Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Movement Called Kraftwerk

I keep an ear out for what young people are listening to, since new music is always the most exciting frontier. Among serious listeners of today, the more popular genres are EDM, trance, techno, and of course, hip-hop. I admit to not totally grasping the beauty of all of these genres, in spite of the adventures of Robert Moog and the early explorations of synthesized sound being highlights of our teen years. Jean Michel Jarre, Stockhausen and Brian Eno were high art. My friends and I frothed at the mouth as we built ring modulators and drum machines from circuits published in EFY magazine. When Casio released the monophonic VL-Tone, we went berserk with its programmable attack, delay, sustain, release option. As we got older, and taste and technology evolved, we let go of it as youthful obsessions that were of no lasting value.

One of the bands from that era that was quite unlike anything else was Kraftwerk. It was not rock. It was not dance music. It did not showcase keyboard or melodic skills of any great merit. It had no pretense of social relevance beyond the industrial/robotic angle. It was a focused, unapologetic celebration of synthesized sound. It stood at such a distance from any other form of music that it was a genre by itself. Before Kraftwerk hit Indian shores with their more successful releases, their bland, almost anti-emotional appeal earned them a good amount of disdain from the critics community; but the kids loved it. Their campus years film footage shows the kind of following they had even before they got their fingers on the pulse of the mass audience. The timing of this music with the increased interest in altered consciousness made things easier. Interestingly, their work laid the foundations for techno, synthpop, and EDM as we know them today.

The Man Machine - The Kraftwerk album that I first heard

By the time the 80s came around, the sound was accepted, their compositions and albums got better packaged for mass consumption, and their German avant-garde clinical image became an essential component of their appeal. But the music was still the same. Clever use of synthesizers and sequencers around simple composition with elementary lyrics if any. Not the kind of stuff to stand the test of time, one might have thought then.

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