Twenty years ago, Karl Bartos released one of the last contemporary albums that I could pick as “favorite of the year” way back when when ye olde Monk was still keeping up with current stuff. When the desire to keep abreast of the here and now hadn’t been slapped out of me by the precipitous downgrade of changing fashions that on the one hand, saw 70s sludge metal [some called it “grunge”] ridiculously popular to a generation who had no idea what we struggled in that blighted decade to leave behind!
And on the other hand, electronic music had entered a period, five years on by this time, of merely being a soundtrack to drug experiences [techno] that offered me less than nothing. Ironically, techno had taken the template of Kraftwerk’s reductive maschineenmusik and had eliminated all of the warmth, humor, and Romanticism that was once there to become a sonic blight to my ears. When I heard cuts like “O Fortuna” it merely seemed pestilential to me. And hearing tracks like that actually caused me physical discomfort. Kraftwerk themselves were not doing much better. Ralf himself was convinced that doing the same was the way to go. After a weak 1986 album, the mothership had ejected Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos and was content to re-hash old material in newer, watered down form [with the exception of “Radioactivity,” that is!].
#1 • Karl Bartos: Off The Record GER CD 
- International Velvet
- Without A Trace Of Emotion
- The Binary Code
- Musica Ex Machina
- The Tuning Of The World
- Instant Bayreuth
- Vox Humana
When Bartos re-emerged in his Elektric Music guise, it had been like a breath of fresh air. “Side one” of “Esperanto” offered lush and melodic technopop while the second half showed what could be done in the techno trenches with some actual musical talent. I played “Esperanto” a lot that year but lost track of Bartos’ trajectory following the long wait for a follow-up. I was not even aware at the time of his divisive second album as Electric Music in 1998. And I was not until I heard a Billie Ray Martin DJ set a few years ago that I knew of his 2003 “Communication” album, which I still need to get. But I was certainly on top of his latest release. Upon sampling the incredible “Atomium,” this title was atop my shortlist of things to buy with all due haste.
“Atomium” is still like the finest piece of music that Kraftwerk could ever hope to create, with the all significant noise solo that bifurcates the track at its midpoint being utterly beyond the vision of Ralf Hutter by this time, sadly. This is music that hurtles forward on machine power but still has thrilling animal chaos beneath its chromium surface.
“Nachtfahrt” [“night driven”] features Bartos’ own human voice singing to the lyrical and emotive arrangement that recalls the motorik pop of “Autobahn” given a new look. Bartos’ brief for this collection was to revisit and finish off musical sketches he’d made during his time in Kraftwerk, so it’s not impossible to think that this could have been written during 1975 during the period where the band were following up their surprise hit.
“International Velvet” sounds as if it had been written along with OMD’s Andy McCluskey with whom Bartos co-write for a period in the mid 90s. The lush melody has all of the hallmarks of OMD but I especially like the sampled flute leads that ironically refer to Florian Schneider. “Without A Trace Of Emotion” sounds like a cut from the first part of “Esperanto.” I can’t really peg it to a period in Kraftwerk’s development, but the lyrics sure seem to refer to Ralf Hutter.
“Without a trace of emotion,
I see you right in front of me,
dress code – red shirt/black tie,
you’re history – you’re history”
“Musica Ex Machina” is a neat little treatise on Bartos’ modus operandi that is the closest thing to club music here, courtesy of the Electronic writing team of Sumner and Marr, with whom Bartos had collaborated with on the 1996 “Raise The Pressure” album [which I’ve yet to hear]. The tune’s completely instrumental second movement sounds ripped screaming from side one of “Musique Non-Stop.”
“The Tuning Of the World” at first comes across as a bit of synthpop that crosses the twee line. It’s not until the lyrics begin to unfold that Bartos’ concerns come to the fore and given that he is actually addressing his feelings on a basic human issue [religion] that would never in a million years trouble Ralf Hutter’s mind, I’ll cut him some slack.
Kraftwerk fans pining for more of the densepack electro stylings of “Computerworld” will positively lap “Rhythmus” right up. The track echoes the fevered peak of arrangement that that album represented, before the group began to echo the more relaxed pace of cycling for the ret of their days. Finally, “Hausmusik” is not the four to the floor banger one might reasonably expect from such a title. No, this winsome tune is music appropriate for listening to in your “haus.” Relaxing, almost lilting music to bring the album to a peaceful close.
Let’s be thankful that Bureau B primary Gunther Buskies was successful in getting Bartos to revisit his audio sketchbooks since these tunes make for a varied and eclectic collection that offers tantalizing hints as to the points of origin for each track here. Spotting the phase of Karl’s career that informed each tune is fun in an of itself, but the material brings its own values to the table, above and beyond any frissons of revelations that the listener’s detective work reveals. Here’s hoping that Bartos doesn’t wait another decade before issuing another of his albums. That’s dangerously close to Kraftwerk’s pace of operations!
This concludes the “30 Days: 30 Albums” thread and I have to say that when I started, I hadn’t given any thought to how I’d be out of town for three of the days that fell inside that span. I managed to squeak in two posts of reasonable quality from my portable devices, but I still owe a proper posting for Kirsty MacColl, which will hopefully be in place no later than Monday. Saturday was just too demanding of my time to commit to a half an hour for writing. Now that I know that it can [almost] be done, it’s back to the more relaxed pace of lunch hour blogging. Where it will certainly stay unless some well-heeled moneybags can make it worth my while to do otherwise.
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