Eat Lights: Become Lights
, April 7th, 2011 08:58
In 1933, one of Adolf Hitler's first acts as German Chancellor was to initiate a massive road construction project, the Reichsautobahn. Intended to facilitate greater national unity and state control, the autobahnen were also designed to allow greater mobility for German military forces. By the outbreak of war, 3300km of motorway had been created, and during the course of the conflict the notion of the autobahnen as a military network vital to national defence was greatly impressed upon the mind of General Dwight D Eisenhower, US Chief of Staff and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. When elected as America's thirty-fourth president, Eisenhower personally pushed through the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, which began the construction of the US Interstate Highway System. He justified the expense to Congress as an essential Cold War security measure, with the wide multi-lane highways allowing rapid evacuation of major cities and the incursion of US military forces in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
A year earlier, Walt Disney opened his first Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, "dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world." The dedication ceremony was broadcast live on national TV, anchored by Disney's close friend Ronald Reagan. One of its most popular opening attractions was the Tomorrowland Autopia, the Disney imagineers' vision of the pan-American interstate highway system that Eisenhower would soon inaugurate. However, the sleek, Art Deco-influenced Mark I line of Autopia cars were designed without bumpers, and with the guide rail later implemented upon the ride also absent, the first drivers would frequently, deliberately collide with each other, often completely destroying the fibreglass vehicles and leading to serious injury. Nevertheless, with modifications, the Autopia has remained one of the most popular Disneyland franchises.
Less than twenty years later, in 1973, author JG Ballard imagined a different kind of Autopia in his novel Crash. The book's central characters, jaded and desensitised by modern life, can only become aroused by the sexual possibilities inherent in serious automobile accidents. They form a society dedicated to re-enacting celebrity car crashes, led by Vaughn, whose twin obsessions are with Ronald Reagan and, particularly, Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he seeks to achieve final death-orgasm in a fatal head-on auto collision. Only a few months after the publication of Ballard's novel, the pioneering German electronic band Kraftwerk released their fourth studio album, Autobahn. A three-minute edit of the 22:43 title track reached #11 on the UK singles charts; the song's main lyric, "Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der autobahn," deliberately referenced the most All-American of rock/pop groups, The Beach Boys, transplanting their clean-cut, perma-tanned, California consumer society hedonism to the harsher, greyer landscape of Cold War Europe. Keen cyclists rather than motor vehicle enthusiasts, Kraftwerk would increasingly emphasise the ambiguous nature of the track's supposed celebration of long-distance driving, and by the late 90s underlined their own environmental concerns by projecting the message "No More Autobahns" across the back of the stage when performing the song live.
Both Ballard and Kraftwerk were of course major influences on what would become known as post-punk music, and by the time of Kraftwerk's 90s resurgence they had also been retroactively codified as part of the musical movement generally, if rather unfortunately, known as Krautrock. By the end of the century, club nights such as London's Club Kosmiche and Brighton's Klang had sprung up, entirely dedicated to the Krautrock sound. And just as the mod clubs of the 1980s, dedicated to playing 1960s R&B and psychedelia, would soon spawn revivalist groups plying their own version of the sound for audiences too young to have experienced the real thing, so the Krautrock club scene would spawn a wave of bands like Now! and They Came From The Stars, I Saw Them, emulating the likes of Neu!, Can and Kraftwerk with their lengthy motorik grooves. Eat Lights: Become Lights are the latest group in that tradition, emerging as the house band at Klub Motorik, currently an occasional fixture in Stoke Newington. And Autopia, their debut album, is appropriately enough an aural invocation of some imaginary Krautrock Disneyland.
Eat Lights: Become Lights wear their influences literally on their sleeve, with the cover of Autopia a deliberate homage to the 1972 Vertigo label UK issue of Kraftwerk's first two German albums on one double LP. And opening track, 'Test Drive' kicks in with a suitably motorik pulsebeat and a feeling of motion and acceleration, bright raindrops of guitar striking the windshield, the sweeping synths rushing past like blurred midnight motorway lights. But there's a warmth that's often missing from the work of other neo-Krautrock revivalists, a raffish melodic energy that belongs more to classic British indie rock, and the whole is built around a riff so nagging and addictive that it would be churlish to dismiss it in the name of some spurious war on cliché.
The band continue to explore and extend the rockier side of kraut on the quirky, fast-paced dance freakout of 'Dark Matter' and the dark, juddering 'Machine Language,' which has a heavy, nineties Depeche Mode feel. 'They Transmit,' originally the band's debut single from 2008, sees post-punk guitars ride triumphant through a dystopian future arcade-game landscape of echoing beats, amphetamine-eyed nodding dog bass and yearning synth lines: Neu! Order, no less. And as for 'Konst': imagine you're at a 4AM squat party in some obscure derelict part of town. In one room they're playing endless trance techno and acid house; in another, old Loop albums and screaming space rock; and in another they're chilling out to vintage Tangerine Dream. You keep wandering between them, sampling the appropriate highs, uppers and downers being passed around in each room, getting more fucked up on each circuit. Then you pass out on the landing. 'Konst' is what your dreams sound like.
Released as a vinyl LP and download only, Autopia is a record very much divided into two sides, and from this point onwards things definitely begin to mellow out, exploring the more meditative and hypnotic qualities of kosmiche music rather than the motorik stomp. As if to emphasise the parallel, yin and yang nature of the music however, the euphoric side two opener, 'Musik for Motorways' picks up on 'Test Drive' several miles further down the road, still chasing that same riff, though now the sun is shining and the way seems clearer. 'Stargazer' borrows heavily from Kraftwerk's Radioactivity, via OMD's Dazzle Ships, but its fragile, bittersweet Cold War melancholy is effective enough for this to be accepted as the reverential homage it undoubtedly is, as a Geiger counter beat tracks the halting lament of synthesisers left to sing to themselves after the humans have all gone away.
Similarly, the insistent, icy glide of 'Monorail' taps into the robotic coldness of The Man Machine or the stern, ominous futurism of an early Human League or Simple Minds instrumental. The ten-minute-plus 'All Aboard,' with its bubbling acoustic guitars and shimmering keyboards, is like an extended piece of seventies TV library music, no doubt designed to soundtrack your leisurely progress through this theme park of abandoned futures, while the closing 'White Horses' has the euro-muzak quality of La Dusseldorf, a strange suburban meeting of the avant-garde and the banal.
In Ballard's Crash, Vaughn narrowly fails in his intention to collide with Elizabeth Taylor's limousine, and instead dies when his car leaves a flyover and crashes through the roof of a bus below. Oddly, Autopia's release comes equally close to news of Taylor's actual death- from non-auto-related causes- and perhaps just misses its own objectives, of meeting/surpassing the high standards of its role models, by a similar, crucial hairs-breadth. But failure can create new possibilities, too. In the final few paragraphs of Ballard's book, the narrator (also called Ballard), smears his own semen across the wreckage of the car in which his hero-nemesis Vaughn recently died. "Already I knew that I was designing the elements of my own car crash." Similarly, Eat Lights: Become Lights have imprinted these twisted relics of the original Krautrock era with their own seminal fluids, as if to magically take them over, to harness their still-tangible energy for their own future activities and constructions. And meanwhile, in Disneyland, the cars go round and round and round…