September 12, 2002

Ed's Underground

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Are they robots, or are they men? This was the question that Kraftwerk raised with their late-1970s techno-pop. On a series of landmark albums from 1974 until 1981, this German quartet replaced humanity with mechanical rhythms and synth melodies that, today, conjure memories of Super Mario Brothers.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Kraftwerk were the first band to make purely electronic music, and on 1977’s Trans-Europe Express, the band was at its apex, creating a glorious record that has been a major influence for all electronic-based music made since. Starting with the beautiful “Europe Endless,” which evokes the image of green fields and rolling hills, the album takes a trip across the band’s home continent, filled with idyllic images and mesmerizing music.

The opener is followed by two thematically-related cuts, “The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies,” which have a darker sound befitting the downbeat lyrics about self-image. On “Hall,” a robotic voice intones in an icy monotone, “even the greatest stars/ dislike themselves in the looking glass.”

“Franz Schubert” is another standout moment, with a bouncy melody that pays joyous tribute to the classical composer. On the title track (and its companion piece, the proto-industrial “Metal On Metal”), the band repeats the traveling theme of their famous composition “Autobahn,” this time replicating the steady back-and-forth motion of a trans-continental train ride.

From start to finish, Trans-Europe Express is a dazzling disc, full of so much innovation and beauty that it still sounds fresh today. The band’s albums have managed to avoid sounding dated or cheesy, faring much better with time than many of the 80s bands who copied their format (everyone from Devo and A-Ha). With their music still echoing today in everything from Radiohead to those Swedish dudes writing Britney Spears songs, not many groups could claim to have as much lasting influence as Kraftwerk.

Archived article by Ed Howard