Copyright © 2003 Astralwerks
2. Tour De France 03 - Etape 1
3. Tour De France 03 - Version 2
4. Tour De France 03 - Etape 3
7. Aero Dynamik
10. La Forme
12. Tour De France
After something like a nineteen year absence, Kraftwerk - the engineer/artists who shaped the electronic music from educations in classical music theory and postwar German depression - have returned with an album that as always defies the first listen, leaving an enigmatic imprint and confusion as to its real motivation. Like many things which flirt with postmodernism, it isn't overtly serious, although it tackles serious topics underneath its flippant collages of pop culture and technology, but even more cryptically, it refuses to fall into a polemic and thus leaves its listeners unsure of the opinion being communicated via lyrics and image; that which the music communicates is clear in the ambiguous way that a sudden mood evoked by memory or the passionate objectless moments after awakening from dream can be, a sense of context and feeling that strongly anchors the individual while the events of the next seconds, minutes, hours are immediately indeterminable.
"Tour De France Soundtracks" is as noted a soundtrack, not an album standing alone; while the subject matter, or the ostensible topic in which artistic content is cloaked, is the world-famous Tour De France bicycle race, the album itself is a soundtrack to a post-moral form of catharsis in the listener. Catharsis as normally intended is a process like that undergone in the terror-inducing books and movies popular in the suburbs; from a mundane setting, one is transported into extreme danger or failure, and then through some moral self-assertion of characters or artists returned to a safe and mundane setting once again. This is priestly, because it requires a sublimated negativity toward life to be present in its audience for the process to work its magic. Kraftwerk transcends this, as they transcended the nullifying pacifism and negative social commentary of early 1970s music in order to resurrect the heroic; in doing this the second time, they take techno/industrial/ambient/synthpop from negativity to a self-empowered, non-moral, wholesome grasping of life as task and inspiration.
Like most cathartic cults, the electronic music religion requires one first feel society and surrounding reality is negative, and thus channel feelings into "pure" positivity, from which one returns presumably having experienced some respite from reality itself, much as drug use is a vacation from feeling responsible for one's own life. Like a Christian morality, this attitude allows individuals to point their fingers at some external object and claim it is the source of negativity while not presenting anything to fill the void; they are removers, not creators. Kraftwerk are creators, and as such reject the cathartic mentality and its moralism and replace it with an existential heroism in which the act of taking on a great physical challenge and finding the beauty in its struggle which exhalts life itself, not through symbolism but through the mental process itself, a renewal of hope that is not a one-shot disposable action, but an ongoing sense of valuing life through the practice thereof. As such this album is not only more advanced musically than almost anything else in popular music, but is also more psychologically mature than most voices in society and thus is refreshingly independent.
Independent means lacking dependence; this album does not require that you hate society or believe all of "history" to be one large error, nor does it require that you adhere to certain lifestyle cliches popular with the rock and techno and hip-hop crowds. Instead, it is music that addresses the function of intellect and body at once. Kraftwerk with this album takes their classic style of subtly heroic, tongue-in-cheek ironic music that propels industrial society toward higher goals and stronger logic, and with a twist of the wrist, gives it an emotionality that it never had developed this profoundly before. It is an artistic and philosophical triumph to with a single motion convert so much of the negativity and escapism of our time which, disguised as positivity, is invisible to us, and yet pervasively forms a part of our consciousness. On this album, Catharsis becomes one small aspect of a shamanistic descent into selflessness that then in turn negates itself, situating the person perfectly within their own self without being aware of a change. It's not escapism, but it is fantasy, and yet so grounded in reality it transcends the temporary nature of catharsis itself to become a non-moral approach to life: a stream of experience itself that is accessible to all who can listen with heart, humor and brain.
