[21 March 2013]
Electronic musician Karl Bartos was a pivotal part of German rock band Kraftwerk, known for employing Krautrock, electronic, avant-garde, and experimental-rock styles. Bartos would leave the band in 1990, pursuing independent music production, songwriting, serving as a visiting professor (Berlin University of the Arts), and as a solo artist. A notable recent slice of Bartos’ resume is his writing credit on Coldplay’s single “Talk” from 2005 multi-platinum effort X&Y. 2013’s solo effort Off the Record arrives via Bureau B, ten years after his last effort Communication. Off the Record is an effort steeped in electronics and effects.
Single “Atomium” initiates Off the Record jubilantly, characterized by minimalist driven rhythms and a distinctive, recurring synth line. Throughout the standout opener, a strong palette of electronic sounds and ideas are showcased. The signature sound? The vocoder-driven vocals repeating “Atomium” throughout. “Nachtfahrt” (translated as “Night Drive” in English) proceeds, continuing the bright timbre and minimalist vein established by the opener. “Nachtfahrt” is more traditional vocally (avoiding vocoder), though the language of choice is German. “International Velvet” continues to showcase musical exuberance centered in a major key, though tends to do too much of the same thing over the course of its duration.
“Without a Trace of Emotion” is another easy listen to the ears, delivering one of the effort’s strongest showings. Bartos does a superb job of emphasizing the title lyrically throughout. In addition to the driving, rhythmic synths, Bartos smartly uses a choral pad, which adds body to the overall production work. “The Binary Code” more or less an instrumental interlude at a brief 1:42, musically resembles the numerical code with its electric whirling programming. “The Binary Code” epitomizes pure electronic music more than any other cut, appropriate given the computational basis of the title. “Musica Ex Machina”, another highlight, is notable once again for vocals drenched in simulated effects. The crowning moment, however, is the electro-hip-hop beat breakdown section, contrasting everything else on Off the Record.
“The Tuning of the World” opens mysteriously, portraying much of the same script of previous cuts. Eliminating some predictability, “Tuning” differentiates the harmonic progression on the bridge section, a welcome contrast. “Instant Bayreuth”, purely instrumental, contrasts its joyous synths with an uncharacteristic, unsettling sound by the end. “Vox Humana” is stronger, featuring chilly-sounding drum programming and mysterious vocals chanting English translative lyric “The human voice”. The most memorable line sums up the purpose of the song: “The human voice is the most extensive musical instrument of them all.” “Rhythmus” can be described as ‘one big pile of minimalism’ given its ultra-rhythmic nature. Proceeding the empty seconds of “Silence”, “Hausmusik” closes as brightly and optimistically as Off the Record initiated.
Overall, Off the Record is a solid album with plenty of attributes, though not necessarily an exceptional one. Bartos delivers a lovely electronic soundscape, but the effort doesn’t ‘scream’ nor suggest true musical innovativeness; it doesn’t go ‘against the grain’. There is little or no fault with recycling an already tread musical path, but more musical variety certainly could’ve made a ‘good’ Off the Record truly ‘great’.