Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Kraftwerk, The Catalogue

In 2003 Kraftwerk released their last (to date) album of new material, Tour de France Soundtracks.  The 2010 Tour de France starts today.  Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider are the creative core of Kraftwerk and Hutter is an avid cyclist.  I’m also an avid enough cyclist to have taken a trip to France for the sole purpose of spending a week in the French Alps cycling up and over some of the historic Tour de France climbs such as Alpe d’Huez and Col du Galibier.  Put it all together and it sounds like today is the perfect day to review the Kraftwerk box set The Catalogue.

The Catalogue collects eight Kraftwerk albums that were released between 1974 and 2003.  The albums in chronological order are Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine, Computer World,  Electric Cafe (which is entitled Techno Pop in The Catalogue), The Mix and Tour de France Soundtracks.  Each album appears on its own disc which does not include any extra material.  All eight albums were remastered by Hutter.  Each album is packaged in a cardboard sleeve with a second interior cardboard sleeve for the disc.  The set also contains large (12″ by 12″) booklets for each album.  The booklets contain large pictures associated with each album and have their own slipcase.  Unless you want to see readily available pictures of Kraftwerk becoming increasingly machine-like in appearance over time, the booklets are pretty much a waste of time and space.

As box sets go, The Catalogue is austere.  All you get is the original eight albums remastered and a lot of heavyweight paper devoted to pointless pictures that anyone interested in the band has probably seen a thousand time before.  There is no information about the band or how they went about making the music, no extra tracks, nothing.  You get the eight albums.  That’s it.

Is that enough to justify purchasing The Catalogue?  That will depend on how much you like Kraftwerk and how good your sound playback system is.  It would be difficult to overestimate Kraftwerk’s importance as a band.  They came out of the exceptionally rich musical hotbed of late 1960s  – 1970s West Germany that also produced the German electronic and rock pioneers who are collected on Soul Jazz’s recent and superb Deutsche Elektronische Musik collection.  While they are sometimes classified with these bands, listening to Kraftwerk’s revolutionary 1970s albums after just having spent several weeks listening to Deutsche Elektronische Musik gave me the feeling that Kraftwerk were not only from a different time, they were from a different planet.

Kraftwerk weren’t ahead of their time, they were outside of time altogether.  They didn’t sound like the future, they shaped the future.  They were the dominant influence in establishing electronic music as a form of popular music.  They influenced the early days of House music and that influence can still be heard in electronic dance music, especially in the techno genres and subgenres.  Some of their music sounds like it could have been made yesterday and there are any number of techno groups with established careers today who are still haven’t gotten to the point Kraftwerk were at 35 years ago.  They were a dominant, perhaps the dominant, influence on the development of synth pop in the 1980s.  They played a crucial role in the establishment of hip hop when Afrika Bambaataa released the Arthur Baker produced “Planet Rock” which ripped off the melody line from Kraftwerk’s immensely influential “Trans-Europe Express” and combined it with the drum track from “Numbers” off of Kraftwerk’s Computer World.  (For more on Kraftwerk, see our review of Pascal Bussy’s Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music).

What all this means is that The Catalogue is a great buy for people who have an interest in electronic music or who are interested in the development of any of the kinds of music listed above and who don’t know the band or don’t already have their albums.  What about people who already have this music?

The key factor here is the sound.  Kraftwerk were more than pioneers of popular electronic music in the sense that they were among the first to use electronic instruments.  They weren’t just making sounds and music using the instruments available to them at the time.  In many cases they were building or rebuilding the machines that made the sounds so that they could make the music  they wanted to hear.  They didn’t just create electronic music, they created a significant part of the fundamental alphabet and language of popular electronic music by creating the machines that made the sounds that defined the genre as we know it.  Kraftwerk cared deeply about what it sounded like.

Hutter still does.  His remastering is an enormous improvement over what has previously been available on CD, especially for the earlier albums (and six of the eight, Autobahn through Computer World, were released before CDs became commercially available in 1982).  Sound engineers who mix music talk about making room in the mix for each instrument.  This usually involves using parametric equalization to separate the frequency range occupied by an instrument from the range occupied by other instruments, reducing the overlap in the frequencies shared by different instruments, and panning instruments with similar frequency ranges to different locations on the soundstage.  The sounds Kraftwerk created to make their music are sculpted so cleanly and so precisely out of the frequency spectrum that it sounds like making room in the mix for each instrument wasn’t an issue.  Every sound has it’s own specific frequency range and it feels like you would be left with an empty hole in the mix if you took a sound out, like a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing.  Panning comes across like it was planned on the centimeter level.  The sound on The Catalogue is brilliant and pristine.

This will only be of importance if you have the sound reproduction gear that will allow you to hear it.  You’re going to need decent speakers, amps that can drive them, and a DAC that is better than what you’ll find in an iPod or a stereo-in-a-box from Best Buy.  If you’re planning on listening on MP3, forget it.

I have enjoyed Kraftwerk’s music for a long time.  We already had almost all of the music contained in The Catalogue and our two main sound reproduction systems are capable of producing the immaculate sound of these remasters.  For me, The Catalogue was not only a worthwhile purchase, it was essential.  The great strength of the collection is the sound.  The weakness is that there’s nothing new here in terms of content.  If you’re new to Kraftwerk, The Catalogue is highly recommended.  If you already know this music the value of The Catalogue will depend on how important the improved sound of the remasters is relative to duplicating music you may already have in your collection.

How do you pick one or two Kraftwerk tunes as illustration?  Impossible.  I’ve been listening to the albums while writing this review so I’ll just rip a track from the disc that’s currently playing.  The sound of this MP3 doesn’t capture the sound quality that is the main strength of The Catalogue.

“Trans-Europe Express”

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07/03/2010 - Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. […] Today the most well known bands from this period of German music are probably Can, Neu!, Faust and Tangerine Dream, all of whom are represented in Deutsche Elektronische Musik, and, of course, Kraftwerk, which is not.  I assume Kraftwerk’s absence stems from licensing issues.  If so, whoever is responsible for deciding not to allow Kraftwerk to appear on Deutsche Elektronische Musik made a mistake  because the set is not only excellent but likely to become definitive.  Kraftwerk really should be here. […]

    Pingback by Review: Various Artists, Deutsche Elektronische Musik « Tuned In To Music | 07/03/2010 | Reply

  2. […] Those who study current forms of popular music have the same type of categorization problem with Kraftwerk.  Their work was so visionary and so influential that many music analysts arrive at the Beethoven […]

    Pingback by Review: Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music, Pascal Bussy « Tuned In To Music | 07/03/2010 | Reply

  3. […] plays out in genres that embrace artifice such as a bubblegum pop (The Monkees), dance/electronica (Kraftwerk) and early rock (Elvis Presley).  And there’s […]

    Pingback by Review: Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, Hugh Barker & Yuval Taylor « Tuned In To Music | 07/03/2010 | Reply

  4. […] of Kraftwerk Get your geek on.  The Music of Kraftwerk is a various artists collection of Kraftwerk tunes performed “primarily on lo-bit handheld gaming devices, vintage video game consoles and […]

    Pingback by Review: 8-Bit Operators, The Music of Kraftwerk « Tuned In To Music | 07/03/2010 | Reply

  5. […] that was emerging at this time being heavily indebted to Italo Disco which was itself a hybrid of Kraftwerk-style electronic music with the melodically oriented song structures of American disco.  It’s the electronica […]

    Pingback by Review: Confuzed Disco « Tuned In To Music | 07/03/2010 | Reply


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