The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Karl Bartos
Off The Record JR Moores , April 9th, 2013 10:10

Off The Record is based on a "secret acoustic diary" compiled by Bartos during his Kraftwerk days. The composer/producer extraordinaire has rifled through his "musical jottings" to create these new, remarkably fresh-sounding compositions. Dramatic opener 'Atomium' features pulsating bass, stabbing synths and narration from a heavily cybernated tour guide. "Welcome to one of the most emblematic buildings in the world..." announces Bartos, or Professor Hawking, or Twiki from Buck Rogers. Constructed for the Expo '58 World's Fair, Brussels' Atomium symbolises "the rise and fall of the atomic age". Exploring time, travel, landscape and radioactivity using electronic instrumentation and androidy vocals is all very Kraftwerkian, but this is no act of arrested replication. To the remnants of his old group's sounds, Bartos adds a harsher, almost oppressive industrial edge which even threatens to tumble into noise music at around the two-minute mark, when he hurls a bag of swirling, tempestuous  fuzzery into the mix. What better way to mark his return?

'Nachtfahrt' (or 'night drive') moves in a lighter direction. Momentum and melody combine to evoke street lamps, headlights, white lines and, somehow, freedom. The fanatical idealism of the motorcar enthusiast can easily veer into the dubious kind of 'freedom' that involves hedonistic beatniks road-trippin' across America to mistreat women or the pancake-cheeked Jeremy Clarkson flipping v-signs at gypsies. In the right artistic hands, however, the car is an irresistibly romantic contraption offering autonomous liberty and transformative escape. Just listen to Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car', the Springsteen back catalogue, or 'Driving In My Car' by Maureen from Driving School. Kraftwerk had already released Autobahn when Bartos joined in 1975, but 'Nachtfahrt' is its spiritual, shorter, post-dusk sequel.

The marks that Kraftwerk left on Bartos' psyche are explored deeper on 'Without A Trace of Emotion'. It sounds like an undemanding New Order-ish techno-pop ditty. Under this bright surface, Bartos inspects the troubling psychological consequences of transforming oneself into a cold, detached man-machine: "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".

Do robots suffer existential crises? Are they aware that they deteriorate and expire? I thought they were programmed to believe in Silicon Heaven, as detailed in the cutting-edge BBC2 documentary Red Dwarf. Bartos isn't a robot, of course. He just thinks he is. Summery, vocoder-heavy, and vaguely reminiscent of the last Black Moth Super Rainbow album, 'The Tuning of the World' embarks on atheistic soul searching. "I wish I could believe in God / Life would be just safe and sound," Karl pines, before wondering aloud why some people can believe but others can't. All this solipsistic, secular anxiety may be a smokescreen, however, intended to mask a sweeter message. If ambiguously, the last line hints that this could be a love song, and one sung not to a gas-based lighting fixture, computerised abacus or European rail network, but to something that Kraftwerk would never have allowed: another human being.

The tracks with less lyrical depth prove more musically adventurous. 'International Velvet' is not a cover of Catatonia's 1998 track of the same name (although the thought of a monotone German cyborg singing "Every day when I wake up I thank the lord I'm Welsh" is certainly appealing). Instead, its only lyrics are the song's title, yet the powerful keyboard refrain and stirring choral samples prove sway-inducingly hymn-like. It's an intoxicating mixture of spirit-rousing national anthem, unashamed wave-ya-lighters big squishy ballad, and the end credits to one of those new-fangled soap operas you inject directly into your own skull.

On 'Musica Ex Machina' hypnotically clubby beats buttress grubby effects and distorted vocals, conjuring the poignant scent of stale alcohol blended with freshly distributed urinal cake. Like Liars' ramshackle attempts at floor-bothering disco anthems, this one possesses a grubby honesty absent from the vacuous tits 'n' pecs-flaunting chart house of Guetta or Tiësto. Utilizing similar techniques to those sun-soaked plonkers, its patterns and hooks remain credibly amateurish enough to make you feel a bit less of a dick as you're dancing.

Unlike Kraftwerk's heyday when German musicians felt compelled to eradicate the past by creating innovative styles and revolutionary, gadgetry-inspired future-sounds, and unlike the current Kraftwerk incarnation which, absent of original material, is content to linger in galleries as a petrified artefact of its earlier achievements (as impressive as their multimedia live extravaganza may be), Off The Record shows Bartos looking backwards in order to propel himself forwards. The past, present and future collide in a sublime celebration of technology, history and humanity, in all its flawed and triumphant glory, filtered through one man's attempts to understand and explain his small but significant place in the interconnected, universal whole.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.