Ruby: 40 Years of Trans-Europa Express

Standard

Kraftwerk – Trans-Europa Express

Released March, 1977 on Kling Klang Records

BestEverAlbums: #262

RYM: #172

A few years ago the L.A. Times called Trans-Europa Express the “most important pop album of the last 40 years” and they are absolutely right.  Certainly a large amount of the interest in New Wave and synth pop could be laid directly at the door of the German synthesizer group; it could be generously said that it played a large role in the formation of the European pop identity, although it would be fairer to place it in the same milieu of Krautrock from which it emerged.  The difference between Can and Kraftwerk was that the latter replaced the intricate drumming with the sure, steady hand of a machine, out-German-ing the rest of German prog.

 

In fact, the band straddled the divide between German traditions and the European identity that had emerged from the blasted rubble of the Second World War.  The root of their melodic sensibilities came from the Weimar Republic, the brief German flirtation with democratic rule that Hitler put an end to in 1933.  The folk music that had been popular then was combined with the Teutonic sensibilities of the Bauhaus school to create something that spoke of massive concepts, and the infrastructure that had been rebuilt in their country:  railways, transit stations and, of course, the Autobahn.  That infrastructure also left Germany, and sped into the wider scope of Europe as a whole.  The second side of Trans-Europa Express lives up to it’s name, rushing down the railway tracks of the nascent union of Europe.  “Trans-Europe Express” and “Metal On Metal” speak of the rush of speed in transit; “Franz Schubert” peaks and begins the eventual slowdown, which ends up being a reprisal of “Europe Endless”.

 

The first half of the album takes a different path.  Inspired in part by their time with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were in Berlin charting the course of what would be The Idiot and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the songs “The Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are both obsessed with identity, and paranoia.  The former details the flaws revealed in the mirror, and how even the stars are chained to “the looking glass.”  The latter is the most “machine-like” of the album’s tracks, and makes paranoid reference to the way the group danced in concert (nicking the idea from a British paper’s review of one of their shows).  The opening track, “Europe Endless”, is more in tune with the second side, but it’s also a perfect example of how to open an album: layer upon layer upon layer, until singing along with the vocoded vocals seems perfectly natural.

 

While there are some other (mainly German) artists that one can point to, Trans-Europa Express is absolutely the floodgate of modern dance music.  The current festival-playing status of EDM can trace it’s origins here, as can the indie groups who are currently mining the bands that were directly inspired by Kraftwerk in the first place.  Go ahead and say it:  Synth-pop is 40 years old now, and while a lot has changed, Kraftwerk still sounds as vital and compelling as they did in 1977.

 

Tortoise – The Catastrophist

Standard

Tortoise – The Catastrophist

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Thrill Jockey Records

Once upon a time Tortoise were one of the most important bands in popular music.  Let’s put scare quotes around “popular”, because let’s face it:  post-rock has never, aside from brief Godspeed-induced moments, been popular.  Still, arguments about popularity aside, Tortoise gave us two albums – Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT – that helped to shape and define the concept of post-rock as it now exists.  That was nearly two decades ago, though; Tortoise circa 2016 is on the tail end of three increasingly mediocre albums, and their major conceits – creaky drum machines, jazz splashes, Krautrock rhythms and trance-inducing funk grooves – are all things that their descendants have spun into cliche.  Recognizing this, perhaps, the band has chosen to widen their sound a little, to the point of adding vocals (very few vocals, of course, but something is more than nothing).  Unfortunately, the overall effect is one that is too little, too late; the world has passed Tortoise by, and releasing an incrementally different album in January is not going to change that.  It’s a decent enough album – stumbling wide-eyed into classic rock tropes to spruce up the surroundings as it does – but it’s not one that will be remembered by the time December rolls around.

Follakzoid – III

Standard

Follakzoid – III

I’m often disappointed but rarely crushingly so.  Follakzoid, however, manage to accomplish the task.  The Chilean post-Krautrock band’s 2013 album II was a stone highlight of the year, a perfect blend of motorik beats and the kind of songcraft that sounds best as its coming out of the stereo in a car winding it’s way through the mountains with the windows rolled down.  It, along with Lower Dens’ Nootropics, half-seriously threatened to bring about a new age of Krautrock in a world that probably didn’t need any more.

III, on the other hand, takes the concept of II and stretches it out too thin, like Bilbo Baggins after wearing the Ring for a decidedly long time.  People have been using the word “trance” with regards to III and while it fits, the positive way in which they’re using it baffles me.  This is not trance music like the Navajo use in their religious ceremonies.  This is trance music that lulls me into a trance because there’s nothing going on.  A simplified beat (compared to II at any rate), some spread-out harmonics, and a locked modular groove.  Twelve minutes later, we peter out on the exact same thing.  There’s little change, and there aren’t even subtle dynamic shifts.  There’s four tracks that do the same thing, three of which are in and around the twelve minute mark, and by the end of it you’ll see God in all His glory.

