In the early ’70s, an era when singer-songwriter types earned acclaim for pummeling the world with dreary reports on their every emotion, Kraftwerk listened to spinning wheels and whirring motors and heard music. The German band’s fourth album, Autobahn, began its career-long obsession with the sounds made when machines merged with, and sometimes consumed, humanity. Running nearly 23 minutes, the album’s title track begins with an engine turning over and a synthesized horn then just keeps going and going. Mixing keyboards and electronic drums with more traditional instruments, the track simulates a trip down a German highway, recycling the usually ignored everyday soundtrack of the industrial present as music for a world in which humanity has been pushed to the margins.
Kraftwerk’s music refuses to pass any kind of explicit judgment on that marginalization. The band’s output—collected in The Catalogue sans the early albums, a few stray singles, and a 2005 live album in this massive new box set—has had a profound influence on every variety of electronic music that followed, from early hip-hop and ’80s hits to the Auto-Tuned stars of today. But even if the group had never inspired another beat, it would still sound stand as a hugely successful piece of conceptual art.
There’s really no wrong way of looking at Kraftwerk. The brainchild of Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter, and a rotating cast of collaborators, the group’s music and its creators’ straight-faced post-human personas can be seen either as a critique of technology’s influence on contemporary culture or a celebration of the same. “The Robots” (from 1978’s The Man-Machine) eerily blurs the line between automata and their human creators but the same album’s “Neon Lights” finds beauty in the sensory overload of a color-saturated 20th-century metropolis. With only a few words and slight variations on the same musical themes, “Trans-Europe Express” (from the 1977 album of the same name) captures the pleasing disorientation of mass transit, but the 1975 album Radio-Activity doubles an album-length exploration of nuclear paranoia and the way mass communication lets millions tune to the same frequency while leaving us no less alone.
Yet this kind of conceptual rigor would have insured the group cult celebrity and little more if the music didn’t have such a hypnotic allure. It’s a stretch to say that The Catalogue captures a pop sensibility, but it’s hard to think of another band able to build a catchy song out the sounds of a pocket calculator or the breathing of a panting biker, as Kraftwerk does with “Tour De France.” Kraftwerk expanded the latter, a 1983 single, into a full-length album in 2003 that, with last year’s departure of Schneider, now looks like the swansong of Kraftwerk as we know it making Catalogue as much memorial as celebration. Then again, maybe Hütter can simply swap him out like a worn-out part. Several decades into its career, the act has yet to let the mask slip far enough to let the world discover or not they’re, in the words of one of their disciples, human after all.