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Kraftwerk Goes Back to the Retro-Future: Concert Review

Kraftwerk - H 2014
Peter Boettcher

The Bottom Line

German electronic pioneers dazzle in first of four-night, eight-show stand featuring 360-degree sound and 3D visuals.

Venue

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles
(Tuesday, March 18)

German electronic pioneers dazzle in first of four-night, eight-show stand featuring 360-degree sound and 3D visuals.

Without this trailblazing German techno outfit, there would probably be no EDM, disco, hip-hop or DEVO, for that matter. Kraftwerk is making its first L.A. concert appearance in almost 10 years, since a performance at the Greek Theatre back in June, 2005, and it is clear, 44 years after Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider (who left in 2008) formed the band in Dusseldorf, the times have finally caught up to them.

This four-night, eight-show engagement (including two shows apiece tonight, tomorrow and Friday) features a complete rendition of each of the eight albums, one per evening, along with an assortment of their best-known recordings, played against the backdrop of 3D graphics in 360-degree surround sound that envelopes the hall, with pings and zings coming from all over. It’s the linchpin of L.A. Phil’s Minimalist Jukebox Festival, which runs from March 16-May 4, and a replica of the shows they did at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in April 2012, then took on the road last year to London, Tokyo, Sydney and their hometown Dusseldorf, with shows scheduled for Vienna in May.

Long before Daft Punk willfully turned themselves into robots, Kraftwerk emulated man machines of their own, eliciting a deadpan stoicism, amid percolating beats, bleeps and bass drops. They were acknowledged showroom dummies designed to entertain amid the detritus of modern civilization, taking humanity out of the equation by celebrating the mundane—driving on the Autobahn, listening to the radio, riding the Trans-Europe Express, pedaling your bicycle, playing on your computer.

Down to lone original member Hutter, Kraftwerk, like Blue Man Group or Pink Floyd, is more about the spectacle than any individual member, and the pristine Disney Concert Hall proved the perfect audio-visual setting. Perched behind T-frame lectern stands at the front of the stage, the new foursome -- which now includes Fritz HilpertHenning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen – stood like professors in their identical uniforms, black spacesuits covered with a lattice-work of spider web white stripes, much like the computer graphics which closed each of the first two shows with three conjoined songs from 1986’s Electric Café – “Boing Boom Tschak,” “Techno Pop” and “Musique Non-Stop,” the foursome leaving the stage one by one after some extended soloing (?!).

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The first set began with the complete Autobahn, the 1974 release the band considers their first album, a tribute to motoring on the famed German speedway, the band seemingly enveloped in Volkswagens and Mercedes driving off the screen, the colors green and blue, an idealized vision of movement which carries the 22-minute title track. On “Kometenmelodie 2” (“Comet Melody 2”), the electronics suddenly take on the lushness of a Strauss waltz, the band’s shadows against the projection like negative spaces taking on a life of their own amidst the point-counterpoint of the music.

From there, the band moves through a chronology of their greatest hits -- the yellow, anti-nuclear warning of “Radio-Activity” (Its litany of Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Hiroshima) the whooshing momentum of “Trans-Europe Express,” the eerie dehumanization of “The Robots,” the Gravity-like wonder of “Spacelab,” the chilling mediation on physical beauty in “The Model,” accompanied by black-and-white shots of forgotten actresses, the paranoia of “Computer World,” the longing of “Computer Love,” anticipating the unquenched desire of Spike Jonze’s Her, the heavy breathing of “Tour de France,” with its aural nod to flesh-and-blood.

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The second show, which begins with the more ominous, avant-garde Radio-Activity, is even more effective in its depiction of soulful searching, the anomie of the music finding an outlet in organization, discipline and eliminating human error in favor of efficiency, and we all know where that led to, which is why Kraftwerk is careful to maintain its distance.  It’s no mistake that the band now sounds positively quaint, but still of the moment, kind of like GeorgesMelies’ A Trip to the Moon crossed with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a make-shift futurism that evinces its own sort of fatalistic melancholy, with a beat that you can either dance to… or lose yourself in.

“Goodbye, auf wiedersehen,” intones a surprisingly warm Hutter at the end, and the normalcy of his words is like a shock to the system after the sheer alien quality of what has come before. “See youtomorrow.” Indeed we will.

Set List for The Catalogue 1 Autobahn:

Autobahn
Kometenmelodie 1 (Comet Melody 1)
Kometenmelodie 2 (Comet Melody)
Mitternacht (Midnight)
Morgenspaziergang (Morning Walk 2)

-------
Radio-Activity/Tee
The Robots
Spacelab
The Model
The Man Machine
Numbers
Computer World
Home Computer
Computer Love
Tour de France
Tour de France 03
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non-Stop

The Catalogue 2 Radio-Activity:

Geigerzahler (Geiger Counter)
Radioactivity
Radioland
Airwaves
Sendepause (Intermission)
Nachrichten (News)
Die Stimme der Energie (The Voice of Energy)
Antenna
Radio Sterne (Radio Stars)
Uran
Transistor
Ohm Sweet Ohm

-------

Autobahn
Tee
The Robots
Spacelab
The Model
Neon Lights
Numbers
Computer World
Home Computer
Computer Love
Tour de France
Tour de France 03
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non-Stop

Twitter: @roytrakin