In the history of electronic music, one of the most important and influential, groups are Kraftwerk. From their formative years, and their eponymous debut album Kraftwerk, released in 1970, they’ve constantly reinvented their music, using the latest technology. In the early years, they were one of first groups to realize the potential of synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines, utilizing them in their music. Later, they’d be one of the first groups to introduce computers into their own recording studio, Kling Klang, where they recorded many of their albums. Throughout their career, Kraftwerk, were ahead of their time, pioneers who were unafraid to experiment musically. Their music has influenced much of the electronic and dance music that would be released during the next four decades. Kraftwerk’s music has influenced several generations of musicians. This includes electronic groups during the eighties including Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark and Gary Numan. Post-punk and indie groups like Joy Division and New Order have said that Kraftwerk were a major influence on their music. Later, they influenced new genres of music like hip-hop, electro, house music and drum and bass. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Krafwerk are one of the most important, influential and innovative groups in the history of music. When they released their 1977 album, Trans-Europe Express, they were determined to continue to be innovative and utilize the potential of the new equipment that they had just acquired, and in the process, they recorded one of the greatest and most influential albums of the 1970s’. Before I tell you what the album sounds like, I’ll tell you the background to the album.
When Kraftwerk set about recording Trans-Europe Express they had just received one of the most sophisticated pieces of technology available then. This was the Synthanorma Sequencer which was custom made by the manufacturers for the band. It was a 32-step, 16 channel, analogue synthesizer, custom built by the manufacturers Matten and Wiechers. This allowed them to introduce even more complicated synthesiser lines into their music, that wouldn’t have been possible before. On the album, this synthesizer is used on several of the tracks, including Europe Endless, Frans Schubert and Endless Endless.
Like their previous albums, the music on the album was much more melodic than their earlier material. Gone was improvisational styles, of their earlier albums, which sounded as if it been influenced by free jazz. Similarly, Trans-Europe Express like earlier albums, has several themes. Friends of Kraftwerk had suggested they write songs about a journey on the Trans-Europe Express Railway. Other themes include a celebration of Europe, and the differences and inconsistencies between the reality and image of countries within Europe. So, Trans-Europe Express was an important album, not only musically, but because of the themes that ran through it.
Trans-Europe Express was released in March 1977, to critical acclaim. Critics loved the album, immediately, realized that this was a hugely important album. Since then, critics have reappraised the album, and now, realize how important it has been on the development of both electronic and dance music. However, when the album was released, it wasn’t the huge commercial success it should’ve been. In the US, it only reached number 117 in the US Billboard 200. The two singles from the album fared better. Two singles were released Trans-Europe Express and Showroom Dummies. Only Trans-Europe Express entered the US Billboard Hot 100, reaching number sixty-seven. In the UK, both singles charted, and reentered the charts during the eighties, when electronic music became much more popular. Once again, this another example of a hugely important and influential album failing to be the huge commercial success it should’ve been. Although the album sold well, it should’ve been a much bigger success. Now Trans-Europe Express was both an important and influential album, but what does it sound like?
Trans-Europe Express opens with Europe Endless which opens with a repetitive melody, played on a keyboard, the sound slightly sharp. It’s followed momentarily, by a dark broody synth, which gives way to a brighter, glistening sound, which is higher, and cascades high in the mix. Straight away, it seems like Kraftwerk are taking you on a journey through the medium of music, one that sees layer upon layer, of music unfold, and a multitude musical textures reveal themselves to you. The sound is moderne, still contemporary, even though thirty-four years old. Even when the inexpressive vocal enters, occasionally transformed by a vocoder, with vocals echoing behind it, the sound remains contemporary. The track chugs along, the rhythm reminding me of a train journey, albeit one with a space age, sonic, soundtrack. Constantly, melodies are repeated, the same themes, appear, disappear and reappear. This repetition leads to familiarity, and when the melodies reappear, it’s like meeting an old friend. Here though, that old friend is courtesy of Kraftwerk’s bank of synths, sequencers and drums machines. Europe Endless is a magnificent, epic track, nine and a half minutes long, gloriously repetitive, melodic music.
The Hall of Mirrors opens with synths echoing and reverberating, loud footsteps gradually getting nearer, before a tinkling, crystalline synth plays. The echoey synth sounds like a spaceship circling overhead. Meanwhile a keyboards plays thoughtfully, notes gradually revealing themselves. In the lyrics, Kraftwerk effectively deal with the subject of famous people perceive themselves. Here, the lyrics are cutting, uncomplimentary and wonderfully, delivered with a voice drained of emotion and almost life itself. Between such a great vocal and the arrangement which features the constant space-age reverberation thanks to a synth, with a tinkling, metallic keyboard interjecting occasionally, it’s a potent combination. By now, the arrangement is dark, almost morose sounding, drenched in atmosphere, and thanks to clever repetition of melodies, continues until the track’s end. As the track ends, you can’t help but admire the combination of eery, atmospheric, soundtrack and emotionless lyrics that are a cutting indictment on fame, and how those who achieve it perceive themselves.
