Greatest Hits – Covid Edition

I’m all too aware that there haven’t been a lot of new reviews around here lately – sorry for that. For now, with the lockdown firmly in place, let’s roll back to some of the reviews from the last couple of years that you might have missed!

Elektric Music – Esperanto

If you only ever track down one Kraftwerk spin-off project, there’s little doubt in my mind that Esperanto should be it. What it lacks in clarity of vision, it more than makes up for with catchy electronic pop music. Released under the Elektric Music banner, this was Karl Bartos‘s first release since leaving Kraftwerk three years earlier, a collaboration with Lothar Manteuffel of German new wave band Rheingold.

It opens with the glorious TV, an exceptional track that perfectly captures the mindless passive act of watching television from an era that sadly seems to be long gone (silent movies on television?) Some of the effects used on the samples are oddly ill-advised, in particular the delay on the Spanish presenter, but in general it captures all the timelessness of Kraftwerk when they were at their best. With the huge choral pad sounds, it owes a lot to Radioaktivität, which initially seems a little odd given how much less gravitas this track has, but of course a good chunk of that album was about radio waves, which is a much more direct connection.

This isn’t a perfect album, by any means, but if you’re looking for a less polished, slightly more organic sound than the Düsseldorf quartet, this is a good place to start. Showbusiness, for example, is a good, catchy, pop song. Not too surprising, really, as it includes a songwriting credit for OMD‘s Andy McCluskey.

McCluskey turns up again to deliver the vocal on Kissing the Machine, which is fitting really, because it sounds a lot like an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark song, even though he didn’t help to write this one. It’s great, perhaps inevitably sounding a bit like an imitation of Kraftwerk, but they were a full decade away from releasing anything new, so why not?

Lifestyle was the third and final single, and is fantastic. When it came out as a single, it was filled with lengthy breakbeat excursions, and while the album version only hints at that, it’s still a lively track, full of weird and wonderful vocal samples. For the first time, you have to wonder slightly whether this is what non-mainstream futurist electronic music should have sounded like by the 1990s.

Crosstalk had been the first single, released the preceding year, and follows a similar template in a way – it’s a deeply electronic piece, built around a whole load of vocal samples. It’s a good, catchy piece, co-written with long-time Kraftwerk collaborator Emil Schult, and a worthy opening single.

It turns out that there are basically three tracks on this album, though – there’s TV, that stands out pretty much on its own, then are the two that sound a lot like OMD, and then everything else is beatsy stuff built around vocal samples. Nothing wrong with that, but it might not have entirely been what you signed up for at the start. Information is good, but it does sound a lot like the preceding couple of songs.

With a lot of big beats, it mixes into Esperanto, with its great acid bass sounds. It’s great, but it’s a strange title track, and as with most of the later pieces on this album, you can broadly group it into the “noisy with vocal samples” category. There’s a pretty funny – and I suspect unintentional – moment half way through where the low male vocal has been saying something unintelligible, and the female vocal turns up to seemingly admonish with “language!” and sounds suspiciously to me as though she’s telling him to stop swearing.

Overdrive is the last track, and of course is another of the noisy tracks. It feels in a way as though it might not be the most appropriate way to close the album, as it’s so different from the earlier moments on here, but at the same time, it’s not bad at all.

So Esperanto might be a slightly oddly structured album, but it’s doubtless Karl Bartos‘s finest work since Electric Café, and I honestly haven’t heard any other Kraftwerk side-projects that are anywhere near this good, so you really do have to work with what you’ve got. But that’s underselling it – this has the brilliant TV, a couple of great OMD collaborations, Lifestyle, and a pretty decent second half album too.

This album has sadly long-since fallen out of print, but you can still find second-hand copies all over the place, such as here.

