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Kraftwerk - Tour De France Soundtracks CD (album) cover




Progressive Electronic

3.36 | 123 ratings

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4 stars It's hard to think of another band that has had more influence on popular music over the last half century (for better or worse) than KRAFTWERK (okay, maybe TANGERINE DREAM but that's a debate for elsewhere). The Düsseldorf duo of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider was fawned over by the likes of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, fêted by electronica gurus from downtown Tokyo to inner city Detroit, and once refused an invitation to collaborate with Michael Jackson (evidence of their enduring commitment to good taste).

Now the legendary electro-pop pioneers are back in the public eye after 17 years of hermetic reclusion, with their first album of a new Millennium they themselves helped to design over the previous three decades. And, happily, continuing almost exactly from where they left off, doing for competitive biking what earlier albums did for cars ("Autobahn") and trains ("Trans-Europe Express"). Is this the long overdue completion of a trilogy?

The band is still a foursome (of course only Ralf and Florian really count), and the sound, after all these years, is the same robot pop, but with a huge leap forward in refinement and maturity. Despite having so much historical baggage resting on their middle-aged shoulders, the duo manage to sidestep expectations by not even trying to compete with the new generation of electronic imitators and protégés sprouting up in their footsteps.

I'm sure they must have learned some new tricks, squirreled away for so long in the high-tech seclusion of their Kling-Klang studio. But they obviously felt no pressing obligation to defend their credentials with anything new or innovative, preferring instead to follow the old, reliable rule of "less is more", making their new music so childishly simple (and sometimes comically simplistic) that even a single chord change can sound like a major thematic development.

The result is a triumph of dance-floor minimalism, which doesn't exactly recommend it to a forum celebrating the sometimes baroque excesses of Prog Rock. Notice how much mileage (19 minutes worth, to be exact) the 5-track title "suite" gets from so little actual material. After a brief "Prologue" (three notes, each of them softer and more lush than the last) nothing much happens, but maybe that's the point: it's a musical representation of a long distance bike ride, and those wheels just keep spinning in the same circles.

The subsequent tracks may show more variety, but it's all relative, isn't it? You can expect more of the same subtle and repetitive melodies, over a similar hypnotic display of percussive blips and rhythmic pulses, all of it best heard from between a pair of comfortable headphones. The "lyrics" (and I use the term broadly) are nothing more than spoken recitations of bicycle parts, cardiovascular data, and mineral supplements, all in roboticized debonair French. My favorite line, delivered in a singsong Dr. Seuss rhythm: "Carbohydrate-Protein, A-B-C-D-Vitamin" (and believe it or not, they even make it rhyme).

Go ahead and laugh. Personally, I've always found the deadpan Teutonic humor of the KRAFTWERK Man-Machine persona irresistible, sounding not unlike a Sesame Street interpretation of Fritz Lang's futuristic silent movie "Metropolis" (which inspired an earlier KRAFTWERK dance hit). A lot of Proggers will likely disagree, but I think it's easy to see the organic warmth below the lacquered veneer of all that sci-fi technology.

The album ends with a re-mix of their original 1983 "Tour de France" single, the liveliest piece of music here and ideally placed as an epilogue, linking the 21st Century KRAFTWERK to their earlier selves. Listening to the song, it's hard to resist jumping on an old 10-speed Schwinn and pedaling around the neighborhood, although it's doubtful anyone could match the pace suggested by the tempo here.

The music of KRAFTWERK has always been an acquired taste, and the latest edition won't appeal to everyone, of course. But to nerds like me who know all the words to "Pocket Calculator" ( pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody..!) it's a minor miracle of sophisticated understatement. I only hope they don't wait another 17 years before recording their next album.

Neu!mann | 4/5 |


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