Collected Works: Music
A Geiger counter begins to sound. Initially slow, the pulse hastens gradually, turning into a rapid stutter, detecting the approach of dynamic particles. A Morse code transmission affirms the cause of the equipment’s lively ripple: ‘Radioactivity’. The encrypted message is quickly subsumed within a vast, reverberating power plant of synthetic music. Caught within glowing choral textures, confronted by a palpitating pedal, we find ourselves overhearing radio activity of a different kind, tuned into a station generating electropop.
Kraftwerk’s fifth album sees them as a group of self-styled scientists, playfully picking apart the stereotype of Germany’s nous for technology. The near-title track stresses the wordplay at the heart of the record’s name. ‘News’ comprises headlines read aloud, paying no attention to polite turn-taking, overlapping in a cacophonous, unruly manner. On the closing song, the group chant a punning mantra, ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’, showing off their sense of humour with the subtlety of a flashing neon sign.
Radio-Activity is stocked with the profits of musical engineering; its details are the result of extensive tinkering and tailoring. Synthesised fragments litter its entirety. Piercing beeps flicker on and off like capricious light bulbs. Soft arpeggios coax us to attention, as if unusually pleasant ringtones. These molecular morsels form bonds between compositions, embellish song structures, and reproduce events familiar to a physicist with startling realism. The tunes of ‘Airwaves’, for one, could easily stem from a sine wave oscillator.
Form is honoured alongside function. Melodies are often shaped as succinct, lyrical phrases, and the pragmatic soundbites always pay dutiful attention to the material that they decorate. The album appears to us as a product of both the studio and the laboratory. It was generated for the ears of humans, yet its airborne emissions seem as if they were made to be deciphered and measured by mechanical apparatus. Radio-Activity emanates energy, the consistency of its tracklist ensuring that listeners are left with very little waste.
Words by Hugh Maloney
More to discover
You can listen to 'Geiger Counter' and 'Radioactivity' here, 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' here, and 'Airwaves' here. Radio-Activity has been revisited and recomposed by Franck Vigroux & Matthew Bourne, under the title Radioland.
You can hear the Radioland version of 'Radioactivity' here, read an article on the project by Laura Battle for The Financial Times (paywall), and read an interview with Vigroux and Bourne by Mark Youll for Jazzwise.