The Man-Machine is the seventh album from electronica pioneers Kraftwerk. It was released in 1978 by Capitol Records and totals thirty six minutes and ten seconds in length over six tracks.
Kraftwerk probably has as much influence on modern music as The Beatles, yet most modern fans have never heard of them. Their music was experimental electronic music back when electronic music literally was experimental; they constructed percussion machines out of pieces and learned how to use the earliest synthesizers while learning how to create music with the new technology. Whenever you hear an electronic element in a pop song today, chances are they are reusing a technique that Kraftwerk developed in the 1970s.
This album came out at the height of disco era, where the first hints of electronic elements were beginning to appear in pop music. The early days of the New Wave movement were dawning, the first time that mainstream pop music would really delve into the previously highly experimental realm of electronic music. Kraftwerk, eight year veterans of the genre, had the year before released an electronic epic that has stood for the ages, Trans Europe Express; the title track of which would go on to be sampled in countless early pioneers in the art of sampling, most notably Afrika Bambaataa on his epic track Planet Rock.
But the album was considered by many to be very icey and without emotion, so the band responded with this album, perhaps its most interesting of all. The cover of the album shows the four boys from Dusseldorf dressed identically in red shirts, black ties, and grey dresspants; all of them have their lips in bright red and their hair dyed black, making a visual statement about individuality if there ever was one. This visual statement would go on to be recaptured with the New Wave movement through groups like Devo, who visually cast aside the idea of individual identity.
But the music inside was an unusual mix of the coldness of Trans Europe Express and the warmth of their earlier works. The music inside showed that the men on the cover may be in fact merely Showroom Dummies (a famous track from TEE), but they were alive inside, full of ideas and emotion. The Man Machine, for its cold-sounding title and non-individualist look, is actually a very emotional electronic album.
The opener, The Robots (6:11), starts off with the most electronic of beeps and blops, but somehow it comes together to convey a sense of curiosity and interest in the world. How on earth they convey this sense through synthesizers I'll never be able to comprehend, but somehow it comes through the beeps, blips, and heavily distorted chanting/singing of the phrase "We are the robots." This song is musical genius if I have ever heard it; it changes one's mind about what electronic music is capable of, and the fact that the group was pulling this off nearly twenty five years ago is mind-blowing. It sets the tone for the rest of the album very effectively.
Spacelab (5:51) is another strong example of how, with only hugely distorted vocals and electronic elements, the music can convey a particular emotion. It's almost a continuation of the opener, except here somehow the robots have begun to realize they are unable to explore everything there is, and there is a sadness to it all. The haunting sounds of this track touch very deep; it's amazingly done.
Metropolis (5:59) may be the coldest song on the album; it is very spartan, with siren-like sounds and harsh percussion for the first quarter of the track, finally building to something more. It conveys a vague sense of the unknown and of exploration, but not nearly the emotional impact of the first two tracks.
In terms of straightfowardness, no Kraftwerk song can come close to The Model (3:38), which received some radio play in 1978. It features undistorted vocals and almost sounds like many of the pop songs one would go on to hear in the 1980s, except for one thing: the electronics are the part here that conveys the emotion. The vocalist is at best an average singer; he merely puts words on what is already apparent from the music. The song is about a model who is desired by all the males, but still feels lonely inside; the electronics fit the tale perfectly.
Neon Lights (9:03) is the longest song on the album, taking up half of the second side of the record by itself. Again, this keeps with the theme of the album: what emotion is there in mechanization? This song probably has the most catchy "hook" in the traditional sense of any song on the album; it also has undistorted vocals much like The Model. This song is very gentle, easily the most gentle song on the album; my mind and heart make it into an audio picture of a city at night, full of life and also of emptiness.
The closer is the title track, The Man-Machine (5:28), which is something of a response to the opener. To me, this album almost tells a story in beeps and blops; it concludes by saying what really matters is the soul that is inside, not the machine that is outside. It's happy in a way at this realization, and almost anticipatory of a greater understanding of this realization.
It's very hard to describe how these elements are apparent in pure electronica without hearing it for yourself, but once the music reaches your ears, it all becomes clear. Kraftwerk were simultaneously pioneers and absolute masters of electronic music; this album shows them at the top of their game. If you've enjoyed anything about pop music in the last twenty years, then you should listen to this album; it's very clear after just a listen or two how much influence the group had over how electronic elements would be used in years to come and, also, how much mastery they had over electronica. Other albums by Kraftwerk that are excellent include Trans Europe Express, Autobahn, and Computer World; Play by Moby is also recommended. Regardless, though, this album is unquestionably the work of geniuses at or near their peak.