Home > Music > Kraftwerk – The Man Machine (1978)

Kraftwerk – The Man Machine (1978)

folderKraftwerk is a band I avoided for many years because at their worst, they are oddly banal – more on that later. On the other hand, they put out some good early electronic pop music stuff when they felt like it. The Man Machine gets plenty of praise for what less astute listeners might call “Man! They sound like machines!”, although when not handled properly (and yes, there are some missteps), it turns what is allegedly supposed to be futurist, optimistic material into a sterile experience.

‘Classic’ Kraftwerk’s trademark is their minimal arrangements – limited instruments, things that a trained musician would find easy to perform. Production values are fairly limited, as Kraftwerk relies mostly on analog synthesizers as instruments, with drum machines and vocoders as garnishing. The analog synthesizer sounds and vocoding have aged decently, but the drum samples are pretty wretched – a series of feeble taps and claps that are ignored at best and irritating at worst. The songs fall into two approaches – firstly, straight ahead pop arrangements – verse/chorus stuff of the type I’ve mentioned on many occasions, of the sort that many musicians have used throughout history. The majority of the content on this album, however, falls into a second category – extended, half-ambient pieces built on repetition that supposedly anticipate the approach of much electronic dance music. Overlap is fairly limited – “Metropolis” represents a merging of these formulas, and “Neon Lights” showcases the first followed by the second. They do not evolve as much as (for example) the roughly contemporary arrangements of a band like Tangerine Dream, nor do they do the sort of experiments with pure sound that characterized Music for Airports and other ambient-era Brian Eno albums. The sonic palette is (given the band’s commercial success and therefore potential budget) intentionally limited, so good songwriting was the only way Kraftwerk had to make their material memorable.

On the grounds of my biases, I’m going to say that Kraftwerk is more successful when they explore the second approach. Considering how minimalistic the songs using it on this album are, Kraftwerk’s ability to make such a limited selection of musical ideas and sounds interesting comes down to good songwriting. In the ‘ambient’ approach I perceive here, this basically means gradual development and exploring every possible permutation of sound available. When the band doesn’t do that (see “The Model”), it robs them of their vitality. A cursory look at their discography suggests that they simply had more experience in ambient music than pop, given the many lengthy compositions strewn throughout, and the large amount of instrumentals. If there’s one thing I can’t really complain about, it’s a band being good at what they do. For ’70s proto-electronica, though, I’m more likely to listen to Tangerine Dream.

Highlights: “Spacelab”, “Metropolis”, “The Man Machine”

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