They are one of the truly original acts in all of rock and roll. Their music is more important to the modern sound of current pop culture than all the punk bands and rappers combined. They rebelled against the standard guitar/bass formula for founding a group, and instead, relied on electronics and synthesizers to satisfy their muse. The result is some of the most important, innovative noise in the entire lexicon of resonance. Still, they are seen as sort of an enigma, a hermetically sealed entity functioning within their own little Teutonic world. To this day, Germany's Kraftwerk remains one of the seminal acts of the rock era, and their lack of public presence has only made them more mysterious. So imagine the surprise of fans worldwide when the group decided to play live again. The Minimum Maximum tour was a rousing success, and now Kling Klang Musik Films (the band's brand) in conjunction with Astralwerks has release a DVD of this amazing show. It proves that, in the realm of motherboard-made music, no one tops this legendary act.
Though some may argue that this is just a studio band meticulously recreating their sound for a decidedly addicted and fervent fanbase, Kraftwerk's stellar Minimum Maximum concert is unquestionably a spectacular experience in sonic bliss. On record (or CD), Kraftwerk's music tends to be dense and dour or light and breezy. Rarely does it meld the two to argue for the synth's secure place in the pantheon of potent rock and roll. Indeed, one of the things the band strived to overcome in the earliest part of their career is the poncey prog label that affixed itself to so many electronics-utilizing musicians. They didn't want their sound to remind people of King Crimson, Keith Emerson, or fellow Germans Tangerine Dream. Indeed, for Kraftwerk, keyboard-based sound was as much about the technology as it was the tune. Often accused of being cold, sterile and emotionless, a typical album might consist of nothing more than a couple of tracks, endless improvisations of a single song strung out via variations in the frequency and modulation of the music. The result is mesmerizing, but some find it monotonous. And since vocals are not the band's strong suit, there are very few sing-alongs in the Kraftwerk canon.
What's important about the group then, and what makes Minimum Maximum so remarkable, is that the sounds that they make tend to envelope and replace the actual atmosphere of the space they are playing in. As a result, we get the impression of resting beside the Continental countryside as the "Trans-Europe Express" rolls by, or lost in the loveliness of a well-lit strassa suggested by the seminal, sanguine "Neon Lights". Part of the power in these songs comes from the visual presentation of the music. Since Kraftwerk aren't really "playing" on stage - they do twist dials, essay the occasional melody line on keyboard and modulate the balance between tracks - they need some manner of optical wonder to wow the crowd. Combining digital imagery with archival footage, the film presentation that acts as a backdrop for the band is breathtaking. "Numbers" looks like a scene from The Matrix gone manic, while "The Model" is a reminder of the early days in fashion, before every glamour gal had to be "super" sized. Many of the movies are simple - "Vitamin" is an explosion of pills, while "Pocket Calculator" is exactly that - yet the effect is overwhelming and enigmatic. At first, it's the sound that captures our imagination. Then the films come along and paint in all the details.
From a pure performance standpoint, it is very entertaining to watch a pair of men in their late 50s (co-founder Ralf Hütter will be 60 soon) give the wimpy whippersnappers of modern music a run for their money. Ralf, along with bandmates Florian Schneider (the other original member) Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz are like secret agents as session men, dressed impeccably and near immobile behind their laptop set ups. On occasion, the camera comes in close to see the guys working an oscillator or sharpening a pitch. As the group's lead singer, Ralf carries most of the spotlight, and it's a hoot to watch him warble away in that skeletal, yet charming voice of his. There is very little crowd participation - they do sing along with "Dentaku" and express untold amounts of joy when the musicians make their way through the older material. The loudest ovation comes from the oddest element, actually. For a long time, it was rumored that Kraftwerk wanted to substitute preprogrammed robots for their actual human selves during shows. They could then play several cities at once while resting in comfort at home. Well, nothing ever came of this idea except a collection of creepy, half-metal mannequins. When these props arrive onstage (during "Robots", of course) the crowd goes wild. Even when all these automatons do is move in a synchronized herky jerky fashion, the level of love is palpable. These people not only adore Kraftwerk's music - they worship what it represents.
Indeed, the entire story of Kraftwerk's career can be divvied up into the sound and the significance. Without the band's music, we would not have the electro-pop craze of the late 70s/early 80s. Artists like Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and Human League would have no formal foundation for their bleep and squeak hit songs. But beyond that, Kraftwerk came along at a time when science was promising a fantasy future of unlimited possibilities. Ralf and Florian fought such rose-colored notions, placing the preoccupation right where it belonged. In essence, their music questioned how man would react with and as part of the growing technological tidal wave. Their sonic response wasn't just pretty, it was prescient. It spoke of subjects - computers, robots, space - long before they were part of the normal lexicon. Seeing them preach their caustic cautionary tales live after years of being a CD only symbol is a real revelation. Without a doubt, Minimum Maximum is one of the best live performance based DVDs ever to hit the market - and here's hoping that this band finds their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame very soon. They are that important and necessary to the manners of all modern music.