Just kidding!  I’ve never made it to the end, because it’s the same goddamn thing over and over again!  Maybe it sounds better on heavy psychedelics – but I didn’t need that for II.  It’s odd, I’m rarely disappointed with Sacred Bones releases, and yet here we are.

Now Featured On Seroword.com

Halfway Point: The Best 50 Albums of 2013 (So Far), Part Four

Standard

Top 20 time, with a couple of radical Scandinavians, some burning garage rock, some glittering cold post-punk, and a stunning ambient debut.  Did I mention that you should buy my book?  Did I mention that you can get it right here and it only costs $3?

The-Knife-Shaking-The-Habitual1

#20:  The Knife – “Shaking The Habitual”

Silent Shout was a glittering example of how effecting pop could be forged out of Eurotrance cheese.  Shaking The Habitual is an example of how to advance social justice through pure dark noise.  Less a darkwave/pop album than it is a black ambient record, the Foucault-referencing, hyper-radical tracks found on here seem at times to eat light.  The perfect soundtrack for when your radical gender studies study group starts to get druggy.

Push-The-Sky-Away-PACKSHOT3-768x768

#19:  Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Push The Sky Away”

If Dig Lazarus Dig!!! was the raucous, garage-blasting record that rejuvenated the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away is the contemplative record that digs through the ashes of that barnburner and finds peace, serenity, and further reasons to remain unsettled.  There is a core of strength at the heart of all of these songs that sustains the listeners for long after the last notes of the hymn-like title track fade out.

oblivians

#18:  Oblivians – “Desperation”

Sixteen years after their last record, the legendary Memphis garage punks have put out an album that sounds like a direct evolution of the point that they left off at.  The band slashes along with more verve and energy than a thousand younger bands.  It’s funny, though, in an existential way, that the band couldn’t drop this album until well after the death of super-fan Jay Reatard; it sounds pretty much like an album that late juggernaut would have recorded, had he matured slightly before killing himself with coke.

Savages-Silence-Yourself

#17:  Savages – “Silence Yourself”

The hot buzz band to watch for the year, Savages take a, uh, savage look at the modern rock scene and ask you to despair.  They then cobble together a mix of post-punk, electro-pop, and krautrock and ask you to drink of it.  When you complain, meekly, that it tastes bitter, they tell you that the taste is merely your own tears.  And you weep again.

var-no-one-dances

#16:  Var – “No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers”

The Copenhagen band does pretty much everything I just said about Savages, but does it slightly better.  Also, can I take a moment here to express my undying love for whomever designs the LP covers for Sacred Bones?  The unity of design makes me want to die of sheer happiness.

CS488619-01A-BIG

#15:  Thee Oh Sees – “Floating Coffin”

The veteran garage band rolls on, crafting an album that is at once heavier and more cohesive than anything that they’ve released before.  Don’t be fooled, though:  the San Fransisco band still throws out moments of sheer psychedelic bliss , a skill with which they have no equal today.

kurt-vile-wakin-on-a-pretty-daze

#14:  Kurt Vile – “Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze”

Kurt Vile makes gorgeous, sprawled-out stoner pop seem absolutely effortless.  Even when the tracks stretch to the nine minute mark (as on the opener, for example) they don’t lose their way; the maintenance of cohesion is nothing short of amazing.

The+Man+Who+Died+in+His+Boat+grouper_the_man_who_died_in_hi

#13:  Grouper – “The Man Who Died In His Boat”

Liz Harris’ newest album is, at it’s heart, merely tracks that were recorded during the sessions for 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up The Hill.  The trick, however, is that the album never once sounds like a collection of cast-offs or b-sides; it is a strong, shimmering, beautiful collection all on its own.

12689

#12:  Pissed Jeans – “Honeys”

Honeys is a motherfucker of an album, in a way that their previous effort, King Of Jeans, came close to but never quite achieved.  I first caught this band on a Sub Pop sampler in 2009, and Honeys fulfills the sheer weight of smashing ambition that leapt out of that disc and tried to strangle me.  Not for the faint of heart, or for anyone who dislikes crushingly heavy hardcore riffs.

CS2217912-02A-BIG

#11:  Jon Hopkins – “Immunity”

My wife keeps asking me why I’m listening to house music.  Like the terrible music snob I am, I have to tell her two things:  first, it’s ambient electronic, and second, it’s jaw-dropping.  Jon Hopkins has been kicking around for a while; he’s collaborated with Imogen Heap, hooked up with Brian Eno, co-produced Viva La Vida (Or Death And All His Friends), and most recently teamed up with Scottish singer-songwriter King Creosote for 2010’s diamond-in-the-rough Diamond Mine, which is where he first caught my attention.  Immunity is possibly the best ambient album released in a decade, without hyperbole.  I literally cannot stop listening to it.  Someone help me.  Please?