Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Moving along now - Kraftwerk's "Autobahn"

Marty R’s enthusiasm for the music of Kraftwerk not only inspired me to listen again today to their classic album Autobahn, which I bought a few months ago, but also to go out and buy another three of their albums in my lunchbreak. It’s music that is incredibly addictive and, like most addictive substances, it can seem a bit freaky at first, and it can space you out a bit - but, ride with it for a while and, before you know it, you'll just want more and more.

As soon as you start playing Autobahn, with its opening 22 minute title track, you know that you are in the 70s, and you’re reminded just what a wonderfully rich and inventive period that was for music, when artists were full of the urge to experiment, often without too much regard, at least at first, for what it would mean in sales figures.

But as music, like life generally, becomes more commercialised and corporatised, it obviously becomes more and more difficult for musicians to be really creative and unconventional – and so recordings like this are always such pleasures to hear.

Autobahn makes exciting uses of electronics, mixing soft, lush harmonies with strange, electric noise, in ways that must have been pretty daring when they were first produced. Paces and metres change from chugging, minimalist rhythms to sections where it is the wave of noise, rather than the beat of percussion, that gives the music its pulse.

But always, there is a sense of movement in this music. And that, probably even more than the interesting use of electronic sound, is what gives Autobahn its sense of unity and cohesion and, ultimately, of taking you on a journey.

Nowhere, of course, is this more obvious than in the track “Autobahn” itself. A car revs up, and moves from gear to gear until, before long, you are zipping along the highway to the steady hypnotic sounds of electronic keyboards, rapid but not rushed, as you watch the scenery speeding past: sometimes fertile and drenched in sun, sometimes sparse and cold, like craggy, rocks and dead, twisted tree stumps poking here and there out of snow-laden plains. It’s a journey that is magnetic in the way it brings you into itself, and takes you along with it.

"Autobahn" is followed by two shorter, but no less mesmerising, tracks: “Kometenmelodie 1” and Kometenmelodie 2” – two “melodies of the comets”. And, certainly, there is a sense of movement in the enormity of space here: movement that we observe, and are fascinated by, rather than participate in. It’s not big sound, and yet it still manages to create a sense of bigness – through widely spaced harmonies and huge, swirling sounds in the bass and, eventually, spinning eddies of melody that shimmer in the treble – making you want to look up into the sky to see where the sound is coming from.

“Mitternacht” (midnight) is a much creepier, eerie piece of music. Now we are walking, it seems, in a dark, old house, or maybe in a huge, grim forest, with spooky organ chords; ominous, deep, slow beats, like steps on a haunted earth, and strange, spectral creatures howling and screeching in the background.

“Morgenspaziergang” (morning walk) brings us back into the sunlight, with a playful, flute melody that starts with child-like simplicity, alone and a little forlorn – but then the world around it gurgles and rumbles to life and, before long, its song is joined by first one, and then another, and then some more voices – new instruments joining in its little walk in the morning sun, which, after such a grim night, seems all the more warm and comforting.

Autobahn is an album that does a lot of things with sound that go beyond what people would typically have thought of as “music”, and the influences of that great German innovator of electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen, are certainly evident. But the brilliance of Kraftwerk is the way they turn the unmusical into music and how, in taking us on their fascinating journey to far and distant places, they broaden our own horizons in the process.

Vielen Dank, Marty – ein wunderbares Erlebnis!

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