- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. —

Four middle-aged gentleman in identical black suits with red shirts and black ties take their places behind identical tables, each with a laptop on it. Behind and above them is a single wide video screen. There is nothing else on the stage. They stand virtually stock-still.

What is moving are the cones of the speakers in the sound system, which in turn are making the feet and the rear ends of the audience move.

For electronica fans, a rare and wondrous event has come to South Florida: the German techno pioneers of Kraftwerk are performing at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach.

This is one of the final shows of a world tour that started in February, and it comes at the tail end of a swing through Latin America.

Hardly a household name, Kraftwerk is important because, during the 1970s, they basically invented the rock-format synthesizer pop song.

Without them you wouldn’t have nightclub dance music. You wouldn’t have Moby or Fatboy Slim or Bjork (former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos has worked with her). You wouldn’t have hip-hop (when Old School was new, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force combined two Kraftwerk riffs on “Planet Rock”). You wouldn’t have the ‘80s-‘90s bands like New Order and Depeche Mode, or the Detroit industrial bands that gave rise to the electronica of today that includes Balkanized genres like drum-and-bass and trance.

If you harbor any stereotypes about Germans — cold, clinical, overly concerned about mechanical things — Kraftwerk will do nothing to dissipate them. Rather, the band embraces the myth. Their overarching theme is man’s interface with machines — the whole robot deal isn’t a joke, it’s an artistic theory.

This tour supports their first full-length new album since 1986, “Tour de France Soundtracks.” The album came out last year just a little late for the race and arises from founders Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider’s obsession with cycling, an extension of their ethos (man powers machine forward while machine determines how man moves). Electronic percussionist Fritz Hilpert is also a rider.

The songs are written from Lance Armstrong’s perspective: training issues like nutrition, form, heart rate and aerodynamics join racing issues like cameramen on motorcycles and keeping up with the group of riders called the peloton.

This is all packaged in Kraftwerk’s signature clean, melodic, clipped and driving style of music. They have a mysterious source of funkiness — every song has its break section, where the electronics play among themselves in a drifting fashion learned during the band’s early psychedelic days. Henning Schmitz — who along with fellow electronic percussionist Hilpert joined Kraftwerk in the early ‘90s — gives the performance some extra spice, manipulating the rhythms like a honed DJ.

Some of the songs in the show are drawn from “Tour de France,” but music from as far back as 1974’s “Autobahn” is played. Everything on their album of re-engineered greatest hits, “The Mix” (1991), is included, which is by no means a bad thing. A couple of selections from “Man Machine” (1978), “Electric Cafe” (1986), and more than a couple from “Computer World” (1981), plus “Trans-Europe Express” (1977) — the live version of “Metal on Metal” could go on forever, as far as I’m concerned.

The germ of Kraftwerk began in 1968, when founders Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider — they’re pushing 60 now — met while studying classical music in Dusseldorf. They began experimenting with tape recorder manipulation and echo machines, running traditional instruments like flutes and organ through them. They were part of the Krautrock movement, a German version of prog rock, with a lot of improvisation and other hallmarks of psychedelia. The first Kraftwerk album came out in 1971.

By 1974, the acoustic instruments were giving way to synthesizers, and Kraftwerk found brief commercial success with the album “Autobahn,” which reached No. 5 on the pop charts. A shortened version of the 22-minute title track was released in the United States as a single and was a novelty hit.

Through the ‘70s Kraftwerk perfected the synthesizer pop song, gradually abandoning free form for tightly composed shorter pieces closer to radio-format rock. This jelled with 1978’s “The Man-Machine,” which was highly influential for British New Wave artists like Human League and OMD. (“Man-Machine” — coming out when everyone else was listening to Styx and the BeeGees — still sounds up-to-date today.)

The show is more performance art than a traditional rock concert. Words and images appear on the video screens, from archival highway footage during “Autobahn” to dancing pills during “Tour de France’s Vitamin.” And for “The Robots,” the men are replaced by animatronic mannequins made to look like their human counterparts.

But the best part is hearing the music loud and losing yourself in the mix of man and machine.

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