5 against 4: Kraftwerk - a remastered retrospective                                                  

Kraftwerk - a remastered retrospective

Back in September, i posted an article examining Kraftwerk's output as heard in the remasters from 2004 • This is an updated version of that article (which has now been deleted), extensively re-written in light of the 2009 remasters, the 'definitive' versions released last month •

Of all words associated with the digital era, the one that is ubiquitous like no other is 'remastered' • It has become tantamount to a religious dogma, that the works we have known & loved from our analogue heritage are holy treasures, deserving nothing less than to be preserved in æternum, & to that end dusted & polished into a shiny, technicolour, everlasting digital form • Like all religions, though, it is capable of havoc carried out in its name; most conspicuous in recent times is the egregious & shamefully unmusical use of—among other things—compression in the vain attempt at making the sound 'stand out' (the so-called 'loudness war') • This kind of treatment, under the banner of 'remastering', is to music what George Lucas has become to his own Star Wars trilogy; something that obfuscates, even dirties, the original, under the illusion that in so doing, one is capturing with greater fidelity the 'original vision' • Back in 2004, Kraftwerk began their own equivalent mission, returning to the ageing tapes of their earlier albums, cleaning them up & remastering them for posterity • Titled The Catalogue, an 8-disc box set comprising each of their albums in its new digitally remastered form, the release ultimately proved to be stillborn, & the few promotional copies that existed quickly found their way, depending on your preference, either to eBay for a ridiculous sum of money, or to torrent sites for a ridiculous number of leechers • It has taken a further five years for the definitive, further remastered versions of these albums to be released, finally seeing light of day last month •

In both its manifestations, i have approached The Catalogue with the utmost trepidation, as, i imagine, have many fans whose appreciation (&, let's face it, love) of Kraftwerk's output goes both very deep & back many years • But before one even gets to the music, certain things immediately start to become clear • Highly conspicuous by their absence are Kraftwerk's first three albums, Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 & Ralf & Florian; there's a clear view being expressed here that only these eight albums, from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks, form the official Kraftwerk oeuvre • It's a significant disappointment for those, including myself, who descry in those first three albums (particularly Ralf & Florian) much that prefigures what would follow in the years ahead; the bootleg CDs of those albums will have to continue to suffice for the time being • As far as Ralf Hütter is concerned, the mature life of Kraftwerk begins in 1974, with the noise of a car door slamming •

Thus begins Autobahn, & immediately there are tell-tale signs of the remastering at work, tiny glittering digital artefacts that are sure evidence of adaptive noise reduction filters • Not that this album needs much of that treatment, inhabiting as it does a relatively rich & busy soundfield, with few pauses en route • The polishing—& the 2009 remaster is negligibly different from that of 2004—has, however, allowed the colours & timbres to shine out with astonishing vividness, & this is most evident in the four shorter works • "Kometenmelodie 2" is truly outstanding, sounding wide & powerful, continuing the Beach Boy connection of the title track, as well as hinting at the electronic 'chugging' perfected four years later on Trans-Europe Express • "Mitternacht", too, is revealed for what it is, one of Kraftwerk's most telling pieces, ominous & unsettling, an eloquent slice of highly effective programme music • The cleanup of this track occasionally mars the surface in the more exposed passages later on, & to my ear it seems that the 2004 version is ever so slightly better than that of 2009 • Alongside the remastering, there's also been a small tweak made to where the transition occurs from the first to the second "Kometenmelodie" • On every CD release of Autobahn, "Kometenmelodie 2" has begun from the sudden loud jet whistle sound, out of which slowly emerges the bassline figure, with a duration of around 5'48"; in both its 2004 & 2009 remastered forms, this exciting introduction has been removed & put at the end of "Kometenmelodie 1" • This is a strange, highly questionable edit, blunting the second track's impressive opening & giving the former track a rather bizarre kind of non-ending; after 35 years, Kraftwerk really should have known better, & left such things alone; it's a significant blight in this otherwise excellent new version of one of the best albums of all time •