When Showroom Dummies begins, it’s immediately apparent how different this track is to the previous one. It opens with a spoken word vocal, then a slow, bright and spacious keyboard plays, before synths sweep in, their sound almost crystalline or ethereal vocals. Later, a window smashes, the lyrics sound somewhat paranoid, as the sound takes a sharper turn. Quickly, normality returns, and the same lovely repetitive melody reappears, complete with that crystalline sound. This is one important feature of the music on Trans-Europe Express, how melodies are constantly, repeated throughout a track. Some people may think this constant repetition will grate after a while, but this isn’t the case, it has an almost hypnotic effect. It’s as if they’ve decided that having discovered a really good melody, that they’ll exploit it fully. Here they do this brilliantly, with the constant repetition being broken by the interjection of various rhythms, effects and of course the vocal, pokerfaced vocal.
The title track Trans-Europe Express begins with what sounds like a train chugging along a track. Here, it’s as if we’re going on a journey, and Kraftwerk will provide the soundtrack. Vocals are manipulated, drum beats become the sound of the train and synths sweep in. Their sound varies, one minute sharp, the next bigger, louder, fatter and much more melodic. A vocoder is used to manipulate the vocal, and the lyrics are half-spoken, half-sung, as the destinations for the journey become apparent. During the track, synths, sequencers and drum machines are used to good effect, recreating quite realistically, a journey through the capitals of Europe. It’s a combination of drum beats, sweeping and sometimes, grandiose synth lines, plus a combination of manipulated and expressionless vocals that take us on this masterful and magical musical journey.
Metal On Metal has a similar feel to the previous track. It still seems like we’re on a journey, a train sweeping along. However, it’s a very different journey, one where it’s booming and metallic, like a trip through Europe’s industrial heartland. Drums boom, synths sound metallic and sharp and overall, the sound is much more overpowering. As the song progresses, the similarity between a train journey increases, with Kraftwerk using synths, sequencers and drum machines to recreate the landscape that you’d have experienced in1977. Again, melodies emerge, and like before, they’re constantly repeated, but in doing so, they recreate the environment you’d have experienced on that journey. Later, a vocal is sung through a vocoder, constantly repeating the “route” Trans-Europe Express. This melts into what is like the sound of the train that’s previously been recreated. Overall, it’s a highly effective track, that succeeds in taking you further on your trip through seventies’ Europe thanks to Kraftwerk.
Franz Schubert is a track that ebbs and flows, waves of music rising and falling, while a melody is constantly played. The track begins with a melody playing on a keyboard, and soon, synths sweep in, and thereafter, they rise and fall. Here the peaks and troughs are neither high, nor deep, but the repetition and variety created is both intriguing and hypnotic. Although the arrangement is nether as full nor complex as previous tracks, it has always been a favorite track of mine from this album, because of the constant repetition of the melody, and variety provided by the rise and fall, of the sweeping synths.
Trans-Europe Express closes with a short reprise from the central theme to Europe Endless, entitled Endless, Endless. It’s a mixture of vocals sung through a vocoder accompanied by a synth that produce a sound that’s both dark and bright. Darkness is provided by the vocal sung through the vocoder and the light by the meandering, repetitive synths. Although, it’s just a short reprise of the theme it’s an effective reminder of the melodic beauty and glorious repetition of the album’s opening track.
This is the second article that I’ve written about Kraftwerk’s music. Previously, I’ve written about Autobahn, their 1974 album, which, like Trans-Europe Express, is a hugely important, innovative and influential album. Both albums demonstrate Kratwerk’s willingness to become musical pioneers, willing to reinvent their music, and use technology to improve, and make even more, complicated music. Like Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express has a theme behind it. In some ways, they’re both like concept albums. Here, they take us on musical a journey on the Trans-Europe Express Railway. During that journey, they celebrate Europe, examining the differences and inconsistencies between the reality and image of European countries. This was a major challenge for any artist or group, but attempting to do so with synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines was especially brave. When you listen to the album, you go on a very realistic journey, and while on that musical journey, I found myself thinking about the themes on the album. This demonstrates the power of the album, and the music on it. Not only was the album important as a concept, it was hugely important in the development of electronic and dance music. Kraftwerk’s music was hugely influential in the development of hip-hop, electro, techno and house music. So if you enjoy any of these musical genres, you should give thanks to Kraftwerk, for their music and influence on future generations of musicians. Standout Tracks: Europe Endless, The Hall of Mirrors, Showroom Dummies and Trans-Europe Express.