In these unprecedented times, not a day passes without the news of loss. Stories of individuals that have left us and a world that’s currently even less optimised to process or deal with the pain. It can feel like we are all living in some form of ongoing grief tinged bubble, so whilst Florian Schneider’s passing on 6th May 2020 feels very raw, it’s a huge cultural reminder of what an incredible contribution he made to innovative music.
Of course, as one of the core members of Kraftwerk from their formation in 1970 until he left the group in 2008, their influence is truly planet sized. It’s undeniable that their cool geometric form of pristine electronica formed the bedrock for huge swathes of music. Everything from Donna Summer to Depeche Mode has grown out of Kraftwerks’ shadows everywhere from Dusseldorf to Detroit.
Whilst universally celebrated tracks like Tour De France and The Model still bristle with joy, here at OBLADADA, it’s the very earliest albums that burn the brightest. What’s also telling is these earliest recordings never really featured within the groups own version of history. Their definitive career spanning boxset The Catalogue featured 8 albums starting with 1974’s break through release Autobahn. Ralf Hütter explained around its release that “We’ve just never really taken a look at those albums. They’ve always been available, but as really bad bootlegs.”
However, as an opportunity to reflect on the creative arc of Schnieder (and Hütter), it’s perhaps an ideal time to pause a while on how they got from a deep psychedelic well of underground Germany towards that rhythmic blueprint that popped the worlds brains.
Organisation | Tone Float (1970)
Schnieder and Hütters first recordings were as part of this obscure 5 piece. The groups origins feel like a percussive focussed jazz band building textures that slowly gravitate into rhythm. The whole of side A plots the huge title track for a beguiling 21 minutes. Moving through a heaving stew of glockenspiels, gongs, Hammond organ, drums, maracas, cowbells, tambourines, flutes and violins, it teases its true form for the first 10 minutes. Eventually a huge organ driven swell rips through the heart of the whole thing like lysergic sunrising. Then slowly, a shuffling low-key groove snakes forward and the whole form twists and grows into a wonderful sun dappled oddness.
Side B starts with perhaps the best moment of the entire album as the awkward un-groove of Milk Rock takes control of your mind. Punk rock played by cavemen whilst aliens drizzle bizarre webs of electronics over the whole thing. The remaining tracks are perhaps little more than textural sketches and moods but certainly worth hearing. But in the wake of Milk Rock they make you toil to stop hitting repeat on that track… The embryo of Kraftwerk is plain to see.
Whilst this was released only a few months later, newly isolated Schnieder and Hütter had sharpened up every aspect of their sound in this truly astounding album. 4 huge tracks all plotting a razor-sharp journey using instruments that almost fight back at their brutally precise square peg/round hole treatment.
Schnieders multi-tracked flute groove picks out the instantly superb Ruckzuck like some chopped up lounge jazz that’s birthing some weird newer more insistent groove. The whole tune gets attacked again by odd flanging organ bursts that birth new edges and voids. It never sits in one place; every moment grows into ever more kosmic re-imaginings of itself but it’s actually as earth based as that album ever gets.
Stratovarius that follows, however is an episodic monster that fries your mind over its perfect 12-minute lifespan. Growing out of howling buzzing drones, it throws the listener into the heart of some huge clanking industrial typewriter before cutting itself into drummed explosions and electronic razor blades. The groove eventually forms some 4 minutes in, and it’s one of the best ever. Slowly speeding up, growing more ragged, it encapsulates everything that’s so amazing about music in Germany at this time. The whole thing dissembles itself twice then climbs again into chaos. Finally, the violin describes an oasis of calm before the bouncing ball electronics scribble over everything. The drum follows suit before the whole thing aligns into a thumping thrashing form of rock straight from the grooviest pocket of space before disappearing in a split second.
Megaherz starts off as a dense squall but forms into a floating ambient drift through clouds before slowly being overwhelmed by interstellar static. The closer Vom Himmel Hoch follows the similar trajectory to Stratovarius but this time the edges are cast in even sharper relief. Chunks of near silences peppered with columns of pure noise. The whole thing eventually aligns under another scintillating motorik groove that’s always felt like it’s existed completely out with our world. Everything sounds so dry and metallic and sounds like it needs a good spray with oil but despite this, using all the seemingly wrong sounds, where we end up, in this weirdly un-spotlit 50 year old album is unbridled thumping techno.
Whilst I still remember that this album was one of the most expensive I’d bought at the time, it remains one of the best albums I’ve ever heard and even though I’m so familiar with its twists and turns, it’s lost none of its blistering glory.
Kraftwerk 2 (1972)
Perhaps the most uneven album in their entire discography offering several fragmented experiments. In many ways it feels like the twin to NEU!s equally shambolic second album. The vast 17-and-a-half-minute opener – KlingKlang, after almost two minutes of twinkling percussion, bells and gonging, an electronic rhythm fades into view. This has always felt like the very instant the group was born. The flute matching a tugging rhythm drawing out the pathway of some aural roller coaster as the whole thing beautifully expands and contracts for nine glorious minutes. The next section matches up warm flute smears around mechanical hammering before accelerating into a bizarre lilting folky barn dance of guitar derived snarls and chugging electronics.
Whilst KlingKlang is worth the admission alone, the remaining tracks feel like attempts to reveal new worlds through amplification and magnification. Atem is little more than metallic coated breathing, Strom describes a palette of guitar-based sounds before locking into a hypnotic pattern. Spule 4 seems to take on a form of some slide guitar daydream before entering an odd prismatic zone of reflections. The next track Wellenlänge grows out of the same soup as before, eventually propelling itself beautifully forward some 7 minutes in.
The closer Harmonika is a sonic haiku, 3 minutes revelling in the joy of sound transforming from one shape to another. It’s so simple that it could be regarded as throw away but at the same time feels like the most emotional piece that they ever made.
Ralf und Florian (1973)
This is the start of the group fully embracing electronics and Ralf und Florian delights in grouping together 6 pieces full of bright and sharply rendered whirring and pulsing. Whilst the live drums and guitars exist in the opener Elektrisches Roulette, they are engulfed by a slowly amassing bed of electronics. Tongebirge is yet another beautifully flute led drift before the odd refractions of Kristallo bounce pleasingly along.
Heimatklänge piano and flutes interweave into a wonderfully bucolic calm before the upright ping pong balling of the Tanzmusik rises into view. Eventually, off in the distant a new instrument can be seen on the horizon – the human voice, as the chopping and clapping all morph into heady beautiful sonic knots.
The closing 14-minute joy Ananas Symphonie feels like the sun warming your body on some tropical beach. Maybe that’s framed by the weird Hawaiian vibe of the guitar, but the oily electronics help suck you into this beautifully woozy world.
Ralf und Florian is really where Schnieder and Hütter discovered a real sense of prettiness and beauty.
The bands trajectory changed the following year with Autobahn (1974) and their unique image of man-machines was sealed and they grew exponentially in popularity. Albums became more conceptually themed and for many, including the band, the story properly began here.
But here as a tribute to a dearly departed Florian Schneider it’s incredible to think these early, and at times, roughly hewn gems are anything other than essential, shows the depth of his ability and creativity as part of one of the most innovative groups ever. Infact, as something I’m sure most of us do when hearing the sad news that another of our innovators has gone, we play the music to remember and to celebrate. In doing that, yesterday, upon hearing the news I was floored once again by just how many times Kraftwerk made music that approached perfection and how many moments were actually just that.
Rest In Peace Florian Schneider