Kraftwerk have never been much fun. For nearly 45 years they have been impassively standing behind Vocodors and electronic drums, solemnly dropping efficient German beats overlaid with grim decrees about man’s increasing mesh with machine. Nevertheless they provided inspiration to a list of genre-jumping artists so long it that could fill several alternate versions of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’. Musicians such as the Human League, the Normal, Joy Division, Devo, Afrika Bambaataa, David Bowie and Brian Eno were all formed in the wake of the group’s pioneering electronic sounds and in turn it could probably be said that more contemporary groups like Daft Punk, Soulwax and Hot Chip are Kraftwerk’s grandchildren, bopping and pinging away on their own tracks using techniques they inherited from artists who in turn inherited them from Kraftwerk.
But even if their influence is monumental, the group still can’t be said to be much fun as they’ve always been defined by their unwavering Teutonic stoicism as they have by their revolutionary musical techniques. With a history of continually trumping themselves with each enigmatic public reappearance (including eschewing photo-shoots by sending mannequins in their stead), the group has earned a reputation for artistic seclusion; preferring to concentrate on honing a perfectionist output that has earned avant-garde labels more for their techniqus rather than any sense of natural melodious expression. Rather tellingly, when Daft Punk were asked last year if they would ever consider collaboration with Kraftwerk, the one in the gold helmet replied “No, we could never work with robots.”
Accordingly, their live shows were traditionally pretty stiff, as adapting a purposely stilted stage-presence isn’t going to get people up and dancing simply because said adaption is a self-aware intrinsic part of delivering the music. When the foundation of a show is four older German men standing behind computers somberly pressing buttons, there emerges a need for jazzing things up a bit.
However, the last decade has seen such a jazzing as Kraftwerk began incorporating an increasingly dynamic visual experience into their live shows. Starting with using large high definition screens to provide surrealist graphics to accompany the sounds, their show has evolved into an immersive 3D spectacle that is equal parts Mugatu’s hypnosis video from Zoolander and Mayakovskian futurism. Following a recent cycle through European music festivals, including a headline closing set at Dublin’s Longitude Festival last summer, the band have since honed down their 3D minimalist fantabulosa by bringing it to more intimate indoor theatres, including a stint at Manhattan’s United Palace Theatre on Wednesday evening.
Their concert opener, ‘The Robots’ with its automated droning chorus of “We are the robots, we are the robots”, acts as much as a straightforward proclamation of what’s in store for the rest of the show as it did for the group’s career when it was released in 1978. However, the 2014 version shows that Kraftwerk can render graphical images that can be just as remarkable as the music the images accompany. Although the members themselves remain ensconced behind their Star Trek panels, slightly tapping their florsheim zipper boots (but never getting too rowdy) and sporting skin-tight Tron suits, they let the video projections do the real work. 30-foot high look-a-like figurines, decked out in crisp cerise shirts and light-up ties, rotate hauntingly across the massive screen, projecting their lifeless fingertips across the awe-struck crowd. Later for ‘Spacelab’ satellites stab their antennas into a gasping audience while for ‘Trans-Europe Express’ a gigantic locomotive ploughs through a sparse landscape of silver lines and out into the auditorium.
For the show’s centrepiece, ‘Autobahn’, the group takes the audience on a 20-minute voyage in a Volkswagen Beetle through a Windows 95 screensaver of Bavarian hillsides and amusingly literal road-sign imagery. Then, refusing to acknowledge that the ‘Autobahn’ sojourn could mean the audience might want a break, the group launch into another long expedition through a CGI-enhanced European countryside for ‘Tour de France’, showing a steely determination to reach the finish that’s usually only reserved for Dads on road-trips.
In terms of audience experience, most of the three-thousand attending simply sat in their assigned seats, slack-jawed behind their 3D glasses, breaking into lively applause and whoops of delight whenever the band would tap out the opening bars of one of their hits or bring one their throbbing crescendos to a close. But even though there isn’t much room for dancing, it doesn’t detract from the overall sense of fun.
Kraftwerk’s shows and songs also have a vindicated significance in 2014 and the group is probably aware that dancing would likely mean the audience could miss out on the surprisingly relevant connotations that even some of their earliest work can example. Songs about people finding love through computers, the dangers of nuclear energy and excessive government control all find 21st century application and relevancy worryingly easy. The band may have been somewhat teased for their coldly blunt statements-as-lyrics in the 70s and 80s but in 2014 such streamlined pronouncements can now be regarded as positively prophetic.
Accompanying the lyrics newly justified sense of prescience, are lots of new sonic experimentation, with the tracks themselves being toyed with to better utilise the live-show’s surround sound system with modern EDM techniques like hissing symbols and floor-reverbing bass drops. It all shows the signs that the robots are becoming more self-aware. At one point during an encore performance of ‘AéroDynamik’, there were even balloons released. Although not a Flaming Lips amount, the conservative portion of efficient German balloons that were dropped on the audience showed that Kraftwerk have achieved a level of emotional connection that was previously assumed to be beyond their RAM capabilities.
All of this means that Kraftwerk have entered their third act by once again showing everyone else how it should be done. They have arranged material from across half a century and are now presenting it to audiences in a manner that completely legitimises both the bands continuing influence and ability to refine and redefine their oeuvre to meet standards of contemporary significance. As Ralf Hütter closes the band’s set with a dry “Auf wiedersehen” and leaves his terminal, he briefly pauses to drink in the reverberation of appreciative howls and clapping. For a moment it even looked like he might have been having as much fun as his audience.