A much more challenging prospect for Kraftwerk's remastering are the raw electronic sounds found on 1975's Radio-Activity • The original release contained quite a bit of tape noise, along with assorted pops, blips & other ephemera, which the 2004 remaster pretty much removed completely, but to a great extent it could be argued that they contribute to this album's clinical, scientific sound world, as well as (retrospectively) lending it a pleasantly crude, dated flavour • "Radioland", for example, originally had some very noticeable hum throughout, & i'm not sure the song is greatly improved by smoothing this away • Little has been improved with the 2009 edition, & once again, around the accelerating poundings of "Geiger Counter", artefacts can be heard distinctly, particularly in the latter half • After this comes the first error in the 2009 remasters: the beginning of track 2, the title track, starts with a hiccup, partway through a beat, clipping the tail end of it (a screenshot comparing 2004 to 2009 can be seen here, with the hiccup circled in red) • In light of Kraftwerk's apparent determination to produce 'definitive' versions of their work, this kind of shoddiness is shocking • Also, nothing has been done to improve the slip at the start of "Antenna"; the original release is notable for its almost total absence of background noise here, the track starting cleanly & crisply • In the 2004 version, though, there's a sudden—very audible—fade-in just before the song starts, ruining its abrupt beginning, & this persists into 2009 • The need for this hasty fade-in is due to the brief & utterly pointless fade to nothing inserted between "Antenna" & the preceding "The Voice of Energy"; it's a shame the apparent attention to detail didn't hear this glaring event • Overall, though, the remastering gives these pure sounds even greater clarity & definition, in the process enhancing (even exacerbating) their more astringent qualities, especially through headphones • "Radio Stars", for instance, a somewhat demanding track to listen to anyway, is now positively eye-watering, & the harsh, noisy voice of "Uranium" is now very cutting indeed, the vocal equivalent of a cheese grater • Instances such as these go a long way to reveal anew Kraftwerk's courage & ingenuity at taking nascent electronics & bestowing on them a voice & a soul •

Trans-Europe Express is, in my opinion, Kraftwerk's masterpiece, & the remastering is immediately useful; opening track "Europe Endless" was plagued by small noises throughout its introduction, & it's lovely to hear it sounding clean & new (although the initial 'thump' as the track starts hasn't been removed) • For the 2004 remasters, this turned out to be a mixed blessing; the processing stripped away some of the warmth in the lower register, leaving the jaunty bassline sounding a little thin & lacklustre • Thankfully, the 2009 edition has corrected this, & the result is a perfect blend, the rich bass pumping away as it used to • "The Hall of Mirrors" is one of Kraftwerk's most sublime & thought-provoking creations; the clarity here is superb, & Hütter's vocals are more telling than ever, particularly in the emphatic, virtually monotone refrain, "Even the greatest stars | Find their face in the looking glass" • Unfortunately, "Showroom Dummies" (which has some odd artefacts in the right channel during the introduction, which were not in the original) is a little too cleaned up for its own good, its constricted percussion now sounding like spasms from within a corset • The 2009 edition is marginally better in this regard than that of 2004, only because it's been mastered a touch louder; indeed, it's a mixed blessing, restores some detail & character, but highlighting the sense of constriction mentioned before • In general, it appears that the way in which the remastering has been applied is inconsistent & not always sympathetic to the kind of material (this is more true for Trans-Europe Express than any of the other albums, as it has the greatest range of timbral 'temperature', from icy electronic drums to warm synthetic strings) •
The editing of "Trans-Europe Express" & "Metal on Metal" is clearly an issue Kraftwerk have been uncertain about • Hitherto, there has always been a difference between the UK & German editions of these tracks; the German version makes the transition from "Trans-Europe Express" sooner (after 6'36" rather than 6'52"), & splits off nearly the last five minutes of "Metal on Metal" into another track, "Abzug" (which was also used on The Mix) • For listeners familiar with the UK edition, the 2004 remaster yielded a surprise or two, combining the two approaches; it retained the earlier transition but did away with "Abzug", resulting in "Metal on Metal" having its longest duration ever, a little over seven minutes (of course, once again this only applied to the track divisions; the actual material was unchanged) • The 2009 edition has returned to the format of the original German release (& The Mix), with "Abzug" restored to its familiar place within the outer segments • Throughout this portion of the disc, a significant but subtle improvement brought about by the remastering is to remove the sibilance & tinnyness of the original, that made listening to the original rather tiring • The extended coda, "Franz Schubert" & "Endless Endless" benefits from the cleanup in much the same way as "Hall of Mirrors", its ever-moving textures kept sharp & clear throughout •