Karl Bartos – Communication

After a gap of twelve years, the year 2003 delivered not one but two Kraftwerk comebacks, as Tour de France Soundtracks appeared just months before Karl Bartos‘s third solo outing, and his first to use his real name. A lot of fans took the opportunity to argue about which was better

But Communication certainly has a lot of energy – it opens with The Camera, which absolutely embodies the spirit of Kraftwerk – pick some generic inanimate subject matter, write some very mechanical lyrics around it, add some electronic instrumentation and processed vocals, and you have a good song. So it is here – The Camera is, bluntly, great.

I’m the Message was the lead single, and after The Camera is disappointing at best – the inanimate subject matter is supposed to be “a message in sound and vision,” which might have worked if it had only been realised better. It’s not bad, but there’s just something a little off here; something that isn’t quite working. You can’t quite put your finger on it yet, though.

15 Minutes of Fame is next, Karl Bartos‘s comeback single from three years earlier, and having been very much in non-electronic form for his previous release Electric Music (1998), it does feel a bit like a homecoming. It’s really rather excellent, and it’s not hard to see this as the blueprint for the rest of the album.

Bartos appears to be of the opinion that Communication was overlooked at the time it came out, although it’s difficult to sympathise with that viewpoint when you realise that at the time it was actually his best charting work since leaving Kraftwerk – Communication peaked on the German charts at number 85, while the more introspective follow-up Off the Record (2003) peaked at 44. Neither of the Elektric Music albums made it onto the top 100.

More importantly, there’s a bit of a quality control problem here. That might seem a controversial view – if you search online for reviews of this release, you’ll find evidence of almost cult-like hero-worship, but honestly large swathes of it are very average – Reality and Electronic Apeman, for instance, contain plenty good ideas, but they just don’t appear to be particularly well pulled off. The “there is a big black rectangle” part in the latter track might have seemed a clever nod to 2001 – A Space Odyssey, but it really doesn’t work. Contrast with the simplistic, rhythmic, and unusually contemporary perfection that Kraftwerk had again achieved with Tour de France Soundtracks, and it’s hard to get too enthusiastic here.

But when it’s good, it’s very good. Following his frustrations about the original release, Bartos reissued it in 2016, now with an added track Camera Obscura, and led by Life as the new lead single. This is crucial to note, because while singles might not be as important now as they were in 2003, picking the right one as the lead proves that his head was in the right place now. Life is fantastic – it’s an uplifting song, with a great message. It is, of course, introspective and anchored in the past, as all of Kraftwerk‘s output has been in the last three decades, but this song seems to represent Bartos coming to terms with the past (specifically, being fired from the group that gave him his career) and starting to think about looking forward.

Cyberspace is good, although we’re really very much doing things by the numbers now, and neither Interview nor Ultraviolet really have much new to offer. With the excellent debut Elektric Music album (1993) and his production of Electronic‘s Raise the Pressure (1996), Bartos’s latter career has definitely had some better moments, but the pair of releases either side of the turn of the millennium appear to have presented him with a few challenges. Try not to laugh too much at his pronunciation of “potato chips”.

If you don’t have the new reissue, which I don’t, the album closes with the strangely sweet Another Reality. As with much of the album, it feels a little forced and awkward, but it’s a good closing track anyway. Communication definitely isn’t up there among the finest albums ever made, but it still makes its mark, and I’m glad it’s on wide release again.

The remastered version of Communication is still widely available.

Music for the Masses 39 – 7 May 2005

For the final run of Music for the Masses, from April to May 2005, I had secured the coveted Saturday night slot, building people up to a stomping night out in Leeds. Or alternatively helping them to revise for their exams. Or potentially neither; it was rather difficult to tell. But looking through the playlist, I can see a slightly more uptempo seam running through the show, culminating with the Electromix at the end of the show.

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Show 39: Sat 7 May 2005, from 6:00pm-8:00pm

Broadcast on LSR FM, online only. Artist of the week: The Shamen.

