Album: Kraftwerk

Tour De France Soundtracks, EMI
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The Independent Culture

For a band so obsessively drawn to the notion of movement - of cars, trains, and (as here) bicycles - it's odd how static Kraftwerk themselves have become.

For a band so obsessively drawn to the notion of movement - of cars, trains, and (as here) bicycles - it's odd how static Kraftwerk themselves have become. On Tour De France Soundtracks, the least essential album of their 40-year career, they've all but ground to a halt, seemingly drained of ideas and, more damagingly, melodies.

This is little short of a musical tragedy. For decades, Kraftwerk dominated electronic pop with an aloof, glacial elegance. But this latest offering could be the bland product of any number of contemporary "quiet techno" outfits. You'd certainly not play it in preference to Trans-Europe Express or The Man-Machine, albums which were revolutionary in their day, and which have retained their appeal through melodies that haunt the heart. By contrast, these pieces sound more like blueprints, rhythm skeletons they couldn't figure out how to develop.

Take the opening "Tour De France" suite, for which their old single is stretched across a "Prologue" and three "Stages", nearly 16 minutes in which the original germ of an idea is squashed ever longer and thinner, denuding it of its former charm and immediacy to the point where it just sounds like an endless intro to a not particularly interesting ambient-techno track. The tones and timbres may be more contemporary, but Kraftwerk have lost the peculiarities that gave their music its bewitching power. Tracks such as "Vitamin", "Aero Dynamik", "Titanium" and "Elektro Kardiogramm" are simply dull, one-dimensional scientific celebrations in the vein of their three-decade-old Radioactivity album, minus the lovely tunes and the sly undertones of political ambivalence. So bereft of decent ideas are they that "Elektro Kardiogramm" even uses the hackneyed device of a rhythm track built from heartbeats and sequenced breathing.

The lyrics, croaked out by a ubiquitous machine-voice (what's wrong with Ralf Hutter's natural voice, once the beguiling ghost in their machine-music?), offer little by way of insight or decoration - usually just a few descriptive phrases such as "Minimum, maximum/ Beats per minute". Self-parody is almost entirely absent here, replaced by a stone-faced focus on creating a "serious", straightforward techno record - a paltry aim compared to their original vaulting ambition.

But it's the absence of winning melodies that really kills Tour De France Soundtracks. Fluttering electronic glissandi are fine as decorative accoutrements, but hardly constitute catchy numbers in themselves. It's only with the eventual, album-closing "proper" version of "Tour De France" that we finally get a decent tune - but it's one that's 20 years old.

Sadly, Kraftwerk no longer sport the maillot jaune, but seem firmly stuck in a peloton of interchangeable techno acts.

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