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.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Universal

In 1996, you might have been forgiven for wondering exactly why OMD were still around. It was over a decade and a half since Enola GayPaul Humphreys (the one that wasn’t Andy McCluskey) hadn’t been part of the group for nearly half of that time, and chart success wasn’t exactly

Universal does hold some of the answers. The title track, which opens the album, is rather excellent, and despite its poor chart performance (these things mattered twenty years ago) when it appeared as the second single, it does deserve to be remembered. Walking on the Milky Way, the one and only other single, peaked at number 17, giving them their biggest hit since Pandora’s Box in 1991. It’s an excellent song, and definitely deserved better though.

These were rough times for OMD, as the Britpop explosion very suddenly made synthpop very uncool. The sound of Universal does seem to have taken some inspiration from this, as there seems to be a big “rock” feeling throughout much of this album. The Moon & The Sun features a writing credit for the legendary Karl Bartos, and whether it’s his influence or not, it turns out to be a pretty good song too.

If this album is less adventurous than its predecessors, the other side of the coin is that it’s more consistent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that many of the songs stand up too well on their own. The Black Sea, co-written with Liberator-era member Stuart Kershaw, is pleasant, but a bit uninspired.

The writer credits are often more interesting than the actual music. Paul Humphreys turns up for Very Close to Far Away, and you can’t help but feel that if it had been released in the 1980s, it might have been one of their more notable songs. Hidden under their mid-1990s production, it’s nothing special.

Worse than that, at times it’s pretty poor – The Gospel of St. Jude is simply pointless. That Was Then is forgettable too, and it isn’t easy to judge exactly what’s meant to be going on here. Too Late is another Paul Humphreys collaboration, which is quite pleasant, and might even have you nodding along before it ends, but it ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.

The big surprise of this half of the album comes with the daftly titled The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You. I’ve no idea what it’s about (honestly, if OMD aren’t writing about Joan of Arc it’s pretty difficult to tell what it’s meant to be about) but the chorus is pretty catchy.

There are moments when they channel their former selves with some success – If You’re Still in Love with Me is another collaboration with former members, and probably could have appeared on an earlier (and better) album quite comfortably. New Head has some echoes of earlier works too – although it might just be the “ABC” lyric.

Closing track Victory Waltz is pretty nice, but you do get the feeling that it’s not going to stay in your memory for long. I remember liking this album, but this time around it just seems empty and entirely forgettable.

At the end of Universal, it feels as though it might be nice to have a couple more of these songs on one of their greatest hits album, but at its best, you can’t help but feel they’re just trying to relive their past. This isn’t an album that I’d be rushing to listen to again.

You can still find Universal through all major retailers.

Artist of the Week – Kraftwerk

I always find myself apologising for the hyperbole in these archive pieces, and honestly there are plenty this week too, but it’s not undeserved. Unusually, due to their lack of new releases, except for the last line, this one is still current too!

Kraftwerk are one of the most influential and important bands that have ever existed, without a doubt. Although they never made any particular impact on the charts, with the exception of The Model, they have come to be renowned for inventing practically every form of electronic music in existence, and they are now guaranteed sell-out tours and sizable hits the world over.

It all began way back in the late 1960s when Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider-Esleben, then music students in Düsseldorf, joined with two others to form The Organisation. The debut album Tone Float was released in Germany in 1969.

Following this, Ralf and Florian went off to form Kraftwerk, which translates into English as “power station”. The first three albums, now known as Kraftwerk 12, and Ralf and Florian are little known but have come to be widely referenced in the field of experimental music, being commonly cited as influences by the likes of David Bowie and Orbital.

Their fourth album as Kraftwerk introduced two new members: Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, and became a worldwide hit and instant classic. 1975’s Autobahn has been universally praised as one of the most important albums ever recorded.

Over the next ten years, they would go on to record classic after classic, with Radio-Activity in 1976, Trans-Europe Express in 1977, the classic The Man-Machine in 1978, and Computer World  in 1981. It was at the start of the 1980s that they reached their chart pinnacle with The Model hitting number one in the UK.

In 1983, they recorded the cycling anthem Tour de France, but it was shortly after this that Hütter suffered a serious cycling accident, putting the recording of their next album way behind schedule. Eventually released in 1986, Electric Café just about scraped into the bottom end of the UK Charts.

In 1991, they returned, remixing many of their classic albums for the fantastic The Mix, and then they spend most of the 1990s locked away in their studio, occasionally resurfacing with rumours of reissues or a new album, and towards the end of the 1990s, a couple of tours as well.

Eventually, they reappeared last year [2003] with Tour de France Soundtracks. Widely criticised for being “more of the same”, it still managed a respectable UK chart placing, and is a good album nonetheless.

