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Kraftwerk - Tour de France Soundtracks
Review: After a nineteen year absence, Kraftwerk - the engineer/artists who shaped electronic music from educations in classical music theory and postwar German depression - have returned with an album that as always defies the first listen, leaving an enigmatic imprint and confusion as to its real motivation. Like any who explore modern or postmodern ideas, the music implies a narrative "from below" by not being overtly serious, yet introduces with sleight of hand the interconnections within its topics to create context, which it then probes with music that evolves in layers like classical over the pulsing beat of techno and rock, fusing the ancient and the modern into one narrative that emerges instead of being explicitly stated in these simple -- yet on second look, complex -- works.
"Tour De France Soundtracks" creates narrative as a soundtrack to a bicycle race in which the most basic elements of human struggle for supremacy over survival are developed, and like a meta-catharsis expressed in a daily but epic process, it shows us the voyeur-listeners the mental concentrations and sensations of that race. The album opens with a short prologue, a scene-setting like wide margins on an old book, but fresh and flickering on a digital screen. Lush electronic sounds overlap and form an ambiguous rhythm in minor transitions, like standing on the shifting sands of a seashore and staring into darkness as dawn rises; then, after a brief pause, one of the most triumphant melodies of human history arises as pure phrase, emphasizing its own rhythm and harmony in the context of its sentential self-recursion. It asks a question and immediately returns, a mantra like the universe itself interrogating an emptiness and formulating an ideal which then defines its starting point: a perfect loop.
Although many will reject "Tour De France Soundtracks" because its aesthetic is a "clubby" techno-influenced neo-industrial synthpop sound, what Kraftwerk are doing is taking the popular form and developing it internally toward greater heights. As they have always created in a hybrid of techno/industrial/ambient/synthpop, the aesthetic is easily adorned, and improved. These pieces follow the song format of successful techno hits, mimicking the structure of a techno "set," or mixed forty minutes of songs for dance purposes, with its ritualistic introduction, deepending and denouement. To the club techno sound, they bring a use of found noises -- heartbeats, bicycle chains, electric crackles, radio squelch -- and this in turn makes a more organic, enveloping feel to these sparse works. These songs are both solemn and joyfully reverent as they discover the beauty of life found through struggle -- in this case, of man and machine working together without elecricity.
In the ambiguous way that a sudden mood evoked by memory or the passionate objectless moments after awakening from dream can be, it launches us through a cavalcade of the simultaneously uplifting and serious, calling the lie to the idea that art can uplift without facing life head-on in transcendence of self. Layers mesh gently as songs reach apexes, then separate and allow the major themes to complete themselves in characteristically straightforward Kraftwerk melodies. The focus of the album is just enough fragmented to allow its conclusion, the articulate and determined La Forme, to slide up the spine of the listener with its elegant continuity, bursting into full form with a willful concluding motif that is heavy in the way of the best emotive metal bands, but like classical music, enwraps a collection of themes into a conclusion that does not linearize them, only returns them to a generative state in unformed conflict and hidden potential.