KARL BARTOS, "Off The Record."
10 years after his previous collection - "Communication" - Karl Bartos releases his fourth solo album. The elephant in the room being his former band, and a shadow he cannot escape from, is that of Kraftwerk ; the straitjacket without whom he probably would not have risen to any prominence - and a word you will see a lot of in the next few paragraphs.
Indeed, this collection is largely made of reworked and completed sketches, experiments and demos he wrote during his tenure in the band from 1975-1990 - however, to call this 'Kraftwerk' rejects is both cruel, and not accurate. Hutter and Schneider were notorious for a glacial work rate, and a tightly held paranoid control over their work, resulting in six records with Bartos (including his uncredited appearance on "The Mix"), and just two - one a concert set - since his departure twenty two years ago. But ten years in the making, "Off The Record" sounds like his former band in an alternate universe, made of punchier, shorter, pop songs. Which proves how much contribution he made to the band, even if nobody really considered it at the time.
Despite being poorly sequenced - the lead single is also the worst song on the record by a mile - as "Atomium" is a vocoded hymn to the huge Brussels structure of the same name, the songs themselves here are solid, and dripping in riffs that could easily have fitted on any Kraftwerk record. With an average length of around four minutes, these suites, largely created on classic old synths and textured with dense arrangements that drip in melody and ideas.
Occasionally, Bartos mis-steps : the short 102 second "Binary Code" is a rollling arpeggio that seems taken from the Automatic Phillip Glass Riff Generator.. The opening rhythms to "Rhythmaus" and "Hausmusik" sound very much like a preset Casio jazz tone from 1982. Then again, the Japanese engineers who designed synths influenced the sound of that decade. Other times - "Instant Bayreuth" and "Hausmusik" for example, sound like long lost classics of decades past that for some baffling reason are only now being heard.
In the meantime though, "Off The Record" is to these ears, a continuation of Kraftwerk. The direction the band were facing when Bartos left is taken here : a combination of elegant synth textures and understated melodies, insistent and driving rhythms, and spacious production are matched to his restrained, precise language. Where it evidently differs from the other band, is in that Bartos writes livelier, faster material, with very specific pulsing bass lines and textured vocals through machines. From a flippant perspective, this guy is utterly influenced by Kraftwerk. Wait! He was in Kraftwerk! Oh, he's ripping himself off. It's like criticising Paul McCartney for making records that sound like he used to be in The Beatles.
Some of it, the keen eared will have heard before : "Music Ex Machina" is built from the same base as Electronic b-side "Imitation Of Life" (recorded during Bartos tenure as contributor to the band in 1994-1996). Other parts of it - "Rhythmus" - bear the same flavour as the "Computer World" title track with huge lashing of "Abzug / Metal On Metal". "Hausmusik" bears a resemblance in spirit and style to ancient (and long-deleted) Kraftwerk track "Dance Music". Nonetheless, it all sounds oddly familiar ; not as imitations of the past, but as visions of a future that could have been.
Lead single "Atomium" is the weakest track on the record. It sounds like a jingle advertising a building in Brussels, which it probably is. Heavy and primitive bass riffs and matched to discordant 50-film soundtrack style chords. It is, to be blunt, not very good by the standard. Which means it's bloody good by the standard of say, Keane.
To me, Bartos was at least as much a critical part of Kraftwerk as any other in forming the sound and melodies that characterised the band : and here it is evident in spades. The production is (be necessity) somewhat dated now - a vision of a future that, by the time it came to pass, was just normal. The future is here and now, and this, shows just how important he was in shaping it in our ears