Finally, rumours still abound of a series of reissues of the original albums. Promos are now available, but there is still no news when they will appear in the shops.

Electronic – Raise the Pressure

It was a painfully long five-year gap between Electronic‘s eponymous debut and the follow-up Raise the Pressure, released twenty years ago this week. Often forgotten and overshadowed by its older brother, this release saw them collaborating with Karl Bartos, both bucking and following the trend by creating a contemporary indie sound using soft synths.

I have to confess, I do have fond memories of this album, but it isn’t one I listen to often these days – I had assumed it was perhaps best left in the past, but now, twenty years on, it sounds amazing. First track Forbidden City is just so good! It’s a catchy song, with Bernard Sumner all over it, and somehow it’s very good indeed.

For You is rather closer to my memories of this album – it’s far from bad, harking back in its own way to Johnny Marr‘s past, but somehow it seems a little clumsier and less elegant than its predecessor. The middle section is nice, but the “la la la” coda seems a bit unnecessary. As the second single, it definitely didn’t have the power of the first, although a great package including tracks from earlier singles did make it worth owning.

For much of the album, it seems to flip backwards and forwards between then-contemporary indie-style songs, and the more “electronic” sound that you might expect from a group called Electronic, and so promo single Dark Angel is a pleasant inclusion. Honestly I think it sounded pretty dated when it came out, and now it definitely belongs in another era, but it’s a strong song. This time, the middle section is nothing short of brilliant.

This album is a mixed bag, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s also varied enough to always be interesting. One Day isn’t anything too special, but then we get the wonderful Until the End of Time. Nothing really sounds as though it was recorded in 1996, and I wonder if that’s the timeless quality that Karl Bartos brought to the table. If you can put that out of your mind, this is an easy album to enjoy, and with its energetic 303 work and catchy chorus, Until the End of Time is definitely one of the better things on it.

Third single Second Nature comes next, with its enormous piano introduction. The track that emerges is great, but you can’t help but feel a little disappointed after the way it began. This isn’t true of the beautifully Teutonic If You’ve Got Love, which in spite of a somewhat lacklustre chorus, is largely brilliant. Then Out of My League is a great, if unstirring rock track.

After a short interlude (Interlude) we get another of the best tracks on here, Freefall. For the first time in a few songs – possibly since the first – the melodies and lyrics actually fit together perfectly, and the backing complements them too. This is what Electronic sound like at their best.

It would be easy to ignore the last few songs on here – this album has thirteen tracks in total, and that’s just about enough to feel a bit burnt out by this stage. But Visit Me refuses to be forgotten, surprising you with one of the best melodies and one of the cleverest lyrics on here. How Long, an attempt to close things out in particularly triumphant fashion, is only a success to a certain degree – this time the backing is rather better than the slightly dubious chorus lyric.

This is a long album, but when the end comes, it’s a bit like the end of the encores at a concert – your legs are killing you and your ears are ringing, and part of you should have been fast asleep by now, but you really don’t want the moment to end. Time Can Tell is the perfect album closer – it’s another of the best songs on here, and seems a worthy reward to those who stuck this release right through to the end.

Twenty years on, it turns out that Electronic‘s second release is well worth a reappraisal. Maybe it isn’t quite as good as Electronic, but that would be a lot to ask. Difficult it may have been, but this is a worthy second album. I wonder if the third one still stands up this well.

There was a digital-only special edition at one point, but if you’re looking for a CD, there’s just one version of Raise the Pressure, still available here.

Ten essential albums of 2003

Originally posted on my old website, 13th November 2003, while I was probably meant to be working or something. See also Ten essential singles of 2003.

  • Karl Bartos – Communication
  • Bent – The Everlasting Blink
  • Delerium – Chimera
  • Dave Gahan – Paper Monsters
  • Goldfrapp – Black Cherry
  • Martin L Gore – Counterfeit 2
  • Kraftwerk – Tour de France Soundtracks
  • Massive Attack – 100th Window
  • Erlend Øye – Unrest
  • Pet Shop Boys – Disco 3

Compilations of note released in 2003…

  • Erasure – Hits! The Very Best of
  • Human League – The Very Best of
  • Pet Shop Boys – PopArt

Also worthy of mention, because they finally made it big this year…

  • Conjure One – Conjure One
  • Ladytron – Light & Magic
  • Lemon Jelly – Lost Horizons

Not really worth bothering with unless you’re a huge fan…

  • Air+Baricco – City Reading
  • Apollo 440 – Dude Descending a Staircase
  • Erasure – Other People’s Songs

Beginner’s guide to Electronic

One of the most interesting – and best named – supergroups, as New Order‘s Bernard Sumner and The Smiths‘ Johnny Marr teamed up variously with Pet Shop Boys, Karl Bartos and others to create some truly brilliant electronic music.