But nowhere is the benefit of the remastered edition more noticeable & its results more pristine than on the 1978 album The Man-Machine • More than any other, it has been plagued with large amounts of tape hiss in its previous CD releases (why there's so much is anyone's guess; it has far more than TEE or even Radio-Activity, made three years earlier), & it's the startup bleeps & pulses of opening track "The Robots"—the archetypal Kraftwerk song—where this hiss has always been most apparent • The 2004 remaster was nothing short of amazing, & the 2009 edition packs a slightly bigger punch, particularly in the bass registers, resulting in perhaps the most exquisite piece of remastering i've ever heard; it's truly like hearing "The Robots" for the first time all over again, the digital bleeps fresh & ultra-clean, the bassline warm & direct • The opening strike of "Spacelab"—or, rather, the silence following it—presents an even more exposed challenge, & there are some traces of digitalia left by the algorithms, but once the pace picks up the track is again brilliantly defined for the first time in its history, & "Metropolis" after it, with its pointed initial pulses, are now so diamond-sharp that i actually winced in response to them • Though subtle, the additional remastering in the 2009 edition has brought all these tracks to an entirely new place; not one of these tracks has been heard with anything like this kind of clarity before, so it's an absolute joy that the remastering has been executed with such a deft hand • Their camp classic "The Model" needs less treatment—it was never badly affected by noise in the first place—& its new incarnation is little different from its old one; i've always felt "The Model" to be rather dynamically flat, & this has changed very little, although the 2009 remaster has boosted the dynamics somewhat, giving it some extra bite that it rather needed • "Neon Lights", in the 2004 remaster, was also little different, save for its treble sounding more distinct, in relief from the accompanying chords; but for the 2009 remaster, this track has been transformed by a significantly wider stereo image (the original & 2004 versions employ a surprisingly narrow stereo field), resulting in a vividness that grabs the attention • The final, title track, is also much improved on its 2004 version, which, like "The Robots" has had its bass restored, although perhaps too much on this occasion •

After such a brilliant demonstration of what remastering can do, it's disappointing to hear things going wrong on Computer World—2004's remaster was bad enough; 2009 has compounded the problems by once again falling into the compression trap • Both the eponymous opening track & "Pocket Calculator" continue to sound as though they're enclosed in a box; the bass has a horrible boomy quality to it that stomps all over the light percussion; it's a grave mistake • While it does seem to level off throughout "Numbers" & "Computer World 2"—the percussion of the former sprightly, the tonality of the latter warm & smooth—the start of "Numbers" is very unpleasant indeed, the hum brought about in 2004 now exacerbated into a distinctly audible low tone • By "Computer Love" things have clearly returned to normal; despite not needing much attention, it's good to hear things improved, although some curious panning in the vocal line hasn't been corrected (perhaps it was intentional); this lovely song—one of Kraftwerk's best, less demonstrative than "The Model" but so much nicer—has never sounded better than its 2009 version • However, problems return in "Home Computer"; despite similarities to the opening bleeps of "The Robots", it retains a curious amount of hiss in its opening moments (perhaps highlighted by the emphasis on just the right channel), as though the sensitivity of the remastering had been momentarily reduced; thereafter, however, it goes to the opposite extreme, the percussive surface sounding brutally treated (the effect being similar to listening to a cassette with an excessive Dolby setting) • Thankfully, it doesn't affect the entire track, & the beautifully psychedelic flights of electronic fancy that punctuate throughout are delicious, the final, longest episode (beginning at 4'20") powerfully living up to the translation of the band's name, pounding out like an industrial power plant, & continuing thus through the strangely circular final track, "It's More Fun To Compute" (Kraftwerk clearly have a penchant for ending their albums with directionless, somewhat passive tracks: "Morganspaziergang" (Autobahn), "Ohm Sweet Ohm" (Radio-Activity) & "Endless Endless" (TEE)) • This is the one album in The Catalogue where serious errors of judgement were apparent in the 2004 remastering, errors only made more apparent in this slightly louder 2009 edition, & for that reason i'm firmly sticking to the 1981 original, which is largely free of noise & other artefacts, & definitely a great deal clearer & more agile than this stodgy, lumbering travesty •

