When audiences first sat down to watch the earliest moving pictures, they were reported to be terrified of the image of a train steaming towards them, and ran. No one seated in the Royal Albert Hall at the start of Kraftwerk’s three-night stint actually cringes as flying numbers pelt through the air towards them during the first song, Numbers. But it’s a close-run thing. The edges on those 7s could slice your ear off.
Limpid notes purr round our heads, thanks to the surround-sound setup. Later, as Kraftwerk play out an enriched version of 1978’s Spacelab, I’m gored by a communications satellite. Girders of block colour disassemble and spin towards us balletically on The Man-Machine – one of Kraftwerk’s greatest songs, particularly magnificent in its current remix. Everywhere are majestic visualisations of sound: waveforms, computer read-outs, flying quavers, synaesthetic blocks of colour. We are seeing them through regulation-issue 3D glasses, the better to appreciate the blissful, ominous music of this seminal outfit.
Does the prescience of this band bear repeating? A quick summary, then, as we’re all seated comfortably in Kraftwerk’s languid perpetual motion machine. In the 1970s, Kraftwerk cornered the market in synthesised sound, celebrated robotics and AI, forsesaw internet dating (Computer Love) and, spiritually, a European Union, not to mention post-human fusions of flesh and moving parts. They were former avant-rockers from Düsseldorf whose evolving visions seeded modern music, from disco to hip-hop to techno. Anyone using a vocoder, or wearing a robot helmet or a mouse head, is their offspring.
Tonight, you can hear 40 years of positive feedback loops, where Kraftwerk harvest some of what they have sown. It’s More Fun to Compute nods first towards house music, then funk, before embracing techno and some lovely mechanised bird noises. It is a crying shame we are all seated, because this set begs to be raved to. The effortless electro glide of Airwaves, into Intermission, gets faster and harder, disco meeting techno. Were you DJing, it would be a no-brainer to mix the ecstatic throb of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love in here.
Perhaps it is the refined environs of the Albert Hall, but the classical roots of Kraftwerk are just as evident as their futuristic relentlessness. Church organs, flute-like oscillations and harmonic string sections are legion in their keyboards. Moreover, Kraftwerk’s song structures are not linear but digressive. Their odes to forward motion are full of movements.
We can’t turn this into a rave, but perhaps the Albert Hall might have provided stationary bikes for what would be the mother of all spinning classes. Many songs vie for the title of the most Kraftwerkian of Kraftwerk songs – The Robots, Autobahn – but Tour de France is surely one of their most human. True, there is considerable science in this celebration of the fluid dynamics of the peloton – the bunching, the stringing out, the flowing along the contours of mountains. But there is also panting and a faintly homoerotic celebration of sweaty effort – rare in their music.
Given the multi-sensory magnificence of this show, it feels a little churlish to point out its obvious cognitive dissonances. The future, for Kraftwerk, ended a while ago. They have hymned progress, but also fetishised the past, in the vintage footage from the Tour, or couture models in black and white (The Model, largely unchanged). Women are either fashion plates, impossible to reach (Computer Love), or Madame Curie (Radio-Activity).The graphics have been pimped up considerably since 2013, for sure, but fans will recognise the core imagery.
You wonder whether the future, as it is happening now, is to Kraftwerk’s liking. Does sole original member Ralf Hütter, or any of the various latter-day apparatchiks, have Amazon Echoes? When a computer voice introduces the four morphsuit-clad men, it is not Siri or Alexa. We are not wearing VR helmets, and not just because the cost would be prohibitive. New songs have not been forthcoming from Kling Klang studios for some time (Tour de France Soundtracks, from 2003, was their last album). This 3D tour is an expanded version of the gig Kraftwerk played at London’s Tate Modern in 2013, in honour of yet another new compilation in which Kraftwerk re-werk their kraft.
Nit-picking misses the point, however. You can’t help but be joyful that Hütter and the current lineup – Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen – are victory lapping the velodrome of the catalogue again, and that their transport requirements – recently revealed via a Twitter leak – are so deliciously on point (“suave braking”!). The sight and sound of Kraftwerk’s multilingual, pan-European mindset is particularly bittersweet tonight, with Brexit talks now under way.
And, as the men-machines go for a wee, they are replaced by animatronic androids for The Robots. The pleasure of these scary mannequins is undiminished, as is Hütter’s foot-tapping as the encore proper comes to a close.