It’s true. Your grandfather’s favorite electro act is better than your favorite electro act. This is exactly the case with German pioneers Kraftwerk. Nobody does it better. Even forty-five years after their inception Kraftwerk are the founding fathers of all that we consider electronic music. They manage to bring the aesthetic and inherent quality of their medium to its utter peak, without ever veering towards the clichés that have marred nearly ever subgenre they have inspired: big beat, EDM, techno and dubstep included. Performing a historic eight consecutive shows in four nights at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall for the LA Phil’s Minimalist Jukebox Festival, each show was billed as Kraftwerk playing one of their eight seminal albums in its entirety. This particular early evening show was advertised as the night for Trans-Europe Express. Those lucky enough to attend this show, however, got way more than they bargained for.
The band started the show with perhaps their most powerful trump card, the title track itself, “Trans-Europe Express.” With little more than a robotic voice signaling the beginning, the curtain dropped and the band’s four members were already in position behind four mounted keyboard stands. Behind them, a gigantic video wall also immediately began to play. The extra feature of these shows being that the entire show was in 3D. Yes, special 3D glasses were handed out at the beginning of the event, and each song had a video accompaniment tailored to the song’s meaning, feeling or lyrical content. Their quality instantly apparent, “Trans-Europe Express” alone melodically has three different passages that are purely unforgettable. It’s a rare seven-minute journey that never leaves the listener tired or disinterested. Predictably, for this number, the 3D imagery was a trans-continental train with a T.E.E. logo on it. “Europe Endless” and “Hall of Mirrors” followed; the former backed by imagery of a grey, blanket-like, undulating tapestry, the latter a 360-degree space ride surrounded by musical notation.
“Showroom Dummies” concluded the Trans-Europe Express portion of the show. That one song itself exhibiting much of what Kraftwerk is famous for: a backdrop of minimalist synth keyboards, an atmosphere that somehow sounds futuristic, ominous and charming, and quirky lyrics that seem to speak in metaphor more than purpose. That could’ve been enough for a proper set with maybe an encore or two, but the show was less than a third of the way through. The familiar sound of a car revving up prompted a massive cheer from the audience. The band led straight into their classic “Autobahn” playing at least a sizable portion of it. Not content with that, the band continued with “Radio-Activity,” like “Trans-Europe Express,” a song bearing no fewer than three truly unforgettable melodies. What’s more, the song sets a tone of somber world worry, yet bleeps and bloops like the perfect Philip K. Dick soundtrack.
Other songs such as “The Robots”—with its upbeat vocoder-infused vocals—and the lovelorn “The Model” were just icing on the cake at that point. The group seriously upped the ante by playing almost the entirety of Computer World next. The ode to counting “Numbers” was first in that block, highlighted by 3D video of a Matrix-like field of digital numbers floating like a flag in the breeze. That ebbed seamlessly into the fantastical “Computer World,” a peppy and fun song that doubles as a paranoid rumination on government banks and security agencies such as the FBI and Scotland Yard. “Home Computer” and “Computer Love” wrapped that segment up, the latter of which seeming to predate online dating by almost 20 years. They ended out the affair with perhaps the strongest song in their catalog not played yet, the extra-long “Tour de France,” their famous ode to the world-class bicycle race and the two-song suite of “Boing Boom Tschak” and “Musique Non-Stop.” “Musique Non-Stop” is the perfect way to go out, as it allows for an easy decrescendo, and works as a sort of musical “goodbye.” Like “Trans-Europe Express” was your road into their little world, and “Musique Non-Stop” is your last look before the exit.
Though different members have made up the group over the years, the four-piece group consisting of Ralf Hütter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen have produced a truly captivating show, one that anyone with even a cursory interest in electronic music must see. This show, and any alternate version of it that one might be able to see, is a breathtaking look at how electronic music can be relevant, simple, forward-thinking and as enrapturing and melodic as any other genre. Some times to learn anything we need to go all the way back to where we started and take a good look at why it worked in the first. It’s probably about time that our current generation of electronic musicians did just that.