Like the preponderance of bouncing booty in a hip-hop video, there is a sad inevitability about the cyclic nature observed in music trends. Most recently, electronica and the cult of DJ finally exhausted itself, having long-since required the allowance of regeneration. In its place, we are once more in-thick amidst guitars and amps, back amongst boys with deliberately coiffed hair, and vocalists who croon and stomp in the belief they have something to say, that the world owes them a listen.
All of which is to ask, could there be a more absurd time for a new Kraftwerk album?
Kraftwerk were never really of their time anyway. Most specifically they were before their time, digital isolationists on a bed of rock. Later, throughout an entire decade when theirs was the cool name to drop for progenitors worldwide (serving much the same purpose for the rave generation as The Velvet Underground served for the indie crowd before them), they mostly fell silent.
Yet Kraftwerk's music was always as notable for its differences from the music it supposedly inspired as for the similarities. One of the ironies of rave/electronic music is that gained a reputation for lacking soul, while those who believed found in it all manner of epiphanies of the heart, grand spiritual awakenings. Perhaps such believers were experiencing better living through chemistry, but that isn't the issue. Contrary to outside perception, rave was always intended as music to warm the soul, as sounds you could feel. Within the genre there were seldom noteworthy lyrics (or lyrics at all) to intellectualize, so that its central appeal was sensual -- the actual antithesis of Kraftwerk's man-machine music.
Kraftwerk's new release, Tour De France Soundtracks displays all the cerebral detachment and Teutonic coolness that we would anticipate. It's an album that sets-out to transpose the annual 2,000-mile bicycle marathon to the world of music, although it unquestionably works best when surging towards artistic interpretation rather than attempted documentary.
The concept itself is an interesting one. When it works, it is easy to conjure TV images of Hinault and LeMonde battling through the Pyrenees, the patterned rhythms of Indurain and Armstrong heaving through village street time-trials -- these men, nothing if not literal 'man-machines', their bulbous thighs rising and falling like pistons. Still, it is when Kling and Klang's vision becomes too literal that they lose the ability to conjure such imagery. A dull pseudo-scientific drone of "Elek-tro / Kardio-gramm / Maxi-mum / Mini-mum / Beats / Per Minute" fails to bring us any closer to representative experience of the race, no matter what substantive facet science and nutrition may have become to the Tour de France.
The title track, a decade old and inspiration for this full-length release, remains its most powerful, suggestive component. It evokes all the physical effort, mechanized fury and transcendental joy of a six-hour slog into the clouds, high beyond the ski stations of Alpe d'huez. Even in its new, subtly altered form (re-mix, anyone?) it is a powerful piece of music. Like "La Forme" which almost precedes it, it is a melodic piece displaying warmth, texture and the influence of a more contemporary electronic music culture. Both tracks work outside of narrative context, something other than substantive intellectual exercise or homage to athletic endeavor. They work perfectly as music, all by themselves.
But deconstruction is what Kraftwerk do. Like gears on a hub, you can always hear the mental cogs turning. They deconstruct the pieces, and don't so much hold them to the light as lie them flat on a granite workbench and hold them for observation. And even if that remains so, perhaps it says something about how they (and we) see and experience electronic music now, that the strongest of their later work is no longer entirely impersonal or analytical. In time, even Kling and Klang may come to feel love through circuitry.
This album goes some way to demonstrate how the way we listen to electronic music has changed over the past two decades, and that dance culture is responsible for having shaped it. It also dictates that three decades on from Kraftwerks' first release, the music world has finally chased down and caught them, reeled them in to the pack; in doing so, the peleton has begun to repay the substantive debt owed.