Kraftwerk’s self-curated brand is one of the most rigid in modern music, and the iconic image of Man Machine automatons is crystallised in the current live show — pristine electronic pulses honed with nano scale precision, with the four robots lined up as vector graphic avatars. It’s a universal truth that’s rarely challenged, but Kraftwerk: A Future Past is chamber ensemble Icebreaker’s attempt to hack behind the ones and zeroes to mine Kraftwerk’s distant past and create a clanking, shape-shifting revision of electronic music’s most revered canon.
Created by German sound artist and composer J. Peter Schwalm (who joins the 12-piece ensemble on stage for live electronic programming), it dispels the myth of Kraftwerk as post-human, resurrecting relics from their early 70s albums in a reminder that Ralf and Florian were mapping out the future using strings, flutes and tape loops before they wired up their Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf with hand-built synthesisers and drum machines.
Icebreaker’s tribute goes beyond other famous reworks like the Balanescu Quartet’s Baroque string versions or Senor Coconut’s tongue-in-cheek Latin American cha-cha-cha covers, which both bow before the classic melodies. Unlike their faithful live performance of Brian Eno’s Apollo here at the NCH in 2011, they strike Kraftwerk at an oblique angle, forging new compositions from fragments of raw material.
This could be first time the music of Kraftwerk has sounded like an actual kraftwerk power plant, with grime under the Showroom Dummies’ fingernails. Their heavily percussive take on ‘Home Computer’ brings the track’s futurist utopia back to the industrial revolution, with clanging glockenspiel evoking an assembly line of steam punk circuit boards and a gut-punch bass drum causing vibrating aftershocks in the floor. In the 40 years since the release of the Radio-Activity album, ‘Radioactivity’ has morphed into a public service broadcast on nuclear disasters, but Icebreaker reinserts the hyphen and turns the dial back, sampling static and clipped broadcasts in Deutsch over an intense motorik beat and guttural guitar chugs. The melodies on ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Multitanz’ are preserved on xylophone and flute as a concession; a reassuring bridge to the familiar.
Free of Ralf Hutter’s dry wit and prophetic lyrics, Icebreaker’s performance has a more abstract slant, synchronised with a film in triptych arrangement by Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish. Shot in grainy monochrome in Kraftwerk’s native Ruhrgebeit region, the film darts between knife blade close-ups, chrome door handles, traffic signs, power station chimneys and clean geometric shapes – triangles, circles and diagonal lines pointing to the Russian suprematist aesthetic on the iconic Man Machine artwork. In ambient phases during ‘Mitternacht’ and ‘Megaherz’ these visual hard lines soften, with flute motifs the soundtrack to raindrop ripples and branches stirring in the foreground of industrial estates. During ‘Autobahn’ the film shifts focus from the journey to the road itself, as tarmac and broken white lines steer the piece into a much higher gear than the sedate 1974 homage to the utilitarian driving experience.
Ralf Hutter once said of the organic-electronic interface: “We play the machines, but sometimes the machines play us.” As always, it’s said with an arched eyebrow, but it also suggests Kraftwerk’s music doesn’t have to be too precious. It exists outside of the robots themselves – open source, for all to plunder. Icebreaker have stripped away the myth to build upon the bare human bones and create a new way of appreciating the electro godfathers. And just because it’s a bunch of folk in jeans instead of LED suits, doesn’t mean it’s not Kraftwerk.