guesses.