  • Morcheeba – World Looking In
  • Erasure – Here I Go Impossible Again
  • 1 Giant Leap feat. Robbie Williams & Maxi Jazz – My Culture
  • Mylo – In My Arms (Sharam Jey Remix)
  • The Shamen – Comin’ On (Beatmasters Mix)
  • Sylver – Make It
  • Aurora – Ordinary World
  • BT – Orbitus Terrarium
  • Kraftwerk – Aérodynamik
  • The Shamen – MK2A
  • Depeche Mode – Freelove (Live) [The Live Bit]
  • Stereo MCs – Connected
  • Technique – Sun is Shining
  • Felix – Don’t You Want Me
  • Yello feat. Stina Nordenstam – To the Sea
  • New Order – Jetstream (Arthur Baker Remix)
  • The Shamen – Indica
  • Binar – The Truth Sets Us Free
  • Talk Talk – Talk Talk
  • Mirwais feat. Craig Wedren – Miss You [Electromix]
  • Elektric Music – Lifestyle (Radio-Style) [Electromix]
  • Front Line Assembly – Everything Must Perish [Electromix]
  • Fluke – Absurd
  • Bent – The Waters Deep

The Electromix feature from this show still exists, and will be included on a future Playlist for stowaways.

Music for the Masses 35 – 9 March 2005

Kicking off a show with I Monster‘s Who is She? is a rare privilege, as is closing one with the extended version of The Beloved‘s Sweet Harmony. With Sparks as artist of the week, and including some of their highlights from the 1970s, this was definitely going to be a particularly special show.

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Show 35: Wed 9 Mar 2005, from 6:05pm-8:00pm

Broadcast on LSR FM, online only. Artist of the week: Sparks.

  • I Monster – Who is She?
  • Moby – Lift Me Up (Mylo Remix)
  • Saint Etienne – Only Love Can Break Your Heart
  • Télépopmusik – Stop Running Away
  • Erasure – Rock Me Gently (Bamboo)
  • S.I. Futures – Eurostar
  • Madonna – Nobody’s Perfect
  • Sparks – La Dolce Vita
  • Apollo 440 – Liquid Cool
  • Elektric Music – TV
  • Faithless – Fatty Boo
  • Sparks – It’s a Knock-Off
  • Adamski – Killer
  • Front Line Assembly – Prophecy
  • New Order – Krafty
  • Yello – Lost Again
  • Sparks – The Rhythm Thief
  • The Orb – Toxygene
  • The Beloved – Sweet Harmony (Live the Dream Mix)

Music for the Masses 22 – 17 October 2004

LSR FM, Leeds University’s student radio station, used to apply for an FM licence for a month once or twice a year, and this used to be extremely popular, as large numbers of wannabe DJs would apply to do shows. So it was that the returning Music for the Masses ended up in a graveyard slot, last thing at night on a Saturday night (or first thing on a Sunday, if you prefer to look at it that way, which nobody did, as they were all students). This had the nice effect that sometimes another presenter would forget to turn up, and your show could comfortably overrun by twenty minutes or so.

Show 22: Sun 17 Oct 2004, from 4:00am-6:20am

Broadcast on LSR FM, on FM and online. Artist of the week: Jean Michel Jarre.

  • Lemon Jelly – Space Walk
  • William Orbit (with Beth Orton) – Water from a Vine Leaf
  • Gotan Project – Época
  • Jean Michel Jarre – Équinoxe (Part III)
  • Ladytron – Light and Magic
  • Elektric Music – TV
  • Duran Duran – Come Undone
  • Andy Pickford – Oblivion
  • Jean Michel Jarre – Tout est Bleu
  • Massive Attack – Protection
  • Saint Etienne – Only Love Can Break Your Heart
  • Kings of Convenience – Know-How
  • Bomb the Bass – Darkheart
  • Dirty Vegas – Walk Into the Sun
  • The Future Sound of London – My Kingdom
  • Jean Michel Jarre – Aero
  • Robert Miles – Maresias
  • Komputer – The World of Tomorrow
  • Client – Radio (Extended)
  • Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
  • Baxendale – Your Body Needs My Sugar
  • Paul van Dyk – Time of Our Lives
  • Moby – Porcelain
  • Manu Chao – Bongo Bong

This show was recorded, and for the most part still exists. It will be posted as a Playlist for stowaways soon.