By Dee Dee Vega
Die kunst ist tot? Not a chance. More than thirty years after Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider changed the trajectory of pop music forever with a love of rapid transportation and a Minimoog, these original members of the industrial powered four-man menagerie, Kraftwerk, electrified New York's Hammerstein Ballroom. It's odd to hear these mechanized masterpieces after the urban electronic music landscape has been so grossly eroded for years with the candy coated presence of rave culture and Gap commercials full of convulsing, denim sporting yuppies.
Kraftwerk's very presence at the Hammerstein, in fact, is a testament to the celebrated transition from the Cold War days of analog chic when the founding Kraftwerk members literally invented the voice of what they call "robot pop," a form that has become perhaps the most influential sound in contemporary music. Kling Klang studios (allegedly located at an undisclosed mystery location with no street entrance) which grew into a lair of musical mayhem during the 1980s and 90s outfitted with electronic instruments that occupied rooms of space and six tons of weight, was long home to the creative genius of the band. As Kraftwerk's collection of analog technology grew, their live performances diminished because the outré entertainers simply couldn't move their equipment. But, the Hammerstein audience saw a Kraftwerk that is in some ways even closer to the band's message of man/machine harmony. They streamlined their sound into a world of digital, synchronized projections, and of course, laptops.
These machines are what allowed Kraftwerk to reemerge, after a long period of stagnation, more relevant than ever. Rather than staying entrenched in the retro reality in which their pioneering sound was born, Kraftwerk is making music that still jumpstarts an iPod-encrusted culture. Anthems to transportation like Trans-Europe Express and Autobahn as well as hymns to technology like The Man-Machine and Pocket Calculator, mostly written in the 70s and 80s, are oddly comforting because they are odes of another era to a dream that Kraftwerk has realized, unity and artistic progress through digital technology. Hutter has been frequently quoted as stating, "Sometimes we play the machines and sometimes the machines play us." The way Kraftwerk has realized this symbiotic existence over thirty years is something of a marvel
The U.S./Europe concerts, for those lucky enough to score a spot at the intimate venues, is timed with the band's first ever live recording, Minimum-Maximum which will be released on June 7th. Within the radioactive world of Kraftwerk, the fact that the two CD set is live is no small irony. Some of the biggest applause of the night at the Hammerstein came as the band members were replaced on stage with their "robot" counterparts for (surprise) We Are the Robots. The man/machine synthesis has generated enough energy to power generations of music from inventive hip-hop samples to the stultifying serenades of Coldplay. They did seem to indicate all those years ago that that is exactly what they intended to do. The name "Kraftwerk," after all, means "power station."