Kraftwerk: undoubtedly the most influential electronica based band in history, as well as one of the most influential, period. The Man-Machine
, released in 1978 was their fourth album since they sprung to international attention on the release of Autobahn
, and while it's not the one most readily associated with the band, there's a strong argument for saying that it's the one which actually best summarises the band for any new listener to Kraftwerk. As the title suggests, this album successfully blends the boundaries between human and robot to the point where it's unclear quite exactly what Kraftwerk are. Such is the electronic perfection lying deep in their music, along with the legend surrounding them, with the band being notoriously reclusive, to the point that their own record label has been reported as not having a contact number for the band, that it's difficult to know where truth begins and rumour ends with these guys.
Of course, a trademark of Kraftwerk's music is pretty much always a visceral coldness, aided by their trademark use of vocorders, icy synths, and stuttering electronics, creating something of a musical detachment from anyone listening to the music itself. Here, on lead off single The Robots
, this is possibly more evident than at any other time during the band's career, with the repeated dehumanised refrain of "we are the robots" being pretty much self-explanatory, as well as being the most blatant example in the band's career of their perpetuation of their own legend. This same atmosphere is created on 2 more of the 6 tracks present here, for example on title track The Man-Machine
, which owes a surprising amount to what can only really be described as a form of funk, with a synthesied line providing basically all the backing to the song. Ascending arpeggiated vocals repeating the word "machine" seems to imply us spiralling out of control, heading towards the inevitability of artificial intelligence (or something similar), and yet it's done in such a way that makes it seem somehow inevitable as well as not really that important. There's definitely no sense of urgency or concern in the music, and again, this can be attributed to the fact that when you think about it, Kraftwerk are a bit like the musical equivalent to Darth Vader; "more machine than man".
, an instrumental track, is based around a similar idea, with a profoundly depressing melody bubbling away for basically the entire duration of the song. It's the kind of thing that really should get repetitive, but such are the subtle variations in tone and mood that the band not only get away with it, but make it sound really quite outstanding. This brings us nicely onto an oddity of the album, in The Model
, which may well be the most atypical song in the whole of Kraftwerk's available back catalogue. A portrait of a model, it's a mere 3 and a half minutes long, with what is genuinely a verse/chorus structure. It's hardly likely to have been played hugely on MTV (if it had existed at the time), but this is a song that really doesn't sound like Kraftwerk, although the dehumanised vocals about what is a very human topic show that they're hardly really changing their style, even for this one song. The other two songs, Metropolis
and Neon Lights
are the weakest on the album, and what brings it down below the standard of their very best work, such as Autobahn
, which shot them to fame. With the theme of urbanisation, dealing with the issue of cities, and the often deceptive nature of them (such as with neon lights), it's a rather bleak world view, that's obviously backed up by the nature of the music itself.
Where in the pantheon of Kraftwerk albums does this stand? It's definitely not on the very top tier, as it's not had quite the groundbreaking effect that their other work did. However, for anyone with even a passing interest in electronica, the entire avaiable back catalogue of this band is simply something which needs to be looked into, and this album is firmly among those which come just behind their best. They're not a band which it's easy to describe, as they combine cold, detached music with themes which all of us can relate to, and they do this in a way which is somehow very likeable and catchy. And in a way, that's their charm. You don't really understand the music, or know why it's quite so good, but you just know that it is. And here, where they finally threaten to turn into robots (they actually play The Robots
live with actual mannequins replacing them on stage), that's very clear indeed.