The album opens with a short prologue, a scene-setting like wide margins on an old book, but fresh and flickering on a digital screen. Lush electronic sounds overlap and form an ambiguous rhythm in minor transitions, like standing on the shifting sands of a seashore and staring into darkness as dawn rises; then, after a brief pause, one of the most triumphant melodies of human history arises as pure phrase, emphasizing its own rhythm and harmony in the context of its sentential self-recursion. It asks a question and immediately returns, a mantra like the universe itself interrogating an emptiness and formulating an ideal which then defines its starting point: a perfect loop. At this point, it is impossible for this reviewer to keep the smile from his face as this energetic and hopeful energy surges forth within a "clubby" techno-influenced neo-industrial synthpop sound. And right as this happens - a clicking, perhaps a distant bicycle gear shifting chain for an uphill climb, or a downhill coast. Then begins the infectious beat, as basic as anything from the primitive societies who knew not writing or learning, but so carefully synchronized to the melodic development of the phrase as to be impossibly located anywhere but in the mind of a conceptual, structuralist thinker.
A refined minimalism guides this piece, as it does all the others. What is needed is kept and made dominant so that the virus makes itself indispensable to the mind seeking completion to the beat, the phrase or the verbal accompaniment that periodically intervenes with three-word lyrics. Unlike rock music, which is stranded in the world of stringed instruments, this music admits several different octaves of keyboards and electronic sounds interacting, blurring the difference between percussion and tone as easily as it removes the focus from a dominant instrument and turns it instead to chronological layers of phrase interacting in counterpoint. Reverently gentle toward the human condition and the distracted intellect that it entails, this music nudges and massages and winks and points without ever explicitly stating its forms or content messages, which gives it an enigmatic ambiguity within a strong and distinctive character. Interesting, Kraftwerk divide the concept piece "Tour De France" into three slices, two stages and an alternate version; the first is perhaps the most majestic in that it relies exclusively on its memorable unifying verse phrase to delineate structure, rhythm and harmony, giving the sense of vast motion and cosmic aspect in its breadth of emotional transition. However, taken as a sequence, the three introduce the fundamental theme of the album: a soundtrack to human triumph in which positivity and negativity are blurred into a single focus, a creative urge and sensual appreciation of the process itself.
Because this sequence of tracks moves like a stormfront sweeping the listener into the album after its pensive intro, what comes next seems motley until its theme is revealed: seven tracks and a soundtrackesque reworking of the original "Tour De France" single from 1983; "Chrono" is a brief and adept song influenced by early British synthpop yet folded into the newer, post-techno reverb-heavy sound of Kraftwerk; Vitamin is perhaps the catchiest song on here, with a clanging bass-like keyboard and shuddering organ accompanying an infectious chorus and melodic impetus to modulation between stages of verse and chorus. It's hard not to like "Aero Dynamik," although perhaps it goes too far into the cryptic; "Titanium" is similarly obscure but likable, acting in the method of a filler track for an important scene, carefully accentuating the mood to keep it going and avoiding certain areas so that their implication can be felt more than their articulation. Like a bossa nova stomp, "Elektrokardiogramm" is impossible to ignore once heard, as it effervescent resurfaces in the mind with a cyclic, churning, energetic chorus. After these, the focus of the album is just enough fragmented to allow the articulate and determined "La Forme" to slide up the spine of the listener with its elegant continuity, bursting into full form with a willful concluding motif that is heavy in the way of the best emotive metal bands, but like classical music, enwraps a collection of themes into a conclusion that does not linearize them, only returns them to a generative state in unformed conflict and hidden potential. To close an album after such a masterpiece - and "La Forme" is one of the few things worth noticing in popular music since 1996 - the renovated "Tour De France" 1983 theme relies on lush pauses and overlapping waves of harmonizing chords to roll out a tidal crest of melodic excitation and push this album to conclusion.
While for many the style of this album will be an immediate turnoff, this reviewer is fortunate to have overlooked it, as this album is if anything not straightforward. Humor hides seriousness, and vice versa; it mocks itself and the past of this band, as well as the genre around it, without any meanspirited attempt. Open-hearted and giving, it lifts the listener up and pushes him or her through a learning experience in the form of relentlessly listenable and foot-tapping music, returning not to the same place but a different representation of the same experience. In this it makes reality distant and yet translates it through the power of the mind into something with more space for growth and heroism, that barely-definable attribute in which one swallows fear and inertia and plunges into the process of creating a life within a world of no moral quantification. Thus it is free from resentment or a need to scream something at the listener, and instead shows a world of potential and actuality where resistance is trivialized and adversity made into a game; it's brainy and super-subtle, and bypasses aesthetic in favor of a lasting, complex mood.