Kraftwerk - Trans-Europa Express
In 1974, Kraftwerk changed the world. That is an indisputable fact. They did it in more ways than one, too. Autobahn, released in that year, was Year Zero - the first electronica album. Though it wasn't quite a bolt out of the blue - Can and Silver Apples had hinted at an electronic form of popular music, and Karlheinz Stockhausen had been experimenting with tape manipulation back in the 1920s - it was still the Giant Leap Forward the genre needed, in the same way that Revolver caused a chasm that resulted in 'rock' and 'pop' being two different entities. Unless you see hip-hop as being entirely distinct from electronica, this was the last truly major breakthrough for music. Everything since has just rehashed what we already had - Autobahn was truly new. (And if you do consider hip-hop seperate, then just remember how important Afrika Bambaataa's 'Planet Rock' was, and remember it was based almost entirely on a sample taken from this album's title track.)
Not just that, but Autobahn was a big event for Germany. All the members of the Krautrock movement had been fighting an uphill battle for years, trying to restore culture to a Germany that had been ravaged by Hitler's actions in World War II, and was still suffering. Autobahn's title track, albiet in a severley edited form, was the first ever German language hit single on the Billboard charts. All of a sudden, Germany was the epicentre of an exciting cultural event, and the world was taking notice. It was just what the country needed.
Although Autobahn was indubitably their most important work to the outside world, Trans-Europa Express was a massive album for Kraftwerk themselves. The follow-up to Autobahn, Radio-Aktivit"t, had been met with slight bemusement and vastly reduced success. Thus, Trans-Europa Express was a make or break record. The pressure was on, and so, Kraftwerk had to respond. They did so in a number of ways.
Like all post-Autobahn Kraftwerk records, Trans Europa Express has a unifying theme across all its tracks. Actually, that's not strictly true - Trans Europa Express has two. The first, and most obvious, is a celebration of Europe. Putting the album in context, it's easy to see why they did that - they were, after all, the most famous musicians from a country still stereotyped and stigmatized by large portions of the rest of Europe. Symbolically, they were making the first move to reconcile the differences. They tempered this with an undercurrent of train travel ("Metall Auf Metall", for instance, literally refers to the sound of metal on metal made by a train on its tracks), which is a clear homage to Autobahn. The other concept is one of identity, noted on "Spiegelsaal (Halls Of Mirrors)" and "Schaufensterpuppen (Showroom Dummies)" - the latter the album's biggest hit, and something of a thematic precursor to their smash "The Model".
The fact that Kraftwerk use identity as a concept may seem slightly strange, but to me, it makes sense. Radio-Aktivit"t had been a departure for Kraftwerk, being as it was the first of their releases to be composed entirely of short, easily digestable songs. It was also their first totally non-Krautrock album - almost all the signs of that movement had disappeared. It was a very conscious, very deliberate move - note how the band now refuse to acknowledge that they released anything before Autobahn, when it was in fact their 4th album. Seemingly, Kraftwerk were having a few problems with their own identity. Trans-Europa Express found them settling comfortably into their newly constructed identity. Die Mensch-Maschine would, of course, see them inverting, mocking, deconstructing, and reinventing that identity, but that's another story.
The music here is delivered with a great confidence, suggesting that either Kraftwerk were not intimidated by the pressure, or that they were revelling in their new way of working. Possibly, both. They sound more comfortable in their own skins than on Radio-Aktivit"t, that's for sure, and even moreso than Autobahn.
Some - AMG, notaby - have singled Trans-Europa Express out as the ultimate Kraftwerk record. Ultimately, I disagree. Both Autobahn and Die Mensch-Maschine are better records than this, for my money. Not to mention, that I find this to be a record that either needs a lot of attention on the part of the listener, or it needs them to have previous familiarity with Kraftwerk's style. It's nowhere near as accessible as either of the following two records, Die Mensch-Maschine and Computerwelt. Kraftwerk fans should definitely pick this up, but newcomers are advised to approach with care, or look elsewhere in their catalogue first. Still, maybe I'm being oevrly critical here. Trans-Europa Express is a great album that teems with life despite its robotic origins, and sounds as fresh today as it did in 1977.
Within The Genre - 4.5/5
Outside The Genre - 4/5
Recommended Downloads -
Europa Endlos (Europe Endless)
Nearly ten minutes in length, it musically replicates the awe and wonder of discovering new land and visiting foreign countries almost perfectly. While large portions of this album are heavy, this sits at the opposite end of the spectrum; it's casual, upbeat, and catchy. The main themes are repeated several times, and reprised later in the album's closer, Endlos Endlos.
As part of their celebration of Europe, Kraftwerk present this tribute to one of the continent's finest composers. It's an impressive work that uses a completely electronic texture to imitate a string quartet. While still recognisably Kraftwerk-esque, it's something of an anomoly in their oeuvre. It's totally instrumental, and if I'm being honest, it works better as background music than as something to listen to intently, but it's possibly the most beautiful thing the group ever did. If you've ever wondered why people always say that Kraftwerk were masters of locating the soul at the heart of the machine, check this out.
Schaufensterpuppen (Showroom Dummies)
The album's most famous track, and it's easy to see why. This is Kraftwerk operating at their very peak. A funky, instantly dancable rhythm is offset with ghostly, spectral melodies that operate the way you might expect backing vocals or strings to in an acoustic composition. The vocal is delivered in a manner that suggests barking rather than singing, the raspy power of which suggests that the oft-repeated hook ('We are showroom dummies!' in the English version) is a threat. I would be very surprised if Trent Reznor, and any number of similar artists, had never heard this.
Kraftwerk - The Man-Machine
Silver Apples - Silver Apples
Afrika Bambaataa - Planet Rock
The Human League - Dare!
Oh, and a note. Kraftwerk themselves have insisted that their music is inspired first and foremost by the phonetics of the German language, and as a result, a lot of my fellow Kraftwerk obsessives will insist that their records sound better in German. This is usually rubbish. Here, it's true. It's worth hearing in English too, but I listen to the German version of this far more than the translated English version.