Kraftwerk’s place in history is secure. No band or artist has had a greater influence on the development of music since the 1970s. Bridging pop and the electronic avant-garde, Düsseldorf’s finest laid the foundations for everything from synthpop to techno and house. That was a long time ago, though. Can there be more to a Kraftwerk show in 2017 than nostalgia – the electronic equivalent of the Stones at Glastonbury?
The answer is a bit yes, and a bit no. While the group haven’t released an album of new material since 2003, their live show has evolved into an audio-visual spectacle that benefits massively from the relative intimacy of a concert hall. It’s no surprise that this 1,800-capacity show sold out in minutes, taking the venue’s booking system down in the process. You’d need to take the autobahn to the nearest arena to catch most bands of Kraftwerk’s fame.
Issued with 3D glasses on arrival, it’s clear we’re in for a blockbuster of sorts. And so it proves, albeit one that applies cutting edge technology to a distinctly retro visual universe. During the evening we get everything from austere Soviet typography to Blake’s 7-style spaceships with reel-to-reel data banks. At one point a flying saucer is seen hovering benignly above the Floating Harbour before landing in front of the Colston Hall foyer. If that’s how Kraftwerk arrived today, Bristol24/7 should have sent a photographer.
And so to the music – a two-hour digital update of one of the greatest back catalogues in modern music, much of it faster, beatier and more streamlined than in its original form. Ralf Hutter may be the sole remaining member of the classic lineup (co-architect Florian Schneider quit in 2008) but Kraftwerk were never really about individual chops. Theirs is music of high concepts and simple interlocking components.
Opening with Numbers, they begin with a series of tracks from the Computer World era, updated to draw on the dance music they’ve inspired ever since. During this section – and especially the outright bangers from Tour de France Soundtracks later – the absence of a dancefloor is hard to ignore, but mostly we’re happy sitting back to enjoy the 3D spectacle.
Not everything works. There’s no mistaking the lower quality of the Electric Café material, while a truncated Autobahn – which has lost much of its depth in the conversion from analogue to digital – combines with half-arsed graphics that bring to mind a learn-to-drive video set in Teletubbyland. It’s a flippant way to treat their breakthrough track. Perhaps they’re bored of it.
The other big tunes fare better. Trans Europe Express is played relatively straight, and is all the more hypnotic for it. The pop perfection of The Model is granted extra poignance by ancient newsreel of fashion models in black and white. Best of all is a sonically devastating Radioactivity, whose ominous low-end drones are matched by references to nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. A song that was once wide-eyed to the promise of science and technology has been re-purposed as a stark warning of their risks.
Then there’s The Robots. Traditionally performed by lookalike dummies while the real musicians lurk behind a screen, this is the song that benefits most from recent advances in technology. The frontmen are now real working, dancing androids: a true marvel of the modern age. Combined with excellent use of 3D as robots’ arms are seen reaching out into the crowd it’s funny as hell, but undeniably creepy, playing on fears of dehumanisation as much as the gorgeous Computer Love addresses the physical loneliness of our online lives.
For the most part, Kraftwerk 3D is an upbeat, spectacular show that evokes a utopian view of progress. Perhaps inevitably, its most contemporary aspects are the notes of caution.
Photographs by Chris Cooper / ShotAway