Kraftwerk: Tour de France Soundtracks

After so many years in limbo, a new release from Kraftwerk introduces an almost impossible set of complications for long-time listeners. During the visionary years of The Man Machine and Trans-Europe Express, the group's total embrace of electronic technologies was unusual and, as we would discover, prescient. Apparently, the album Technopop had been scheduled as a follow-up to 1981's Computer World and “Tour de France” was in fact released as the album's first single in 1983. But when a serious cycling accident sidelined Ralf Hutter for the better part of a year, Technopop went unreleased, with some tracks eventually appearing on 1986's Electric Café. The group retreated from view, emerging in 1991 with The Mix, a digital re-working of well-known tracks, and then disappeared once more. While the group ceased to release new music, it did return to the stage at a late 1990's Tribal Gathering festival, hinting at a revitalized presence. Eventually, seventeen years after its last recording of new material, word leaked out that a new Kraftwerk release was imminent. I had long hoped that such an announcement would be made, and periodically had imagined the group toiling diligently in its Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf, undistracted by the strides generational spawn like Autechre and Monolake were making in its absence, all the while preparing a magnificent magnum opus that would again crown them as visionaries and vault them beyond the current pretender to the electronic throne.

And then, details emerged of its track listing and title. Tour de France Soundtracks? The opening a nineteen-minute Tour de France epic? A closing remake of “Tour de France”? While I had admittedly allowed my expectations for Kraftwerk's new music to become inflated, this was a reality that was distinctly unpromising. Other doubts set in to lower expectations further. In truth, how could the group's recorded return do anything but disappoint? By appropriating current electronic techniques that were presently de rigueur , wouldn't the band be betraying itself by compromising its unique style? But, conversely, by not incorporating stylistic advances made by others in its absence, wouldn't its music sound hopelessly anachronistic? Furthermore, how many other groups had vanished into seclusion and then successfully appeared years—no, decades—later and seemed still creatively vital? Faust and Wire perhaps, but others? And, finally, shouldn't one's expectations be moderate and fair? Do we have a right to expect that a group whose impact has been so profound should be as influential and as advanced again? Should we, therefore, reign in our expectations, be grateful for the legacy of incredible music already bestowed, be content to honour the group for its impact upon its successors, and set our exaggerated expectations aside as too unreasonable?

All such concerns do arise in broaching the idea of a new Kraftwerk release but the reality, in fact, turns out to be less complicated. In essence, the group has adopted the smartest possible approach on Tour de France Soundtracks by simply making quintessential Kraftwerk music of a kind stylistically consistent with the music of its past but with subtle enhancements that suggest a connection to the present. The seeming ease with which the group unselfconsciously effects a seamless transition from its prior recordings to its latest creates the impression that the band cryogenically froze itself for seventeen years and then immediately re-entered a newly equipped digital studio. Yes, personnel changes have occurred, with Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos gone and Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz in their place, but, in truth, the change accounts for little difference in the music, as the sensibilities of Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider dominate as completely now as ever before (although Hilpert is credited as a co-composer on a number of tracks). Its manner of production, of course, is different, as the more primitive electronics the group used on Radioactivity, for example, have been replaced by digital technologies that gives the group's music a terrifically smooth sheen. As in the past, themes of movement and technology dominate the recording, but in comparison to Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express, and Computer World, here the technology—a bicycle—is comparatively primitive. Yet, at the same time, it's one that more perfectly fuses the human and the machine in comparison to a train or car where one is a mere passenger. Like the computer, the bicycle signifies a man-machine union but adds to it the allure of physical movement too, not to mention travel and destination.

More specifically, the music on Tour de France Soundtracks boasts the customary array of buoyant, majestic melodies. Following a brief synth-driven “Prologue,” the title composition begins. “Tour de France Étape 1” pairs a pulsating microhouse beat (that suggests the insistent pedaling of cyclists) with burbling keyboards while a prototypical Kraftwerk synth figure alternates with vocodered recitations on top. The spacious production creates an impression of endless French vistas stretching out with the cyclists gliding past. The track flows into “Tour de France Étape 2” which essentially offers variations on the first part's patterns, including a greater preponderance of billowing synths. “Tour de France Étape 3” begins with a jittery pattern, but soon reverts to the original melodies and rhythms. “Chrono,” the fifth part of the nineteen-minute suite, alters the beat slightly and focuses on unison lines of shimmering synths. Taken as a whole, the title piece vividly evokes “Autobahn” in duration and character, in spite of the difference in subject matter and the three decades that separate their production. It's a lovely sojourn through the French countryside but, musically, it's familiar Kraftwerk territory. “Vitamin,” on the other hand, is the first significant intimation that the group's musical style has been updated. A funky machine-like electro beat persists throughout, while layers of vibrato synths and klanging keyboard lines intertwine amidst Hutter's spoken recitation. The seamlessly conjoined “Aéro Dynamik” and “Titanium” feature an irresistible rubbery synth bass and a skipping drum pattern reminiscent of those on Computer World. Like most of Tour de France Soundtracks, the track seems uncluttered due to the clarity of the production design, yet there are numerous patterns overlapping and intermingling at any given moment. Here metallic hammerings resound alongside reverb-laden synth clusters and percolating accents of syncopated synths. “Elecktro Kardiogram” evokes Matmos's surgical treatments on A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure as Hutter uses a sample of his heartbeat as rhythm material. The remake of “Tour de France” has a slightly more electro beat treatment but literally resurrects the same funk bass lines, synth melodies, cycling sounds, and harp strummings. Closing the recording with “Tour de France” provides a satisfying unity but also ends the album on a retrograde note, which conflicts with Kraftwerk's (presumed) desire to re-establish itself as a group still vitally looking towards its future.

Unlike David Bowie, who has sullied his legacy by unwisely adopting newer styles that don't quite fit (Earthling's drum & bass, for example), Kraftwerk honours its past by staying true to its roots while tweaking its sound in the subtlest of ways to make it more current. With Tour de France Soundtracks, the group comes across as Grand Old Masters, no longer charting new territories but still capable of creating music of sophistication and integrity in a style originated by themselves and subsequently assimilated by others over the course of many years. Whereas the group was years ahead of the competition during its prime, it now takes its place amongst others as wise elders.

September 2005