All hail German synth legends!
Far too many fans of the current surge of knob-twirling, laptop-tapping EDM artists—as well as some of those electronic-dance superstars themselves—seem to think this stuff was invented circa 2005. A deep knowledge of musical history is not the rave enthusiast’s strong suit, and nor should it be, if we’re talking about the sort of soul-killing nostalgia that permeates too much of the rock world.
On the other hand, by ignoring any groovy geezer older than, say, Skrillex, one can miss some extraordinary music—sounds that hold up as vital and vibrant in the here and now, despite coming from folks who paved the way for all of this four decades ago. Cases in point: three worthy new releases from synthesizer pioneers Karl Bartos, Klaus Schulze and Hans-Joachim Roedelius.
The best-known of those names, the 60-year-old Bartos was born in Berchtesgaden. In 1975, he and Wolfgang Flür were recruited to expand the original duo of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider into a quartet that toured the U.S. in support of a surprise hit, “Autobahn.” Bartos remained as a member of Kraftwerk—which, in terms of importance to electronic music, is like saying you were a member of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—through 1990, contributing to brilliant albums such as Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine.
The lack of credit for those contributions seems to have been one reason Bartos left the group; Hütter’s dictatorial ways were notorious. Another was the frustrating inertia that had infected the band, which has given us no new music since 1986. In contrast, Bartos has kept impressively busy, releasing electronic pop with Elektric Music, collaborating with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr of Electronic and recording under his own name. But his new Off the Record is the best of any of those efforts, as well as the most Kraftwerk-inspired.
The Kraftwerk influence—concise and memorable electronic pop songs, some sung in English, some in German, all delivered with a singular palette of surprisingly warm electronic sounds—is no surprise, given that it builds on ideas from the artist’s time in that band. According to the label, “During Kraftwerk's heyday, Karl Bartos wrote—off the record—a secret acoustic diary. Based on his musical jottings—rhythms, riffs, hooks, sounds, chords and melodies—this is what he has come up with today: twelve brand new, exciting, timeless songs.”
Some of these nods to the past are obvious—“Musica Ex Machina” is very reminiscent of “The Man-Machine,” for example—while others are not nearly as straightforward; “International Velvet” ends in a gorgeous flute passage that actually recalls the earliest days of Hütter and Schneider, long before Bartos joined them. But this is no exercise in aping the past. “The Binary Code” is a soundtrack for the overwhelming, non-stop digital tidal wave of 2013, while “Hausmusik” nods to Chicago’s indigenous dance sounds, exploring the global cross-pollination of electronic sounds past, present and future.
Kraftwerk fans long for Hütter, the only remaining member of the group’s most famous lineup, to finally deliver a new set of songs that can stand beside the band’s best. But Bartos has beaten him to it and done exactly that.
While Kraftwerk was by far the most successful band to emerge from the post-psychedelic music scene in early 1970s Germany, by no means is it the only one still influencing cutting-edge sounds today. The British music press somewhat derisively called the scene Krautrock, though that was a term the young Germans in turn defiantly and proudly adopted. And Klaus Schulze had a hand in starting two of their most celebrated bands: Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel.
Schulze left both of those groups before their best-known recordings, starting a rewarding solo career crafting beguiling ambient soundscapes. Much of that work, alternately edgy and unsettling or lush and hypnotic, was the subject of a memorable compilation from Caroline Records: Klaus Schulze: The Essential ’72—’93. But the 65-year-old Berlin native hardly has been silent in the 20 years since—among the many notable projects were collaborations with Lisa Gerard of Dead Can Dance—and now he has given us a two-disc set entitled Shadowlands that is as strong as anything from his lengthy discography.
A pioneer of the Moog who’s kept current with all of the digital developments since, Schulze seamlessly weaves electronic and organic drones, sounds and melodies on mesmerizing, largely instrumental jams such as “Licht and Schatten,” “The Rhodesviolin” and “Tibetanian Loops.” Meanwhile, in a similar vein comes the latest from a prolific peer, Hans-Joachim Roedelius.
A child actor who became an electronic musician in Berlin’s burgeoning underground scene, the now 78-year-old Roedelius always has enjoyed collaborating. Much of his music was made with fellow synthesist Dieter Moebius in the duo Cluster, though even better was his work with Brian Eno and Neu! guitarist Michael Rother in Harmonia. His latest pairing is an unlikely one, however: On Selected Studies, Vol. 1, he teams up with English singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole.
The surprise is that rather than Roedelius coming to Cole, adding ambient atmospherics and synth bleeps and burbles behind the songwriterly ditties, Cole goes to Roedelius, artistically speaking. Though they never worked in the same studio, instead swapping files across the Internet ether, Cole helps the elder master of electronica craft some of his most tuneful electronic instrumentals since Harmonia. And, like the latest from Schulze, they are perfect ambient/chill-out soundtracks after dancing hard to the Bartos record or the rave du jour.
Karl Bartos, Off the Record (Bureau-B)
Rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars.
Klaus Schulze, Shadowlands (Synthetic Symphony)
Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Lloyd Cole, Selected Studies, Vol. 1 (Bureau-B)
Rating on the four-star scale: 3 stars.