Friday, August 3, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Krautrock and Its Descendants Pt. 2

I have a friend who remembers listening to the radio in the mid-seventies when the DJ came on and said, “We have this new record and this is the future of music,” and then he played Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” in its entirety, all twenty-two minutes and forty-six seconds of it. I’m jealous. It must’ve seemed like a musical revolution. At its core, “Autobahn” is a simple pop song with a catchy tune and a chorus you can sing along to even if you don’t know German. But it goes on and on and spirals into all kinds of cosmic synth sounds. It’s supposedly structured to resemble a road trip on the famous German highway, the one with no speed limit. I can’t vouch for the resemblance, because I’ve never been fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn, but the song definitely has a narrative structure, like a journey through a soundscape of shifting tempos and curious instrumental interludes, and there’s enough variety and stability to hold your interest through the whole trip. When it ends, I want it to keep going.
            Radical as the song must have seemed to my friend back in the day, it probably sounded tame to fans of Kraftwerk’s earlier records. The band’s first several records were quite a bit weirder; freeform compositions conjured with an array of synthesizers and various drums, strings and wind instruments. And this is a reason why Kraftwerk reminds me of one of my favorite contemporary bands, Wet Hair (another is that the latter is clearly inspired by the former). The group hails from Iowa City, and their earliest recordings, which started coming out in 2007, were only for the most adventurous ears: dissonant washes and swells of far-out synth tones and occasional vocals that were flat and deep and uninviting. But when I got into them last year, when they released In Vogue Spirit, some of their earliest fans groused that they’d sold out because the album was full of songs as opposed to waves of weird noise. But to my uninitiated ears, it sounded as far out as can be. As with “Autobahn,” trippy old sci-fi-movie sounds punch up the melodies and the driving beat. With their latest release, Spill Into Atmosphere, their tunes have become even tighter. The bass and drums are bright and clear, and the synth sounds are highly danceable. But there’s still plenty of weirdness stirred in. I talked with Wet Hair’s main man Shawn Reed earlier this year, and when I asked him to describe his music, he said that “kraut pop,” for lack of a better term. So if you’re a fan of Kraftwerk in the 70s, you might want to check this out—though, I have to warn: Reed’s vocals take some getting used to; like I said, they’re rather flat and piercing. Likewise, if you’re already into Wet Hair and other new indie underground stuff like it, you might want to dig into the roots: Krautrock like Kraftwerk, “the future of music.”

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