Kraftwerk "MINIMUM-MAXIMUM" (EMI, 2005)

There is probably not much to tell about Kraftwerk anymore. The group was found by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970. They are known as the pioneers of the electronic music genres. From 1974 to 1981 they released their most groundbreaking albums, which laid the foundation for elektropop and brought the then rare, expensive and difficult to handle synthesizers into the clubs and charts. Since I thought it would not make sense to pick one of these records to review here, I decided to go with their latest release, the live album "Minimum-Maximum". For their 2004 tour (according to the booklet the songs were recorded on different shows all around the globe) they reprogrammed all their classic stuff and gave it a more modern sound. In addition they performed their latest material from the 2000's and a few of their 1991 remixes. So this double album serves as kind of a best of album, which in itself does not exist so far. Remastered box sets of all their albums since 74 have been announced.

Like with every Kraftwerk record since "Radioaktivität", there is a German and an International version. I reviewed the former one (since German is Kraftwerk's mother language), but the differences should be neglectable. The track order is the same on both editions. Please note that the album is copy protected. So if you plan to buy the CD, keep in mind that it will not play on all CD players!

Disc 1:

DIE MENSCH-MASCHINE The album starts with the greatest vocoder vocal line in all Kraftwerk songs. It is sung not as fluid as in the original, but still sounds ingeniously. Has a very low-keyed beat, but actually everything in this piece is a good example of their minimalism. Nice effect play in the second half (which also is a Kraftwerk trademark). Still, running 8 minutes this is just a little too long for my liking. 7.5

PLANET DER VISIONEN This is the only new track on this album, although it is like a version of their "Expo 2000", including a salute to the Detroit techno community, which was heavily influenced by the Germans in the 80s. Hard techno beat with whirling hihats and grumbling bass. The usual electronic vocal bits are accompanied by organ sounds. I guess you can call it a club track, in a Kraftwerk sort of way. 7.5

TOUR DE FRANCE ETAPE 1 / CHRONO / TOUR DE FRANCE ETAPE 2 (Occasionally Kraftwerk produce backing tracks that mesh together and produce merely variations of one another. So I thought, if Kraftwerk like to play these tracks as one, there is no point in rating them separately.) These tracks are from their 2003 album "Tour de France Soundtracks". Like "Planet der Visionen" they like to be Club Tracks, but the off-hihat just gets on my nerves. Also, the bass drum is too weak. It neither kicks nor grooves, it is just a shallow dance track that lacks of ideas. "Chrono" is an interlude with much tinkling and "Etape 2"gets a little darker. Variations of a boring theme. Also the (somewhat of a) melody could not save this from not passing. 4.5

VITAMIN Another one of the newer tracks. A little inconsequent though, writing a song about the legal stuff that you need to compete on the Tour, but not about the illegal substances (since obviously they are more important for being successful there). Anyway, this one has nice sampling in the fashion of "Metall Auf Metall" that creates a smooth rhythm and sounds like a dancing toaster. Way more resourceful than the preceding songs, even though the sample hacking could have been varied more often. 6.5

TOUR DE FRANCE This is the original from 1983. I never understood why a progressive band like Kraftwerk had chosen a boring and esthetically challenged sport like cycling as topic for a song (and later even an album). Even if Hütter is a fan of it, I would imagine that racing for example would have fitted their image more. But I degress. The song: Hard elektro beat and the characteristic rhythmic breathing that brings out the melody better than the restrained four to the floor beats of the later versions. Progressive. 8.0

AUTOBAHN A classic and Kraftwerk's first hit. The title implies a fast speed track, but the song actually rolls rather slowly like an old Volkswagen Bug crawling up a hill. This one has the original minimal beat (not the somewhat harder one from the 1991 Remix album "The Mix"). Since at this time Kraftwerk did not produce International versions yet, this track is only available in German language (not much to miss there for non-German speakers though; just imagine a robot family singing along their way on a motorway, highway or whatever you call it in your country). Sweet melodies and groovy bass. After four minutes the lavish play with noises of passing vehicles, their typical analogue synthesizers and vocoder choirs begins. In spite of the nearly nine minutes it never gets boring. 9.0

DAS MODEL The most pop song in Kraftwerk's repertoire, with verses and nice catchy synthie hook lines and human singing by Hütter. Soft and fluffy with a new 303-like bass, nothing deep to expect here. 7.5

NEONLICHT Another piece of their "Mensch-Maschine" album. There is an English and a German verse, but on a funny note Hütter's pronunciation of the word 'neon' sounds more like French in both verses. This is very close to the original, with the percussions sounding pretty wooden. There are no hihats, but a persistent e-piano in their place. A song right out of Metropolis with spheric synthesizer strings and bright tinkling sounds. Shorter than the album version but still a bit long (and as a result you can't get the melody out of your head afterwards). 7.0

Disc 2:

RADIOAKTIVITÄT This one has always been one of my favorite Kraftwerk songs, whether in its original version or the 1991 remix. However, I am not sure if the additional lyrics of the latter one were really necessary. They took away the harmless naivity of the original and made it a protest song against the use of nuclear energy. In return you are treated with hilarious new computer speech. I mean, it is not just 'Sellafield', it's 'Sellafiel-Dh'... Anyway, this live mix is a combination of both versions and really rocks. The song has one of the best Kraftwerk melodies and a special charme that is hard to describe. 9.5

TRANS EUROPA EXPRESS / ABZUG / METALL AUF METALL Served as a blueprint for early New York hip hop (most notably Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock") and obviously the beat programming of many Depeche Mode pieces. "TEE" features this charismatic phased percussions, that try an early version of the machine beat refined in "Music Non Stop", and a dramatic melody. "Abzug" plays with sad, slided strings, while "Metall auf Metall" varies the metallic percussion elements. Everything merges into an integral whole when in the end the "TEE" theme arrives again. 9.0

NUMMERN / COMPUTERWELT Getting familiar with foreign language numbers? If it wasn't for Kraftwerk we probably would have never appreciated that the Japanese 1-2-3-4 rhymes with the Russian 1-2-3. Beat with flittering zipps and whacked-out robot voice pitching. "Computerwelt" is not necessarily a lyrical highlight (Computerwelt, denn Zeit ist Geld?). Gives the flittering beat a song structure with computer sung chorus and human sung verses. 7.5

HEIMCOMPUTER Pattern for 90s Elektro tracks. I mean, what would Anthony Rother have done if songs like this never existed? I like it when the music stops for a moment after the chorus. Pretty theatrical with again lots of tinkling and a few effective breaks. Nice experimentation with reverbs and delays which always fits Kraftwerk's sound arrangements. 7.0

TASCHENRECHNER / DENTAKU Kraftwerk's best dance track. The song features human vocals and plenty of crazy sounds. It is interesting that from all the world wide audiences the Japanese crowd seems the most vivid, at least on "Dentaku". Therefore this song, along with "Music Non Stop", has the best live feeling on the album and is just fun. 8.5

DIE ROBOTER This is the 1991 remix, which kicks more than the original. Typical Kraftwerk song: technological topic, vocoder voice, nice hookline escorted by clear synthie sounds, interesting sampling corresponding the beat. And it's long. But in this track the second half is not that inventive. Still one of their trademark songs that anticipated the robots that were introduced at the 1981 tour and sometimes give the interviews in place of the actual band members. 8.0

ELEKTRO KARDIOGRAMM Back to the "Tour de France" album and the rhythmic wheezing. One of the newer tracks that actually sounds fresh and thrilling, with a very (and nearly too) dominant high bass line on places where you usually find your snare drum. Nut much melody here, but concentrated energy. 7.5

AERO DYNAMIK Like with "TdF Etape 1/2" the beat is simply too low-key. A weak four to the floor bass drum, a naked hihat in the offs and a metallic snare are just not enough to really get attention. If it wasn't for the incisive bass line and the bot vocals the track would just pass without notice. With over seven minutes in length there is too little happening here. 6.0

MUSIC NON STOP This is the first Kraftwerk song I remember having been aware of and therefore this is my personal Kraftwerk classic. It is from the 1986 "Electric Cafe" album that was the first one that got mixed reactions, being released after a longer hiatus and at a time when electronic music was not that revolutionary anymore. Still, "Music Non Stop" is a unique track, combining the voice-for-percussion patterns of "Boing Boom Tschak" and the cold melodies of "Musique Non-Stop". Has a nice live feeling and nearly ten minutes that almost create a trance-like state. 9.5

[Artwork] Consists of high quality pictures of the musicians on stage in their famous impassive poses in front of various backgrounds (I like the one for "Autobahn"). The booklet gives information about the origin of the live recordings and tour equipment. If that does not satisfy you, you can try the special edition including a DVD and an 88-page booklet. 7.5

Conclusion If you want to get familiar with their music, this live album is the best choice. The sound is great and the balance between the original and new mixes of their most popular tracks is perfect. What hurts the overall impression of "Minimum-Maximum" is the extensive use of their 2003 material. Two songs of that album instead of six would have been enough. However, this does not affect the greatness of the rest of the music that founded the legacy of Kraftwerk. Overall Rating: 7.64

For a first look at their repertory I can also recommend the 1991 "The Mix". This (mostly techno influenced) remix collection was released at a time, when techno music was still young and probably a little too progressive for the once so progressive Kraftwerk fans. But it introduced the group to a younger audience. The debate on this album was kind of like that on the new Star Wars Trilogy: the fans who grew up with the originals had problems catching up with the rework, arguing it would take away the charm of the old stuff. On the other side Kraftwerk were able to program things in 91 that they could not in the 70s. In any case, "The Mix" misses a few of the well known songs (for example "Tour de France" and "Das Model").

May 2007