Key moments

Get the MessageGetting Away with It, and Disappointed are the three that most people will remember, but there are a lot of other special moments hidden away.

Where to start

Buying a “best of” from an act who have only released may seem like an odd step, but Get the Message (2006) actually makes a pretty good collection – plus it includes Disappointed, which doesn’t appear on any of the studio albums, and a couple of the better b-sides.

What to buy

Start with the brilliant debut Electronic (1991) – get the 2013 reissue with the bonus disc, if you can, as it contains instrumental highlights of the rest of their career. Then move on in chronological order to Raise the Pressure (1997).

Don’t bother with

Sadly, the third album Twisted Tenderness lacks the charm, inventiveness, and even the songwriting of its predecessors. Anything that’s worth hearing on here is on either Get the Message or the bonus disc of Electronic.

Hidden treasure

Many of the b-sides are surprisingly good, notably Free Will and Imitation of Life, and there are some particularly good remixes hidden away on the singles too.

For stowaways

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – English Electric

I’ve written before about the internal conflict that I suffer from when I pick up a new Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark album. They’re legends of electronic music, and a part of you feels you have to venerate them because of that. Alright, Andy McCluskey is obnoxious and entirely full of himself in interviews, but these are the people who recorded Enola Gay and Electricity, so you have to be forgiving to them, don’t you?

Well, no – they’re also the people who churned out album after album of dross in the late 1980s, and Andy McCluskey was also the man behind Atomic Kitten, so he also has a lot to answer for. And so it is entirely fair to pick up an album such as English Electric and explore it entirely on its own merits, and to forget about everything which came before it.

But that isn’t easy with OMD, because they insist on behaving like electronic royalty. Even the act of releasing a new album seems to be done with statements along the lines of, “we’re the people who recorded Enola Gay, you know.” No, that’s enough of that. Let’s not hate them too much before we’ve even pressed play.

Well, it’s difficult to cut them too much slack. The opening track Please Remain Seated is thoroughly ridiculous – it opens with the announcement that greets travellers onto the Maglev at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, which is then “translated” into English as “The future which you anticipated has been cancelled.” Erm… OK.

The first proper track is Metroland, which has a fun clicky rhythm to it. It still sounds a lot like OMD – they never seem to have been able to avoid a bit of self-parody – but that’s not always a bad thing. Once you’ve had the synth arpeggio, the climbing counter-melody, and the pad choir, you’ve almost run out of OMD clichés. I suppose it’s good to get them out of the system as early on as possible. If only it were about Joan of Arc – that way we could tick all the boxes at once and get on with making a proper album.

What Metroland lacks is a particularly catchy chorus, but otherwise it’s pleasant enough, if you don’t mind it dragging on for seven and a half minutes. Similarly Night Café, almost a tribute to Trans-Europe Express, is nearly a good song, but it just seems to be lacking that special magical something. The Future Will Be Silent is rather silly, but it bounces along with a rather happy jaunt, and so it’s actually pretty enjoyable.

Then Helen of Troy is as close as we get to the song that everyone wants about Joan of Arc. Seemingly the previously bottomless pit of songs about poor Joan has finally been drained, so McCluskey has had to move onto other female historical figures instead. If he needs some ideas for future albums then I’m particularly looking forward to George Eliott and Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately Komputer have done Valentina Tereshkova already.

On Our System, McCluskey sings very meaningfully about how formulaic OMD songs have become – “We sing about famous historical women / Then bring in that pad sound again.” Not really, it’s about space or something.

Slightly unexpectedly, the next track Kissing the Machine sounds very familiar, which is because it’s stolen wholesale from Elektric Music (Karl Bartos‘s) 1993 album Esperanto, on which McCluskey collaborated on a couple of tracks, including this one. Which should be enough to make it one of the best tracks on here, except even this isn’t as good as the original. McCluskey’s apparent reverse-Midas touch is still very much in effect.

With the exception of the catchy (if predictable) Stay with Me, the rest of the album is sadly forgettable for the most part. Fortunately the tracks are pretty short, so at least you get to forget them pretty quickly. Decimal features some counting for some reason, Dresden is nice but ultimately pointless, Atomic Ranch is very noisy indeed, and Final Song is just a bit aimless.

Fourteen years in the making, the comeback album History of Modern (2010) was patchy in the extreme, whereas English Electric is considerably more solid. What it really lacks is any particularly strong songs – its predecessor had a few, but this one is content to just bob along being pleasant and no more. You could be forgiven for wondering why OMD felt it was necessary to have yet another comeback just for this. Maybe next time…

You can find English Electric at all major online retailers, some with bonus tracks or a bonus DVD. Shop around for the right version.

Karl Bartos – Off the Record

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.