I didn’t really know what to expect when I entered the Fox Theater in Oakland last Sunday night. As I found my way to the floor in front of the stage, I observed many different demographics – Berkeley hipsters, bearded sound techies, middle-aged couples, and many foreign accents. The theater’s large red curtain draped over the stage onto which four pixelated outlines of ambiguous figures were projected. I, of course, had just entered a Kraftwerk concert.
Kraftwerk’s 3D show has been one of the most talked-about shows of the past year. The German quartet essentially founded modern electronic music in the 1970s using a strict arsenal of Korg synthesizers and vocoders. Through the years Kraftwerk has maintained these parameters and accomplished a quite a lot with their sound.
The lights dimmed, the crowd roared, the curtain parted, and there stood four 60-some year-old men wearing black leotards with white stripes. It’s a humorous sight at first glance, especially for someone with no prior knowledge of Kraftwerk’s robot alter ego. What followed, however, was the legendary Kraftwerk vocoder, which instantly demanded attention and poise from the audience. Many people in my generation think that Daft Punk pioneered the vocoder. This, of course, is horribly inaccurate because the Kraftwerk vocoder is 1) decades older and 2) majestic and surreal in ways that I cannot sufficiently explain in words.
After the vocoder intro, the group rolled into a funky, upbeat rendition of “The Robots.” Behind the group lay the 3D visualizer screen, which showed digitized robot versions of the four band members. These images verged on the border of creepiness, but they fit in well with the show’s 1980s aesthetic. Kraftwerk’s studio recordings are melodic, dreamy, and a bit bizarre, but tracks like “The Robots” play like dance tracks in a live setting. The bass is turned up nicely and the energy of the whole environment had people moving and grooving.
The 2-hour show had several peaks. The first occurred about 10 minutes in with the closely related tracks “Numbers” and “Computerworld 2.” “Numbers” featured extraordinary graphics in which digits and symbols were bounced around intricately in a green 3D space. This imagery, combined with the song’s pulse synths and chromatic scales, made for an energetic yet deeply psychological experience. After the audience had been sufficiently overwhelmed, the chaotic “Numbers” sequence transitioned nicely into the wonderfully spacious synths of “Computerworld 2.” But “Computerworld 2” had no shortage of commentaries and symbols – the screen projected words like CIA, KGB, Money, Business, Entertainment, Medicine, and People.
The intro to “The Man Machine,” although short-lived, was enchanting. Hütter performed a live vocoder prelude with elegant scale ascension and brilliant chords. Following “The Man Machine,” Kraftwerk proceeded to take the audience on a virtual spaceship tour with the song “Spacelab.” The screen projected outer space and dazzled the crowd with 3-D spaceships and satellites that moved around the earth. It all seemed like a science fiction movie, and “Spacelab” was the theme song. Surely enough, the virtual spaceship descended through the earth’s atmosphere and towards what appeared to the Bay Area. Of course, the crowd went wild and even wilder when the screen finally projected an animation of the Fox Theater itself with the Bay Bridge glistening in the background. The customized gesture was charming, but ultimately “Spacelab” worked because of the music – driving beats and triumphant synths gave life and energy to what otherwise would have been an ultimately uneventful visual experience.
I recently learned that the frontman, Ralf Hütter, is a cycling fanatic and avid follower of the annual Tour de France (naturally, Kraftwerk’s released the album Tour de France in 2003). Hütter’s passion for cycling seems to have empowered Kraftwerk’s music because the song “Tour de France Étape 2” absolutely grooved during the show. Video clips from previous Tours de France rolled in black and white behind the band members as they played what resembled 1990s trance music. Above all, this portion of the set provided a funky, modern contrast to the show’s old-school timbre.
The Kraftwerk aesthetic is constructed around themes of hyper-digitalism, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Like robots, the members of Kraftwerk stand emotionless (and nearly motionless) on stage as they play danceable music. When they do end up moving to their own music, they move sparingly and awkwardly, much like a robot would. Even the custom-designed leotards are an effort to homogenize the band members and resemble 1980s science fiction.
It is also worth noting Kraftwerk’s emphasis on minimalism and the past. While the visuals are fancy, most of their appeal comes from the addition of 3D. I would argue that every visual on the screen would have been possible in the 1980s as a two-dimensional graphic, so the show’s aesthetic is actually very grounded in the past.
Minimalism also drives the group’s musical performance. Every sound is generated from Korg synthesizers and played live (mostly) by each member of Kraftwerk. When you think about it, these parameters place significant limitations on a band’s production capabilities, but these are the constraints that allow Kraftwerk to engineer a wide array of sounds that relate to each other. The fact that every synth, drum part, and effect come from the same instrument is an extraordinary feat in electronic music.
So why is Kraftwerk’s minimalist approach relevant to today’s music? There are a few answers. First off, electronic music as it stands today would likely not exist without Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk brought synthesizers into the popular sphere and introduced listeners to the digital music aesthetic. They also revolutionized the use of the vocoder and the Korg synthesizer, two powerful instruments that have been used and replicated widely in the music industry.
Secondly, Kraftwerk reminds us that creativity requires constraints. Electronic music of the last decade has been characterized by maximalism and lack of constraints. With access to nearly infinite sounds and plugins, today’s DJs and producers have clobbered their audiences with sounds that twist, turn, and morph but have little cohesion or trajectory. I am talking about producers like Wolfgang Gartner, Deadmau5, and Tiesto, whose production skills are impressive but spontaneous to the point of disorganization and sensory overload. Kraftwerk, like a string quartet or rock band, is limited to playing the instruments in front of them. And I commend them.
It took me a full hour after the show to soak in what had just happened to me. Part of me was laughing, part of me was shocked, but mostly I was refreshed by the authenticity of Kraftwerk’s act as a whole. The show flew by, and however bizarre and fantastical it all seemed, I enjoyed every second of it. Don’t miss this one.