Sometimes, listening back, one can be surprised at how human a lot of krautrock sounds, no matter how many times journalistic shorthand refers to the music as “motorik”. At one end of the genre are the communal freak-out bands, like Amon Düül, who are so earthy you can almost smell the unwashed hair and a pot of lentils bubbling away in the corner.
But even the sleekest kosmische combos betray the emotional meat controlling the sounds: Neu! have the energy of an excited garage band no matter how streamlined the music gets, Jaki Liebezeit could play like a metronome but Can still sound like a band who want to get you drunk and take you out on the town. Even Kraftwerk have always been more man than machine. Arguably, the only act from the kraut pantheon who truly managed to erase their humanity were Tangerine Dream, whose mid-’70s sequencer-driven albums sound like they were made by robots controlled by the weather (and even they discarded this and became a ponderous synth-rock band a few years later).
Which is interesting because As Long As The Light, the new album by Michael Rother (founder member of Neu! and Harmonia, and briefly a guitarist in Kraftwerk’s early days) and Italian composer Vittoria Maccabruni is often chilly and dispassionate in the way that vintage krautrock rarely was, and amongst the electronica even Rother’s guitar parts seem designed to sound as clinical as possible. It’s also often rather lovely, once you let yourself be carried by the machine-honed linear rhythms and the simple melodies. Edgy Smiles, the lead single, sums up the approach, opening with pointillist little notes that are like Tibetan temple bells played by the cheeky Moog on trash classic Popcorn, which are soon underpinned by a brooding rhythm, and joined by a buzzing nasal guitar line that sounds like the work of a cyborg Santana or a mecha Mike Oldfield.
The composition is elementary and many of the sounds unashamedly dated, and it resembles nothing so much as the theme to a mid-’80s prime time drama show theme without any of the, err, drama: imagine a version of Airwolf penned by Harold Pinter. What’s most noteworthy about the album is how many old-fashioned thin and tinny synth tones it uses, without ever being a nostalgic pastiche; if you want drums that kick or bass that shudders, best look elsewhere, but if you want skirls of cheap white noise like in an Amiga game set in the Arctic tundra, the opening of exp1 is for you.
Sometimes it feels as though this album is an attempt to engage with the music tech of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but with the pervasive influence of techno and other dancefloor-oriented genres completely shrugged off (although the toms at the start of See Through might remind some of The Drum Club’s chill-out classic Follow The Sun). Curfewd has an enjoyable low-key menace, and could be the tension underscore to a stalking scene in some vintage piece of video store schlock, like Trancers or Maniac Cop, whereas CodriveMe has a rhythm built from quantised heartbeats and iron lung respirations, although again it doesn’t use this robo-flesh ambience to create any sort of Tetsuo body horror, and has an unthreatening pedestrian lope, which could soundtrack a benign Darth Vader taking his servo-suit for a walk down to the post office to mail his tax return. There’s also a little hint of spaghetti western to the shimmering heat-haze guitar in the track’s second half, and is the closest Rother gets to expressiveness in his playing… which is, frankly, not very, and even Father Dougal probably wouldn’t break out his ‘Easy now’ placard in response.
The album’s only misstep is You Look At Me, which is like a drizzly minimal half-tempo take on a rave-pop anthem. The frost-rimmed sound is pleasing, but Maccabruni’s vocals are neither glacial and impersonal enough to build an atmosphere nor engaging enough make the melody live. Far more successful are the reverbed vocal fragments of Forget This, which creates a stately sonic miasma like a foursquare Seefeel. The album brings back that western movie feel for the final track, offering us a slow ride into the digital sunset in Happy (Slow Burner). Whilst this album might be understated and deliberately lacking in emotion, it does indeed hold the power to make you happy.