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.