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[Album review] Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine (1978)

Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine

Kling Klang, 1978. Genres: electronic, synthpop, krautrock.

(Note: many of Kraftwerk’s albums have been released in dual editions; one for their native German market and another for the global, mostly English-speaking populace. While I – by habit of accustomization – refer to the album and songs by their translated English titles and lyrics, the review of course also matches the original German edition.)

In 1978 The Man-Machine was released by the German band of self-titled ‘electronic music workers’, Kraftwerk, and the sound of robotic reasoning had arrived. It still resonates now, well into the future.

The album is the second in a trilogy of impeccable masterpieces (although I must add that whilst no Kraftwerk album is by any means bad, some do have strange quirks). It follows 1977’s Trans-Europe Express (which main lyrical focus was train-riding) and predates Computer World (which envisioned an expanding computerised reality) by three years. Kraftwerk has since the release of the Autobahn album – and thus throughout the entire electronic part of their career – always put out what one could classify as ‘concept albums’. Even the stylistically more diffuse ’86 LP Electric Café (retitled upon rerelease in 2009 under its original working title as Techno Pop) has a loose theme of electricity and modern living about it.
I guess that more rambling on other Kraftwerk discs is bound to happen on a later date.

And what is the concept of The Man-Machine then? The city, I reckon. Not a village, not a town, but a city – an integrated part of modern human life, and a place of commerce, entertainment, wonderous things, of movement and interaction. Almost an organism in and by itself. An evolving cellular entity.

Just one song doesn’t perfectly fit in with that description, though; the track “Spacelab”. Allowing myself to post-rationalise (vaguely attempting to make my argumentation seem more logic and valid), I tend to think of this song as an ode to the band’s Kling Klang studio in which they envisioned the album’s and their own feel of a new future of the past.

The album showcases six tracks and a total playing time that clocks in at just over 36 minutes. That’s not a lot of time (especially not in the digital age of the compact disc and the endless MP3 playlist) but it is all that is needed and it certainly ensures your attention throughout. It is an immersive and enthralling experience. The songs draw you in. Even the wordless numbers, take for example the title track of “The Man Machine”, which is a bouncy piece of proto-ambient that ends the album on a high note – marching towards an optimistic future in which man lives in harmony with his creations of cables and circuitry. “Vorsprung durch Technik” as the popular car slogan says.

The only downside to this otherwise magnificient piece of electronic art is just that, literally speaking a matter of sides: on a vinyl copy the physical limitations of the format entail you to turn the record around to continue its play, in essence making a short interlude. On a CD (or indeed on a digital playlist) this gap is lost and the transition of the album becomes more apparent and jars the overall “feel” of the album just a tiny bit.
While “The Model” is in itself not at all a bad song, the socially aware, satirical lyrics are somewhat out of touch with what is now the established mood of the album, in that it makes a slight interruption to an otherwise instrumental (save for some small repeated, almost mantric vocal bits) and rather meditative, enthralling musical journey, a journey which to my ears sounds more classical and sentimental. In contrast “The Model” sounds cabaret and sticks out from the others, just a bit. That’s neither a bad thing nor good. It just is, I guess.

Although looking towards the future, the album is a musical journey set some unspecified time during the inter-war period, it almost feels like taking a stroll down one of Berlin’s many metropolitan streets looking at poplar trees and shopping windows on the way. The feel of futurism pertaining to the album is retro, it is ‘what could have been’. In a way it is a nostalgic look back upon the future that didn’t happen right away because Nazism interrupted it.

At least that’s the image which the album conjures up in my mind’s eye. Perhaps this conviction is further enhanced by the record’s ’30s-inspired sleeve art which features the four band members standing on a staircase in front of a red backdrop, looking east. Towards Soviet Russia? Towards industrialisation? To make matters better (or worse) the sleeve features huge, capitalised black stencil lettering, and the band wear red shirts and black ties, looking – at best – mostly emotion-less (they are robots, after all). And at worst some accused them of looking slightly fascistic (the unfortunate but inevitable association when you’re a part of Germany’s first post-WWII generation).
Take a look and decide for yourself:

Kraftwerk: "The Man-Machine" (1978)
Original leeve art of the English-language edition. Members are (left to right) Karl Bartos, Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider and, at the back, Wolfgang Flür

 

Whatever your belief, there’s no denying that Kraftwerk at this stage of their career also mastered the visual artform. The sleeve art is provocative, propaganda poster-like and simply striking in its pure Lissitzky modernist urgency.
‘Retro-futurism’, in other words. Although when in 2009 Kraftwerk remasters were released the always retro-active band chose to ret-con its iconographic history and made the album covers even more ‘pop art’, removing the band members from the sleeve art.

All in all I feel the album conveys an optimistic, if somewhat naïve sentiment. Maybe a longing for, if not the time before WWII’s endless mass-industrialisation and destruction – then perhaps that era’s blooming ideal of embracing machinery for the good and advancement of man.

And that’s a nice, utopian feel. To me The Man-Machine is thus the album on which Kraftwerk (despite the contrasting topics of automation versus soul and beauty – or perhaps infact due to this clash) appear – dare I say it? – most human.

Kraftwerk always were (and still are) aware of the “humourless Teutons” stereotype, and they subverted it by slyly adding soul to their steel rhythm alloy. The Man-Machine is melancholy mechanised. The Deus in Machina.
Besides that it’s also an important electronic album, Kraftwerk being one of the first non-guitar bands to break into the mainstream of pop music.
This coupled with the fact that the band had something to say makes it recommendable to even the most average listener, and highly valued by fans of electronic music, a genre on which the band had tremendous influence.
Countless other artists with synthesizers followed their lead. I’ll undoubtedly write about some of these at a later date.

Published inReviews: music