What happened next in Kraftwerk's output is now so well-known as to have become legendary: they embarked on their next project, provisionally titled Techno Pop, the first fruit of which was "Tour de France", before the combination of Ralf Hütter's obsessive interest in cycling—& subsequent, rather serious accident—& the widespread availability of digital technology led to Kraftwerk abandoning work on the album, refitting the Kling Klang studio with new equipment, & beginning the album again from the bottom up • i remember looking in a very large album catalogue, sometime in the mid 1980s, & actually seeing an entry for Techno Pop, complete with a tentative catalogue number, but with the release date unknown at that time • Of course, what finally emerged was Electric Café, something of a disappointment to those who had waited five long years with increasingly bated breath—which i think is a shame as, while not a masterpiece, the album contains some of their most rhythmically interesting material • Quite why Kraftwerk decided to change the title, i don't know, although it might have been to distance the resulting album from its mythical earlier existence (& for years, in assorted fanzines, there were umpteen discussions on what might have happened to the original master tapes)—no matter, in its remastered form, Techno Pop is reborn, & i must admit just seeing those words on the familiar cover art sent a real thrill down my spine • Nonetheless, as Kraftwerk's first digital release, the issue of remastering starts now to become increasingly redundant, & from the outset of "Boing Boom Tschak", the only significant difference between ancient & modern is a somewhat increased clarity & demarcation of the types of material, making this track more than usually irresistible to sit still to while listening • Having said that, the 2009 remaster is very significantly louder than that of 2004—which was already louder than the original—which makes this opening track rather too brutal; here's an illustration of the soundwave of the opening "Boing" in all three versions, showing clearly the dynamic increase • Having got it wrong for "Radioactivity", Kraftwerk have pretty much corrected the untidy start of the title track, which originally contained a momentary overhang of the reverb from the opener; the 2004 remaster perpetuated this error (which is surprisingly common on commercial albums, e.g. the start of the version of Nine Inch Nails' "Where Is Everybody?" on Things Falling Apart), so it's nice that someone actually saw fit to get this track division a little tighter • Now off to a better start, the track itself is once again improved, both in clarity & punchiness (although the increased dynamic exaggerates things), & this is even more the case in "Musique non stop" (a track with striking similarities to parts of Jean-Michel Jarre's best album, Zoolook), which contains some of Kraftwerk's most sharp percussion • i've always thought "Techno Pop" is rather courageous in its nearly 8-minute duration, consisting as it does of a rather minimalistic continual re-juxtaposition of structural components; it's tempting to think, this being the group's first digital album, that it's the influence of working with sequencing software • All the same, the variety of timbres used is considerable (including some really lovely synthetic xylophones & marimbas), & the combination of these with string gestures keeps it interesting throughout • Strings are an important element of this album; it's something of a return to the warmth & classical leanings of TEE, working as a valuable foil to the cool electronic beats •
& so to the second half, which has perhaps provoked more discussion in the run-up to its release than any other part of The Catalogue • The facts are these: "The Telephone Call" has been replaced with its much shorter single edit (just under four minutes, instead of the original eight), followed by a remix titled "House Phone" • On the one hand, being as generous as i can be, the edit of "The Telephone Call" actually has a lot more in common with the gestures of "Tour de France", which was, after all, composed around the same time, & was clearly intended for the original version of Techno Pop, back in the early 1980s • But that's about all there is to say for this change; the edit loses the breadth & sophistication of the original, which extended the minimalistic approach from the first half, its numerous extensive bridge passages & episodes turning a pretty conventional song structure into a sprawling but splendid 8-minute beatfest • The edit sounds weak & peripheral in contrast, & the less said about "House Phone" the better; it's an egregious monstrosity, with absolutely zero in common with the rest of the album • Overall, the second half suffers from Techno Pop's lack of a general theme (as all previous albums had), meaning that "The Telephone Call", "Sex Object" & "Electric Café" seem rather dislocated from the unified elements of the first half (the three tracks of which together form a single whole) • Having said that, "Telephone Call" & "Sex Object" share a lyrical bond in their expression of distance (physical & emotional) from a love interest, & the heavy percussion of both forms a slightly tenuous timbral link to the earlier tracks • "Sex Object" is one of their finest moments on record, a poignant but po-faced outburst at perceived shallowness; the strings are literally everywhere, occupying all registers, & for once the omnipresent beats take a back seat • The episodes are equally striking; some hark back to the psychedelic hints of "Home Computer" while others, filled with an aggressively pounding slapped bass, suggest the anger lurking beneath the surface; but, once again, it's just too loud—in this version "Sex Object" projects not so much repressed anger as drunken pugilism • Finally, not much to say about "Electric Café", except that it joins the list of flaccid final tracks mentioned before •

