Kraftwerk - Royal Festival Hall
There aren't that many bands around who have managed to invent an entire genre around their sound, but Kraftwerk are undoubtedly one such band. They might not have been the first band to use electronica as a major part of their sound, but they were certainly the first to fully realize the potential of pure electronic music. If you took Kraftwerk's output in the seventies and placed it opposite, say Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, then in between these polar extremes you have the blueprint for almost every genre that came after them. Kraftwerk are that important.
Tonight, the air is heavy with expectation. The Royal Festival hall is the perfect setting for such a band, with it's faux art-deco interior for the Kraftwerk performance is not so much a gig, as a living modern art installation with beautiful, haunting music. The stage is entirely bare, apart from four podiums with keyboards and laptops arranged with typical German precision. Behind them, on an impossibly wide screen, simple, basic images are flashed in perfect time to the music. Graphics are bold, images are grainy and it all flows like the music it is designed to enhance.
Kraftwerk's music operates at many levels. The beats and rhythms interweave in time to the images and allow the mind to wander through the moods and atmospheres created. Autobahn has an almost sinister air to it when performed live. The images consist mainly of the propaganda footage from the Autobahns original completion in the 1930's. The hope and freedom offered on screen contrasts sharply with what was to follow. That's the wonderful thing about Kraftwerk; they are a band who are aware of history and through their music they offer a commentary on the positive, and negative, aspects of the twentieth century. There's hardly a subject they leave uncovered - Nuclear energy, the rise of digital technology, the impact of the pocket calculator, the democratization of travel and, of course, the impact of machine-technology are all grist to their electronic mill.
The songs tonight are a mixture of old and new, as you would expect, and no classic is left unplayed. The Model still sounds as fresh now as it did twenty-five years ago. Tour-De-France is breathless and accompanied by witty and fast graphical touches - flashes of bright red accompany the sharp B&W photography. Radio Activity, with it's warnings of the dangers of nuclear power stations is absolutely terrifying, accompanied by subliminal flashes and stark warning signs. Highlights are The Robots, which follows as an encore and sees the band replaced by automated dummies, which, proving once and for all that the German's have a deep and extremely sophisticated sense of humour, are more lively than their human counterparts. There is much humour here tonight, but you'll have to look very hard for it. Kraftwerk cannot be accused of dumbing down for anyone.
Kraftwerk are one of those bands that everyone should see at least once. Nobody else has come close to achieving what they have achieved; taking a form of music that was once entirely new, and somewhat maligned, and dragging it to such levels that it became a legitimate high art form. With the live show, they push that concept even further, the band becoming performing artists rather than simple musicians. They trade-off showmanship and stage antics for concentration, thought and creativity and it all comes together like clockwerk. If you're planning on going to see them on this leg of their tour, you're going to see something very special indeed. Two and a half hours of perfection that you come out of feeling cleansed in some way, almost brainwashed by the immaculate beats.