For ten minutes, Falk Grieffenhagen must have been convinced he was having the worst night of his life. In front of a capacity crowd at the Esplanade Theatre, Kraftwerk’s newest and youngest member, entrusted with controlling the visuals for their shows, watched helplessly as the giant screen behind him blacked out.
To be sure, losing video projections is hardly a deal-breaker in a concert. Unless, of course, you’re the world’s undisputed pioneers of electronic music; you’ve built a 43-year career on the marriage of music with iconic imagery; and the selling point for your current tour is massive floor-to-ceiling 3-D visuals.
While Grieffenhagen stabbed at his console in disbelief, his bandmates soldiered on obliviously, maintaining their icy composure behind podium-mounted synthesizers. Grieffenhagen glanced repeatedly at the stage wings, and stormed off to wrangle assistance twice. Unfortunately, all he achieved was the indignity of a Windows 7 startup screen appearing briefly on the projection wall, and whoops of scandalous excitement from the audience. Somewhere during the third affected song, however, the visuals suddenly sparked back to life. The venue erupted with cheers, and Kraftwerk powered through the rest of their set.
It’s difficult to overemphasise the irony and significance of this incident. Kraftwerk are defined by their uncompromising obsession with technology. All their albums since 1974’s “Autobahn” have celebrated the perfection of man through technology–whether in the form of radio, computers, transport, or even medicine. This ethos of Vorsprung durch Technik has carried over to their concerts, which involve minimal physical effort and interaction, and maximum reliance on electronics.
Their current tour, dubbed ‘Kraftwerk 3-D’, is not being undertaken in support of any new material. Rather, it’s the same concert as the one on their previous tour, only with enhanced visuals. It’s a strange and wonderful experience. Founding member Ralf Hütter, ’90s recruits Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert, and Grieffenhagen (who only joined this year) stand in a row, wearing black bodysuits with fluroescent green gridlines. For two hours, they run music sequences from their respective synthesizers, playing only the lead melodies by hand, and manipulating the rest with reverb, pitch and delay effects. Hütter sings alternately in English and German, sometimes through a vocoder. There is no banter apart from a tokenistic “goodnight, zai jian, selamat malam, auf wiedersehen” at the end.
The set comprises of selections from all their albums since Autobahn, with 1978’s ‘Man-Machine’ being played in its entirety. The music, which has been retooled from the original recordings, sounds modern, razor-sharp, and surprisingly danceable. Each song has a meaningful accompanying video, most of which are simple but stylish computer animations. The depth of the 3-D varies from flat black-and-white footage (‘The Model’) to a space satellite that hurtles so close to the audience that a roller-coaster scream swells across the auditorium (‘Spacelab’). There are Easter eggs for diehard fans, such as the licence plates on the cars in the ‘Autobahn’ video referencing the years Kraftwerk was formed (1970), and the song’s release (1974).
Immersive and polished as Kraftwerk 3-D is, however, it’s frustrating to think that the group has effectively been refining the same stage show over the last two decades. The bulk of their back catalogue was produced between 1974 and 1986. The template for their current live setup — four synthesizers in a straight line with overhead video projections — was set in 1991.
The upshot of this is that their setlists and visuals have remained fairly constant since then: the pixelated green integers for ‘Numbers’; the wireframe models for ‘Music Non Stop’; the karaoke-as-modern-art of ‘Man-Machine’. They’re all still there, only bigger, and now they jump out at you. The are small differences, of course–no more costume changes; no more robot mannequins; no more standing on the edge of the stage to perform ‘Pocket Calculator’–these elements were gradually eliminated over the years. For a band that was so far ahead of the curve in the 1970s, Kraftwerk has had a surprisingly half-hearted evolution over the following three decades. And then it hits you. Kraftwerk 3-D isn’t the latest tour by an electronic music act. It’s the longest-running musical since The Phantom of the Opera.
This is a facetious opinion, of course, but it’s not entirely untrue either. For all their fixation on the union of man and machine, it’s really a third ‘M’–the myth–that has sustained Kraftwerk. They’re so celebrated around the world, they could play the proverbial telephone book and get away with it. Fortunately, they stop short of that. There’s a moment in their current stage show which reflects, beneath all the history and the space-age kitsch, a desire to remain vital and relevant. 1975’s ‘Radioactivity’, originally an ode to a nuclear-powered future, was reworked as a cautionary anthem in 1991, citing accidents in Chernobyl, Harrisburg and Sellafield, and the bombing of Hiroshima. Since 2012, the song has been further reworked, replacing ‘Hiroshima’ with ‘Fukushima’, referencing the nuclear meltdown caused by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan. It’s a minor adjustment to a show that has been largely unchanged for years, but one that reveals it is ultimately the man who remains the heart of the machine.
By Don Shiau