The 2009 rendering of Techno Pop is, i feel, nothing less than a disaster, its structure ruptured by the senseless alterations made to "The Telephone Call", & its surface distorted through the sheer loudness of this remastering • i'm firmly sticking with the 2004 remaster of this album, which retains the original structure & subtly improves the clarity •

While Electric Café Techno Pop marked Kraftwerk's transition from analogue to digital, 1990's The Mix was where they brought their music from the past into the present, reinventing their most popular tracks, revivifying them with a burst of energy • The brilliance of this album—&, at the time, fans' dismay at the lack of new material obscured to them its achievement—is in its ability to give these classic tracks such an impressive new lease of life, while remaining true to everything at the heart of the originals • However, its relevance within The Catalogue, as with Tour de France Soundtracks, can only be justified on the basis of completeness (notwithstanding what i said about their first three albums), as neither of these albums have any significant need for remastering, unless the group is seriously suggesting these recent releases were poorly mastered, which is hard to believe • No doubt conceived with dancefloors in mind, the new forms of these songs underlines the simple fact that Kraftwerk invented electronic dance music, & with that end in mind there's an air of glee & abandon pervading every track: basslines bounce around like so many Tiggers, beats fly off the walls & rebound against each other, shards of electronica explode & shatter in all directions while melodies (such as they are) make curious circles within the mayhem • & presiding over it all, as paradoxically emotionless & passionate as ever, is Ralf Hütter, the man whose singular vision has steered Kraftwerk through their nearly 40-year existence • Despite its determined compilation mindset, the album pays homage to Kraftwerk's finest album, with "Trans-Europe Express", "Abzug" & "Metal on Metal" presented back to back • For me, this is Kraftwerk's finest hour, the same perfect blend of beats, strings & vocals heard in "Sex Object", its exquisite harmonies matched by truly thrilling industrial percussion • The 2009 remaster adds little, if anything, that's noticeable, except for the conclusion of the final track, "Boing Boom Tschak", where the male computer voice seems to have been boosted slightly, as well as sounding more weighty; no-one though, it seems, saw fit to clean up the weird little crackle & noise that spring up as the track fades to nothing •

