Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » June 2005 » Visions of Man-Machine...

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06/06/2005: Visions of Man-Machine...

Not to step on Len’s post (and I KNOW he’ll have some great pictures of his attendance at Kraftwerk Concert to post once he reaches his home Wi-Fi again) but I couldn’t pass up on adding this review from the Chicago Tribune: Fusion of Man and Machine:

”Kraftwerk knows how to make an entrance. With the sequenced pitter-patter beats of "The Man-Machine" -- part "Pong," part ping-pong, part "Speak & Spell" showcase -- bouncing off the walls of the sold-out Riviera Saturday night, - part Pong, part ping-pong, part "Speak & Spell" showcase - the four members of the venerated German electronic act cast striking, larger-than-life backlit silhouettes against a deep red screen.

But then The screen lifted to reveal a quartet of rather ordinary middle-aged men, each identically outfitted in a sharp black suit and standing behind some sort of ultra-modern lectern.podium. It looked less like the start of a concert and more like the beginning of a PowerPoint presentation.

It was a fittingly contemporary sight from such a futuristic band, but then, the future is now. Rarely has a band of such iconoclastic misfits felt so at home in so many different eras of pop music. For Kraftwerk, the future has always been "now," whenever "now" happened to fall.

After all, the future was back in the '70s, too, when Kraftwerk, formed in Dusseldorf, Germany, quickly made the case for homemade electronic instruments, drum machines and ingenious assembly line songs that sounded as if like they were created by robots, for robots. The future was also the 1980s, when Kraftwerk's influence could be heard in dozens of acts, from the hip-hop of Afrika Bambaataa to the synth pop of New Order and Depeche Mode and even to the abrasive agit-punk of Big Black, who famously covered the band's "The Model."

Lately, elements of Kraftwerk are inescapable. Every electronic act stationed behind a laptop owes a debt to these Teutonic pioneers. Whether he knows it or not, hot hip-hop producer Lil Jon owes a debt as well. Heck, even rock icons U2 covered Kraftwerk's "Neon Lights" on a recent single, and the upcoming Coldplay album credits the band not just as inspiration but for the hook borrowed for the song "Talk."

As performers, however, Kraftwerk falls closer to performance art. Listen to the new live album "Minimum-Maximum" while staring at the cover and you more or less get the idea of watching four stationary men work diligently yet mysteriously at their anonymous machines.

But to do so would miss the indelible charm of watching Kraftwerk in the flesh. The visuals projected behind the band, matched methodically to the music, vacillated from charming to psychedelic, stock footage colliding with primitive computer-drawn images. The band, while never particularly active, was not entirely immobile. It was almost sweet to watch these self-consciously cold performers actually bobble in place, taken over by the hypnotic rhythms and beguiling melodies of "Trans-Europe Express," "Autobahn" or "Pocket Calculator." Founding member Ralf Hutter in particular appeared pleased and animated, though fellow founder Florian Schneider barely cracked a smile the whole night.

Henning Schmitz would cup his hand around his mouth conspiratorially to speak what few vocals find their way into Kraftwerk songs, his voice heavily processed and hardly recognizable as human. Fritz Hilpert (like Schmitz, a studio rat enlisted to fill the ranks of Kraftwerk in recent years) moved and grooved as he manipulated notes and melodies.

Did it really take four people to do what Kraftwerk did Saturday? No, of course not.

Thanks in part to the advances made by experimental groups such as themselves, a DJ could replicate the whole Kraftwerk set with a tiny briefcase-size groovebox. But that misses the point. Kraftwerk's music always underlined the sci-fi redundancy of humanity in the shadow of specialized machines, so what better way to present that theme than to transform into anonymous automatons themselves?

Less a band, proper, Kraftwerk was more like a collective of mechanized workers, each member suited to a specific task in the construction of each song. Or, in the case of "The Robots," not suited at all, as the living, breathing members of Kraftwerk were replaced by automated showroom dummy likenesses.

Yet at the same time, the human element did shine through, whether in the cautionary dance menace of "Radioactivity" or the playful "Music Non Stop."

Kraftwerk may present itself as a robotic parody of a soulless, clinical, corporate world, but the gray hair, sly smiles and bald pates are reminders of the heart beating behind the robot facade.”

Karen on 06.06.05 @ 07:36 AM CST

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