Friday, 14 December 2007

Top 100 Albums - #51: The Man Machine (1978)

Electronica pioneers Kraftwerk make their only appearance on the chart with The Man Machine, an album which produced their biggest hit in 'The Model'. Kraftwerk formed in 1970 out of the wreckage of the quintet Organisation, who released their only album, Tone Float, before splitting. Comprised originally of Florian Schneider-Esleben and Ralf Hütter, throughout the first four years the band reheased in a rented loft. It had a constantly fluctuating line-up, recruiting many sessions musicians for their sporadic live performances. After being introduced to producer-engineer Konrad 'Conny' Plank, the band began recording at his studio in Cologne. After producing the first three, largely forgotten albums, Plank left after their breakthrough Autobahn (1974) over a contract dispute. By now the band had a steady line-up of Wolfgang Flür, Karl Bartos, Schneider and Hütter. Over the next three years, the quartet steady toured and produced two critically acclaimed albums - Radio-Activity (1975), a concept album about radio, and Trans-Europe Express (1977), about Europe and the disparities between imagination and reality.

The opening track, 'The Robots', kicks the album off in supreme style. With its metallic percussion and great use of stereo, it creates the perfect soundscape for the computerised vocals. What makes this superior to anything on Trans-Europe Express - widely touted as their masterpiece - is that has a kind of sense of humour. While 'Europe Endless' or its counterparts successfully conveyed their themes by being metallic and sterile, this does the same but twists it, giving it a pop edge and thereby making it a bit more fun. The lyrics, about the futurist synthesis of man and machine, are heaps more memorable (catchy isn't the word) because they are engineered in this mildly tongue-in-cheek way. It's a masterpiece which neither drags nor cuts out too soon, and a brilliant beginning to the album.

'Spacelab' begins with the kind of wierd, electronic noises that characterised Radio-Activity. But while these were often used to form the, erm, melody in itself, here they provide a hypnotic pulse over which the keyboards and drum pads can be overlaid. And boy, does it work. The keyboards sing and shimmer their way along the bars as the riffs tumble out, creating something which is rare in electronica - a hook. If there's one thing wrong whith this song, it's that the (tinny) drum machines are a little too loud in the mix. In reality, however, this is so well put together that you most likely won't notice, or care.

Having covered man, machinery and space travel thus far, 'Metropolis' shifts the theme again, this time to urbanisation. It's clear that, as on Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk are trying to cram in as much as possible onto an album. This is darker, more driven, and spookier than the previous two numbers. The long, leering keyboard parts take you onto a dimly lit street, with wiry figures peering out of the shadows. Like 'Hall Of Mirrors', it's a strange and scary number, very edgy and yet so mechanical and predetermined - just how Kraftwerk should be.

'The Model' is probably Kraftwerk's most well-known and accessible song, surpassing even their (severely) edited version of 'Autobahn'. Unlike the full-flung 'Autobahn' - a humungous 22:43 - this is a much more accessible 3:43. The lyrics, as before, are in English, which is a great help; not only that, they have a inexplicable catchiness. Kraftwerk were never the most biting social commentators, but this indictment of the fashion industry is as good as anything around at the time. Above all, it's insanely danceable, being underscored as it is with a great bass line over which the higher keyboards dance.

Having been on course for a total masterpiece, we slip up on 'Neon Lights'. This reworks the same themes of 'Metropolis', only with more lyrics and less musical variation; which means that all the good bits of the previous effort are somewhat compromised. What is more, it's the longest track at 8:54, and once you put that together with its retreading of old ground, you come to see it as superfluous, a drawn-out, dishevelled half-caste in contrast to its highly refined, gleamingly efficient predecessors.

The title track closes the album in equally unsure terms. The rhythms are more attractive, the sounds are interesting, and the high-tech vocals work just as they did on 'The Robots'. But again, as the title gives away, it's retreading a theme which has already been explored. This is one flaw of the so-called 'split concept album' which Kraftwerk pioneered. Because you are dividing attention to two, often mutually exclusive subjects, there is an enormous temptation to focus too heavily on one field in each subject, underming the whole idea.

Of the classic era, The Man Machine is easily the most accessible album Kraftwerk ever made. Both Autobahn and Radio-Activity are esoteric, alienating and sterile; Trans-Europe Express is too grand, has too much of an aura to it; and Computer World (1981) reeks of self-parody. This pop edge, coming as it did at the birth of new wave music, means that all the melodies are tight and efficient; there is no room for self-indulgent experimentation. That does not mean, however, that it lacks flair; on the contrary, you can clearly sense that Hütter et al are in their prime and enjoying themselves. It's this sense of humour which lifts the record, making it more than just a standard piece of Krautrock. The Man Machine may not have the presence or grandeur of its predecessor, but's the only time when everything worked for Kraftwerk in just the right measure, before the pop world and its imitators made the innovators obsolete.

3.83 out of 5

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