Four solemn-looking figures hunched over computer terminals. A disembodied, robotic voice solemnly intoning the word “AU-TO-BAAAAHN”. Glacial computerized rhythms and gleaming synth lines slowly interweaving to paint technicolor-bright electronic soundscapes; who else could it be but Kraftwerk?
The Dusseldorf quartet are one of the select bands in music history to have left an instantly identifiable visual and sonic imprint on the popular imagination, as recognizable in their way as the Beatles, the Stones or the Beach Boys. Sole remaining member Ralf Hutter continues to tour the world with his tried-and-tested 3-D show, driven on by a fervor to keep the Krautrock dream alive (or by a fondness for earning bucket-loads of cold, hard cash…depending on whether or not you’re an incurable romantic).
Emerging as part of the alternative German scene of the late 60s, Kraftwerk initially comprised of only two members – classical music students Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider – and specialized in a very Germanic blend of atonal electronic experimentation and traditional flute melodies. When they were joined by Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, the band settled into its classic four-man configuration and went on to earn global renown – exerting an immediate influence on sonic adventurers David Bowie and Brian Eno, and later a host of UK-based synthesizer acts, such as Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode and the Human League. As the slightly awkwardly-translated pamphlet distributed before their latest gigs on Spanish soil spells out “Kraftwerk created the soundtrack for the digital age of the 21st century”.
Where better, then, to host the most iconic performers in electronic music history than the Guggenheim Bilbao? The Guggenheim has been an unqualified success for the city, transforming Bilbao’s image from a tough, industrial city to a sophisticated, tourist-friendly cultural center of the Basque region. Between October 7th and 14th, the Guggenheim hosted a series of 3-D Kraftwerk concerts which marked the starting point for the celebrations of the Museum’s 20th anniversary. Over eight consecutive nights, the Dusseldorf crew presented “The Catalog – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” – a chronological exploration of Kraftwerk’s sonic and visual experiments over their career, presenting eight of the most revered long-players from their formidable back catalog played in full, accompanied by a spectacular 3-D light show in the strikingly brutalist surroundings of the museum’s atrium.
I arrived in the Basque region in time to catch their performance of perhaps their finest recorded statement, and my own personal favourite Kraftwerk LP, 1977’s Trans Europe Express. The show kicked off with some standout tracks from their celebrated 1979 LP, The Man Machine –the incantatory title track from that album giving the band an opportunity to show off their well-honed marriage of electronic sound and 3-D visuals. After the band have allowed the audience to adjust their eyes, Ralf and his team launch into the Trans Europe Express material with a stirring version of “Europe Endless”, the track that best captures the album’s Utopian spirit. The band’s Guggenheim set-up painstakingly conveys the album’s subtle variations in style and mood; from the vertiginous chill of “Hall of Mirrors” and the sardonic “Showroom Dummies”, to the gently pulsing lyricism of album closer “Franz Schubert”. The overarching theme of Trans Europe Express; of rail travel as a metaphor for human connection, is expressed not only by the kinetic power of the music, but also by the charmingly retro 3-D imagery of express trains and classic German cars zooming along endless autobahns.
The nearly ten-minute version of the classic title track encapsulates Kraftwerk’s legacy – its hypnotic repetitions and motorik rhythms have influenced so many of today’s electronic acts that the very fabric of the musical zeitgeist seems soaked in its uniquely Teutonic sound. The lyrical references to collaborator David Bowie strike a poignant note after this year’s passing of that great visionary – whose music absorbed the innovations and rhythms of the Dusseldorf men-machine, in turn reflecting that influence outwards and into the pop landscape, to be appropriated by countless dozens of neophyte bedroom musicians. The band close with a selection of their best known tracks from other albums, a performance of the 1976 track “Radioactivity”, which foretold the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima and name-checks both during its nearly 15-minute duration, is a highlight of the night – managing to be both terrifying and moving in equal measure.
In the appropriately rarefied setting of the Guggenheim’s atrium, Kraftwerk’s music stands as a monument to the transcendental power of music. The clarity of their Utopian vision is undiminished, and like the undulating lines of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, remains as striking, alien and inspirational as ever.