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"Preserved in musical formaldehyde,
and that's how we like 'em." This more
or less sums up the rapturous welcome Japan has afforded German
techno giants Kraftwerk in recent tours. Following an ecstatically
received visit in 1998, their first to Japan in years, the
quartet quickly returned to headline the Electraglide festival
in 2002, and at the end of this month they're back
for a five-date Tokyo run.
Since returning to regular touring in the new millennium,
Kraftwerk ("Power Station") haven't tinkered
with the sound they first laid on an unsuspecting world with
the genre-defining Kraftwerk 1 in 1971. On the contrary, the
times have come back around to make the brittle yet beautiful
techno they composed on early Moog synthesizers sound right
in the moment. Recent waves of electronic revival music like
electroclash have only served to confirm the visionary nature
of Kraftwerk's innovations.
Sticking to the musical vocabulary they created, the German
quartet's only concession to the present is the use
of laptops instead of bulky synthesizers. At the packed 2002
Electraglide in the appropriately futuristic Makuhari Messe
convention center, even their new songs sounded old-perhaps
that's because some of them were.
Last year's Tour de France Soundtracks, their most
recent disc and first in 15 years, actually had its genesis
in a "Tour de France" single Kraftwerk released
in 1983. Reworking the song for the centenary 2002 Tour de
France, the band ended up recording a whole album based on
bicycling themes. Inveterate bicyclists themselves, Kraftwerk
gave the songs titles like "Titanium" and "Chrono."
Media-shy and garbed on stage in robot suits that efface their
individuality, Kraftwerk from the start looked beyond the
age of the pop idol to one in which the technology of creation,
more than the creators, is celebrated. Founding members Florian
Schneider and Ralf Htter met in the late '60s
as classical music students at the Dusseldorf Academy and
soon began exploring electronic music as part of the German
experimental scene that also spawned Can and Tangerine Dream.
Kraftwerk 1 and its 1972 follower Kraftwerk 2 set the template
for contemporary electronica: the drummer was replaced by
a sequencer (built by Schneider in their Kling Klang studio),
the vocalist by sampled snippets of voice, and the verse-chorus-verse
pop tune structure with a simpler, hypnotically repetitive
It was with 1974's Autobahn that Kraftwerk made their
mark. The album was their first to be released in the US,
and charted high there and worldwide on the strength of the
title track. It also marked the beginning of the group's
succession of concept albums, with 1975's Radio-Activity
exploring radio communication, 1977's Trans-Europe
Express train travel, and 1978's The Man Machine the
world of robots.
Following 1981's prescient Computer World, an exploration
of an existence dominated by technology, they went into a
period of quiescence that, until the single "Expo 2000"
appeared in 1999, was broken only by 1986's Electric
Notwithstanding the consistency of their sound over the decades,
Kraftwerk aren't oblivious to intervening developments.
Ray Hearn, of Electraglide promoter Beatink, says they're
in tune with the times. "I thought they would be more
insular, but they're so much more aware of other acts
than most bands I've worked with," he said.
"They're genuinely aware of all the phases electronica
has been through, and are far more contemporary than people
half their age."
With electronica lacking direction and dogged by the superstar
DJ syndrome, Kraftwerk continue to remind us that electronic
music was firstly about technological communion-not
eye-popping DJ fees and celebrity remixes.
Kraftwerk play Zepp Tokyo on February
28-29 and Shibuya AX on March 2-4. See concert listings for
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