Former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos’s latest solo album is a release of moderate interest as a series of compositions, but will certainly please Kraftwerk nerds, providing a set of insights behind the scenes of the Teutonic titans' heyday.
Commissioned by Bureau B, with the initial request being for original Kraftwerk-era demo tapes, Bartos has trawled his archive and re-imagined the songs collected here, often trimming them down significantly. There’s plenty here that highlights Bartos’s ability and his integrity to many of Kraftwerk’s significant releases (The Man-Machine, Computer World), but Off the Record is of more interest as a historical document than for the music itself – something Bartos would probably admit.
Firstly, there’s a slight context missing to the album alone, as this is designed with a travelling 3D cinema to accompany performances. A glimpse at the images accompanying lead single ‘Atomium’ sets a tone that’s in keeping with expectation; statues of particles, architecture, retro text that pans across the screen. There’s no denial here that this music is from the past and now the realm of nostalgia. Not putting out records is the best thing Kraftwerk have done: there’s a respect to history and their role in it. Unearthed somewhat unnecessarily, this release is pleasant indulgence but no masterpiece.
This isn’t to say it can’t be enjoyed. ‘International Velvet’ and ‘The Tuning of the World’ are beautiful ballads with the glistening keyboards that ‘Computer World’ spiralled into international reverence. As well as providing looping, hypnotic, ear worms they emit, retrospectively, a glance of the DNA of acts spinning out of their influence; Warp Records and Plone, Bjork, The Postal Service. What’s fun in hearing this is to sonically trace Bartos-era Kraftwerk (and Kraftwerk, period) as the robots being absorbed molecularly, over generations, into a humanised form, a classic Sci-Fi narrative played via music; an imagined opera.
Then there’s the brutal. ‘Music Ex Machina’ pounds with the incessant drone of today’s pop. Where once this would have signalled the possible moral conflict of technology’s potential (unthinking, un-judging processes), this now just sounds like the backbeat of the charts. For the first few minutes this could be the ‘Macarena’, David Guetta, LMFAO, music as a business model and pumped into clubs. Bartos thankfully doesn’t let the backbeat be the sole stimulant. The track flitters into a series of oscillations that become a therapeutic noise, a respite from the Edward Hydes Bartos has similarly helped create.
Everything that makes a mark in history is victim to perception; there are benefits and unwanted side effects. Bartos is no different, he’s been in one of the strangest bands we have and has become a legend, he’s excited generations and steered culture. Now he cannot do that, now his music falls flat.
5Jon Falcone's Score