Monday, March 27, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #92 - Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine (1978)

In many ways, The Man-Machne is the synthesis of everything Kraftwerk had been doing musically for the preceding decade. Having played around with vocoders, mechanical rhythms, songs about the soullessness of the modern world, and making synthesizers sound as remote from anything human as possible, the band now embrace the stereotypes of what everyone imagines them to be, and actually portray themselves as robots.

This is not my favorite Kraftwerk album (that title belonging to the earlier Radio-Activity) but I certainly think it's their tightest, most consistent, and most fully realized in its concept. From the Soviet-Constructivist artwork to the assembly line synth rhythms that open the record, everything here is steeped in futurism and automation.

What separates this album from earlier Kraftwerk records is the clean production. They’ve figured out how to transform their early synth experiments into tight, catchy, dancefloor anthems. It's hard to believe this is the same band that, a few years earlier, used gentle flute melodies in songs about going for a morning walk (Autobahn).

As ever, the band seems to have an ambivalent relationship with technology. It's hard to see a track like Spacelab as anything but optimistic in it's cheerful and soaring protrayal of science and exploration, despite the absence of lyrics, and it's clear that the band has embraced new technology in music making with both love and devotion. On the other hand, Metropolis is the dark, pessimistic counterpart to Spacelab, painting a picture of a grim and impersonal city of the future.

This dichotomy is summed up in the track The Model. At first, it seems out of place. After all, it's about an actual human being, and it's sung without the usual robotic vocoders, omnipresent elsewhere on the album. But in fact, the song fits in perfectly. It's fundamentally about objectification and the substitution for an impersonal, glamorized image for real humanity. Yet at the same time, it glorifies the subject for her beauty and style. Two sides of the same coin, progress and the sense of leaving something behind, are captured here as well as anywhere else on the record.

The penultimate track on the album is the gently drifting Neon Lights, which again seems to celebrate the wonders of the modern age while at the same time expressing a sense of loneliness. After the vocals fade away, the track continues as an instrumental of lovely, melancholy melodies, drifting effortlessly into the title track, in which man's transformation into machine is finally complete. Honestly, it's the final track that impresses me most every time I hear the album. More than anything else they’ve ever done, it sounds like it was made by robots for robots. Robots who want to dance.

Not too many people listen to Kraftwerk these days, which is a shame because few bands have had a greater influence on electronic music. Without Kraftwerk, there would be no techno, and while other acts like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze where plenty adventurous with analogue synths, none of them displayed the same commitment to tight rhythms and a compressed pop structure. It's hard to imagine what modern, mainstream electronica would look like had The Man-Machine never been released.

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