There is acres of space, yet nobody rudely pushes their way to the front. Nobody spills beer. For most of this extraordinary multimedia performance, the final night of Kraftwerk’s celebration of (almost) their entire catalogue, the audience seems stunned into reverent silence. Whether it’s the band’s justifiably hallowed status, or the nature of the vast Turbine Hall at London’s most prestigious modern art gallery that prompts this response, it feels like a very civilised gig in comparison to most all-standing events. Even mobile phone filming and photography seems kept to a respectful minimum.
This is not to say that the show was anything other than rapturously received. The sense of anticipation at the start is palpable, in spite of much having been revealed from the seven previous performances. By the end, the audience finally become more physically engaged and vigorously applaud the charming, wryly amusing individual improvisations that round off the concluding Music Non Stop.
The announcement of these shows prompted some inevitable concerns. Could this all involve a little too much looking back, a little too much nostalgia from an ever-mutable ensemble that has not produced any new material for nearly a decade? Could this retrospective really be valid without the presence of Florian Schneider, the man who, with the sole remaining original member Ralf Hütter, did so much to craft and refine these highly influential sounds and concepts?
In the end though, these performances stand as testaments to Kraftwerk’s remarkable powers of endurance. It seems to matter little who Hütter’s companions are (although they clearly play important roles, not least Falk Grieffenhagen as visual technician), and much of this music, subtly developed and expanded, still sounds potent, fresh and eerily prescient. It’s a powerful reminder that no other act has so brilliantly integrated a range of media and disciplines, or engaged so fruitfully with a burgeoning modern culture.
The set-up is now familiar, even for anyone experiencing Kraftwerk for the first time. The four figures stand behind their individual podiums, creating an air of the formal, perhaps even of business-like formality. This of course also adds an appealing sense of mystery to the event. Even from a vantage point close to the stage, the equipment is kept hidden from view. What exactly are they all doing? How far have their materials developed from the ’70s and ’80s devices with which much of it was produced? Hütter appears to have the most active and dominant role, visibly performing many of the trademark melodies manually and delivering the spoken lyrics through a headset. All are purposefully distant and detached presences, often subsumed within the 3D graphics that accompany their insightful sonic manipulations.
For indeed mixing sound and vision is one of the core ingredients of this wondrous experience. The Kraftwerk show is brilliantly synaesthetic, with frequently disorientating effects. Their lyrics, often little more than carefully chosen words-as-soundbites, appear on screen as if protruding in front of the images. Radioactivity now features a litany of infamous nuclear sites, conflating energy with warfare and concluding on the resounding near-contemporary note of Fukushima. It is now an earnest but undeniably chilling warning of what can happen when humans lose control over their innovations.
During a brilliant take on The Robots, robot hands appear outstretched as if to mingle with the audience. At the expense of looking completely daft, it’s tempting to attempt a handshake. With Vitamin, the tumbling set of on-screen pills and capsules seem to be flying out into the room. These graphics are sometimes disarmingly crude and rudimentary, but perhaps this is precisely what is so appealing about them. The drawings of a Volkswagen and a Mercedes on the Autobahn are almost crass, but also very funny, and a reminder that Hütter and his team are so acutely aware of the possible descent into self parody that they have managed to pre-empt it.
Tonight’s featured album is Tour de France Soundtracks from 2003. It’s unlikely to have been a first choice for many, but in this context it’s vivid, alive and a neat encapsulation of Kraftwerk’s preoccupations – the relationship between man, machine and the context in which that relationship can prosper. Recent revelations about Lance Armstrong taint the idealistic portrait of the pursuit of cycling and suggest that, for a long period of time, this symbiotic relationship involved chemical agency too. Still, in its pure form, it’s harder to find a clearer example of man and technology in harmony, particularly given the extent of developments in the technical aspects of the sport. The sound of human breathing in Elektro Kardiogram, or the sleek precision of Aero Dynamik reinforce this notion.
The multiple configurations of the title track form a sprawling but thoroughly compelling whole. Like nearly all of Kraftwerk’s albums, everything here feels thematically and conceptually linked. It’s also meticulously controlled and mercilessly concise, leaving plenty of time in the two hour set for a slew of predictable but enjoyable favourites. These are mostly drawn from The Man Machine and Computer World but also encompass a riveting Trans Europe Express and a concluding run from Techno Pop. The set seems to emphasise Kraftwerk’s presiding influence over club music and communal experience as well as their sound experiments and development of classical melodic and harmonic tropes.
Kraftwerk of course now fit very comfortably into the contemporary setting of retro-futurism and the world of touring nostalgia. Yet, there is another way to view this. As Computer Love and Computer World brilliantly illustrate, the relationship between man and machine is now more important than ever – our lives often reduced to a data trail, the archives of our tweets, searches and digital interactions, a terrain we cede control over almost immediately. This whole concept, although now as populist as it was once radical, might be more relevant than ever.