Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express (1977)

Without listening to much electronic music, without listening to decades of groundbreaking work, you just know that this is one of the most seminal albums of all time. Ever read a music review? Ever listened to anything in the charts from the last 20 years? You’ve heard snatches of this music. These four brilliant Germans pushed the envelope so far it came back in the post to the masses.

“Europe Endless” kicks off proceedings with about 90 seconds of synths and background swells, and suddenly MGMT sound hackneyed old fools. The beats have been, with greater and lesser degrees of punch, melded with disco to make every single house tune. Ever. Lyrically, this is spare, this is Bauhaus, this is so European it hurts. The snaky lines of guitar are the only human sounds here, and you can’t even be sure that you’re quite hearing a guitar – even the voices, when completely untreated, sound slightly robotic. For a nine minute opening song, this is pensive, reflective, but utterly uplifting. Thematically, this bright start sets the tone for a mythical cross-continental train ride of discovery – sonically, if you’ve never listened to Kraftwerk before, this is where normality ends.

Blending seamlessly together, an experience I’m sure vinyl would improve dramatically, “The Hall of Mirrors” takes those chirpy synths and twists them into something much more sinister – a fairground ride through the tortured Freudian psyches of Mittel Europe where “even the greatest stars/discover themselves in the looking glass”. The keyboards evoke dark nights in fairgrounds and most of New Wave’s more gothic edges. The slowly modulated lyrics mount the tension up through the slowly repeated motifs, and leave you completely on edge, ready for the funkier, groovier “Showroom Dummies”. At this point, Danger Mouse and Dan the Automator might as well give up, as this is the backbone of the Gorillaz – electronic horror film music with just the slightest hint of ska (so, perhaps, this is really the inspiration for “Ghost Town”?)

The title track speeds us across Europe on great silver trains, and into the Eighties, where the Eurhythmics would take this, slap on some good vocals and hey presto! world domination. The beats, the bass, the sounds, the vocodered vocals have all popped up in some form or another across pop music right up to the present day – only the German accents have stayed behind. “Trans Europe Express” starts a rhythmic and sonic train that doesn’t let up over the next few tracks: “Metal on Metal” is essentially the same song entirely, just given a separate space on the CD, and a few new sounds on top, possibly echoing the mind-numbing feeling of sitting on a train across countries and continents.

Those clanking metallic noises, for the first time, do echo the natural rhythms one hears on trains, as they fly along their tracks, and soundtrack the little encounters that spark up on a journey. Building up the intensity of the beat, it’s quite a powerful piece, finishing with echoed beeps and that simple synth figure from the title track, segueing unnoticed into “Abzug”. This has absolutely nothing different to it from “TEE”, but reinforces the idea of this being a suite of songs, a la Yes’s most earnest efforts. Finishing in a flourish of sampled plane and train sounds, the stunningly lovely “Franz Schubert” is ushered in.

A ringing keyboard figure and a modulation on the “TEE” theme builds up with very subtle, classical changes, without any beats or percussive bass at all – bringing to mind the strong classical tradition of German music, and indeed, of the pop music of their childhood’s era, this manages to do better than a large amount of string arrangements to evoke a big, epic sound, prefiguring a lot of Radiohead’s more ambient stuff, amongst other things. “Endless Endless”, at under a minute, is a little ditty of processed vocals over the top of the previous track’s music, to round out this seminal work.

This has to be taken as a whole – like a journey, it’s more than the sum of its parts. Whilst individually great, these tracks lead into each other, quote liberally from other songs here, and as such evoke the ‘70s, that peak of the album as a unified artistic statement. Not here are the Beatles’ early filler, or the current regression to that early Sixties method of rushing out an album to support a big single. “Trans Europe Express” runs to its own timetable. An epic, brilliant work, whose sounds and techniques I now hear in vast amounts of pop music’s DNA in the thirty-two years since its release.


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