Home Music Revisit: Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum

Revisit: Kraftwerk: Minimum-Maximum

In a characteristic show of bluntness, Kraftwerk’s title for their first live album, the 2005 release Minimum-Maximum, was a tidy description of both their seismically influential catalog and how the group reworked their material for the stage. Kraftwerk’s studio work is defined by a spartan sensibility that embraced the limits of early electronic music technology, building songs about the quotidian nature of modern life and man’s relationship to machines around brittle synth lines and stiff-legged funk so elemental that the band is woven into the DNA of every form of mainstream and underground electronic music of the last half-century. It is precisely that lineage that Kraftwerk highlighted here, with the progenitors recalibrating their material to sound closer in line to the movements they subsequently inspired.

That’s evident from opener “The Man Machine,” which is downright startling when compared to the studio original. On the 1978 version, synthesized Votrax programming mimics human speech in reedy, high whines, so that the ascending repeat of “Machine” that comprises the chorus sounds like the human body being completely obliterated in a shriek of industrialization. Here, though, the vocals groan with basso profundity, their rich, echoing timbre matched by an equally robust strengthening of the backing funk percussion into a more brazenly techno-esque thump. Some of this, of course, can be attributed to improvements in synthesizer tech since Kraftwerk were operating with early analog synths, but where the original revealed its underlying rhythms more cautiously, this thunderous adaptation sounds contemporary and ready-made to be slotted into DJ sets at Tresor or other techno clubs.

Kraftwerk’s major influence on the Detroit sound of the ‘80s is regularly touched upon. “Planet of Visions” is based on a reworking of the band’s one-off single “Expo 2000” that was crafted by Detroit techno legends Underground Resistance, and the track’s repeated refrain of “Germany…Detroit” foregrounds a spiritual link between the two lands. Hell, one could even argue that the Motor City helped to shape Kraftwerk; the aforementioned Votrax synthesizer that was used on The Man Machine came from a Detroit-based company. The simultaneous looking forward and backwards plays into the revamp of “Autobahn” from its luxuriant, side-length kosmische plod to a bouncy nine-minute work of synth-pop that highlights the Beach Boys influence on its sing-along vocals while laying fair claim to shaping the sound of new wave.

In many respects, Minimum-Maximum is assembled like any other Kraftwerk record. Rather than pick a single show for a warts ‘n’ all recording, the band picked performances from across their 2004 tour, arranging them in such a way that the album flowed like a complete setlist but stressed sleek, almost inhuman perfection. True to their history, they even released both a German and English-language version, though there is significant overlap between the two as many tracks are performed with the band going in and out of each language. Treating this like another studio document could easily have given the material a hermetically sealed property that runs contrary to the beauty of live music. Instead, the updates retain the basic, spartan properties of the original studio renditions but supercharge them, acting in many respects like the bracing updates Kraftwerk made to some of their best-loved songs with 1991’s The Mix.

Impressively, the band’s tweaks are so deft that they even help to make the case for Tour de France Soundtracks, their first proper new album since 1986’s Electric Café and a record that received the tepid appreciation that tends to be the limit of critical positivity for legacy acts who rest on their laurels without falling on their faces. Kraftwerk placed an entire block of new material high up in the setlist and joined together in a kind of suite similar to how the studio album plays. This could easily have sunk the record before it properly built-up momentum, but if anything Kraftwerk’s tepidly received late-career indulgence suddenly snaps into focus. Placed after the Detroit salute of “Planet of Visions” and a wryly placed foil in “Autobahn,” the run of new songs flowed together into a vibrant landscape of jubilant electro that captures man becoming one with his machine just as powerfully as the opener and just as hypnotically as in the group’s rendition of their breakthrough single. Additionally, the goofy lyrics, which matter-of-factly recount the nature of the bicycle race and how it is covered by TV and radio, now more obviously fit within the continuum of Kraftwerk’s entire lyrical project, of wryly locating the quotidian in both our present and possible future lives as technology shapes our actions.

Still, the album really comes alive when it passes into segments that run through the classic records. “Radioactivity,” once an ambiguous and perhaps even warm acceptance of nuclear power, has been reworked from an emotionally muted warble into an openly political no-nukes message with a hellaciously beefed-up beat, while “Trans-Europe Express” foregrounds its skittering snares to emphasize its marching pace. The most exciting material here is a stretch of Computer World tracks that testify to that record’s undiluted effectiveness and its still-forward-thinking construction. A slamming rendition of “Numbers” blurts suddenly into the album’s title track, while “Home Computer” and “It’s More Fun to Compete” are fused into a shrieking industrial banger. Kraftwerk themselves may have devoted their group persona and musical style to a deliberately affectless, emotionally drained state of machine life, but nowhere in these recordings is the enthusiasm of the crowd more evident than this block of songs. Tellingly, both the German and English versions of the release follow their respective performances of “Pocket Calculator” with the same recording of that song’s Japanese version, “Dentaku,” taken from a Tokyo show in which the crowd, in defiance of stereotypical notions of Japanese audiences being more stoic and respectful, absolutely lose their minds singing along. (According to the band, a show in Santiago, Chile, was similarly riotous, though they had already finished sequencing and mastering for this album by the time they played that gig.)

Kraftwerk, of course, did not invent synthesizer music, but Minimum-Maximum is, in its mixture of live document and greatest-hits summary, a powerful argument that they are not merely a part of electronic music’s foundation but an enduringly relevant and exciting group. The years after this album have borne that out, with Kraftwerk having spent most of the last decade on their own version of Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, one in which they are equally at home in electronic venues, theater halls and modern art museums. Maybe the most concise summary of how Kraftwerk are still the same and yet so different is in the rollicking encore performance of “The Robots.” At first, this version seems impossibly faster than the original, but a closer comparison reveals that the two have almost identical BPMs. Improvements in synthesizer and amplification technology make the track sound overwhelming, but when you break out the original, you realize that its crushing, dancefloor-slaying ferocity was there all along.

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