Kraftwerk may have become less and less prolific in recent decades, but if you’re ever in need of something similar, former member Karl Bartos is kind enough to put out something new every decade or so. His latest is Off the Record, following almost exactly ten years after his last Communication, and twenty after his first Esperanto.
There’s always something rather forced about Karl Bartos‘s music – somehow all his music seems to sound something like Kraftwerk might have if they had stopped being inventive at some point in the early 1980s and had started just relying on the same few sounds and effects instead. So it is with the opening track Atomium, an homage to the Brussels structure of an atom.
Nachtfahrt opens with essentially exactly the same sounds, but this time channels some of his Esperanto era work by adding a high level whiney melody (that’s the technical term). It’s good to hear him singing – he’s actually a pretty good singer when he’s not messing around with the same vocal effect time and again – and it’s also good to hear him singing in German. “Ich fahr’ die ganze Nacht, bis ich bei dir bin.” Awww.
Things don’t really get any less repetitive with International Velvet, although the lower tempo gives him a chance to relax a little and use some slightly different synth sounds. And while he may never have been the most creative member of Kraftwerk, he does at least know his formula well – there may not be anything new on this album, but there definitely isn’t anything bad either.
Off the Record is intended, I gather, as some kind of career retrospective, and you can see that in some of the titles. Without Trace of Emotion, which brings back to big overloaded synths and uplifting major chords, is one of a little cluster of totally brilliant songs in the middle of the album. This is the kind of thing that Bartos does well – there’s still nothing particularly new here, but it’s great nonetheless.
The Binary Code is a pleasant but slightly pointless little side step, and then Musica Ex Machina opens with the sounds from Electronic‘s exceptional 1996 b-side Imitation of Life (which was produced by Bartos), which is a nice piece of recycling, even if you do expect Bernard Sumner to appear on vocals after a couple of moments.
For The Turning of the World, things take a positively cheesy turn. This is no bad thing – it’s still among the strongest songs on the album – but it is quite astonishing that a musician and producer with a CV as long as Bartos’s is able to come out with tracks which sound as naff as this. Oh well, we can cut him a bit of slack – he was in Kraftwerk for much of his career, after all (and even they were allowed to be a little bit cheesy now and then).
The rest of the album feels very much like Bartos-by-numbers, but unfortunately without all the charm of some of the earlier tracks. Instant Bayreuth is a pleasant instrumental, but I’m going to have to interpret the “instant” of the title in the sense of an instant cup-a-soup. Just add water for this new Karl Bartos track!
Vox Humana mainly features some repeated vocal samples telling us how “the human voice is the most expressive musical instrument of all,” in various languages, and not a huge amount else. Which is hopefully intended as irony, because it seems rather pointless as an actual song. Then Rhythmus is less pointless, but not a lot more exciting unfortunately. It does bring some charmingly bonkers lyrics about triangles and squares though, which is better than nothing.
There’s then, rather inexplicably, a six second gap with a title – Silence. It’s not clear whether this is intended as a tribute to John Cage or is really just silence. Either way, the final track Hausmusik is soon upon us. It’s another one in the cheesy vein – it could easily just have been played on a Casio keyboard and wouldn’t have sounded a lot less sophisticated. But it’s still pleasant, and it’s worth taking a moment to remind yourself that you’re listening to Karl Bartos! He’s one of the Gods of electronic music!
So a new Karl Bartos album may not contain anything particularly exciting, but coming only once every decade, it’s still a rare treat, and is well worth taking the time to listen to. He doesn’t – even on the sleeve artwork – claim to be doing anything particularly new or inventive, so there isn’t a lot in the way of surprises, but that isn’t always a bad thing. If you’ve not heard one before though, you might do better to roll back to 1993’s Esperanto (credited to Elektric Music).
You can find Off the Record through all major retailers, such as here.