Which, to my mind, brings the Kraftwerk project to a close • Except, one is forced to make some kind of sense of Tour de France Soundtracks—now rebranded as just Tour de France—the group's recent exploration of the world of cycling, as incarnated in the race of the title • Unsurprisingly for an album a mere 6 years old, remastering has no place here, & the band have apparently done the sensible thing & left well alone; its inclusion in The Catalogue is clearly a matter of completeness rather than anything else • Having said that, while the audio is to all intents & purposes the same as both the 2003 original & 2004 "remaster", the track-to-track editing has altered, & not in a good way; both "Étapes" 1 & 2, as well as—worst of all—"Régéneration" now begin irritatingly late, no longer starting with a clean downbeat, but once again betraying the sloppiness shown elsewhere, with previous tracks overhanging • Considering the album hasn't been subjected to any tinkering, what on earth has caused these changes is anyone's guess • So much for the technicalities; what of the music? • After its brief opening chord gesture (which, for all its brevity—31 seconds—is a personal favourite), the troixième "Etapes" and "Chrono" form a similar grouping to those in the first half of Techno Pop, with likewise minimalistic moving around of song units • But it's more aloof, less engaging than that album, for the most part emphasising the last word of the album's former title, akin to so much background music • & yet, just as they've captured the sounds of speeding cars & trains, here they masterfully conjure up the impression of racing cycles with seemingly effortless aplomb • The pairing of "Aero Dynamik" & "Titanium" spread their material far too thinly, & "Elektro Kardiogramm" is also a rather numb track, lacking either the pace, basslines or melodies that make Kraftwerk's music as brilliant as it is—it's perhaps the dullest song in The Catalogue • Thankfully, it's followed by one of their best: "La Forme", which demonstrates the group at its most contemporary; despite throwbacks to their earlier work—the simplistic melodic lines & vocals resembling so many recited lists—it has much genuinely different about it, including its relaxed, leisurely pace & de-emphasis on beats (serving here to underpin the song rather than form lines of filigree all over it); surprisingly, its 10-minute duration (including the separate coda, "Regeneration") never sounds over-long • & finally, "Tour de France", the song that many bewailed being absent from The Mix returns in its own dancefloor version • It's genuinely exciting &, like its brethren on that album, stays true to both the style & idea of the original, sounding at once a child of both the ’80s & the ’00s •

In its 2004 version, The Catalogue was no child of the 'loudness war'; it was an earnest effort at putting forward Kraftwerk's oh-so innovative music in its best possible form, & as such—allowing for occasional slips & niggles in the otherwise mostly excellent remastering—it lived up to that aim • By contrast, the 2009 version has, to my mind, become a part of that war, the remastering process often going too far, with the worst case of all—Techno Pop—becoming jaw-droppingly vulgar • It's disappointing that such a laudable (&, indeed, lauded) project has turned out to be so hit-and-miss; 2004 promised much—2009 too often fails to deliver •

In summary, then, my view is that to buy The Catalogue would be a mistake (unless you're a sucker for superficial packaging); only Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express & The Man-Machine are worthwhile investments, their 2009 remasters significantly contributing to the original material, aiding its clarity & genuinely bestowing on it a new lease of life • All of these can be bought individually, & should be • Computer World is horrid to listen to, & should be avoided, while Techno Pop—as should be abundantly clear by now—deserves nothing more than derision, being the most shameful result in the entire enterprise • In both cases the originals far outstrip the 2009 remasters—although in the case of Techno Pop, the 2004 remaster is worth seeking out • Neither The Mix nor Tour de France are better in 2009 than they were in 1991 & 2003 (indeed, Tour de France, as noted, is worse), so again, the originals are the version of choice •

The Catalogue trailer video | Kraftwerk.com | Amazon UK | Amazon US

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