Who were the first electronic music pop stars? Electronics slowly crept into pop music throughout the 70s and exploded in the 80s, but Kraftwerk revolutionized both genres by combining them effortlessly, in ways that seem both obvious to modern audiences as well as ways completely absent from the millennial pop landscape. Today, electronic pop music is everywhere, whether it’s identified as such (your Skrillexes and Deadmic3) or not. Kraftwerk’s genius was bringing true electronic music (in the academic, avant-garde sense) to the masses. They didn’t just use synthesizers and rudimentary drum machines to create traditional songs and melodies (though they did that very well) — they embraced their machines fully, all the ticks and oddities inherent in the circuits, as well as all of the possibilities previously unexplored therein.
Digital audio and the computer multiplied those ticks, oddities, and possibilities by a nearly infinite degree, yet few have really taken what was at the base of Kraftwerk’s success as a template. We have some incredible experimental music that explores the digital domain (Raster-Noton being a foremost example), but the electronic sounds of pop music hasn’t progressed a whole lot since the 808 — the machine’s fetishization seems to know no bounds. Atom™ isn’t exactly palling around with Timbaland and Pharrell, but on his new album, HD, he takes a couple pages from Kraftwerk in his acerbic exploration of electronics in pop music; the cover even looks like it was taken from the same sessions as Electric Cafe.
Heads take note: this is a pop record. It is, being the work of Uwe Schmidt, full of impeccably crafted sounds, deliberately placed, utilizing every little nook and cranny of your speakers for maximum effect, and is an absolute joy to listen to and behold. Yet while half the record plays with technoid pop structures, many of these tracks seem poised to hit the Hot 100 in the year 3000. That Schmidt has somehow managed to make futuristic-sounding pop music 30 years after the acceptance of electronics in pop underlines just how little the timbres of mainstream music have really evolved, as well as just how serious he takes his subject matter. The digital rockabilly of “The Sound of Decay” and MTV-baiting “Empty” are a bit overblown for my taste, but the chewed-up, digital distortion of the former and clinical, nearly-soulless sounds of the latter warn in no uncertain terms of the dangers inherent in 21st-century pop music. The Kraftwerkian stomp of “Stop (Imperialist Pop)” even calls out the perpetrators by name.
“I Love U (Like I Love My Drum Machine)” would be the obvious lead single of the album had it come out on RCA instead of Raster-Noton. It’s enjoyable enough, and even if you, like me, tend to find Jamie Lidell’s vocals seriously annoying, the absurdity makes it the record’s most thematically pointed. The line, “In the words of Martin Luther… (I have a dream)… now hear my drum computer” is so laughably dumb and borderline offensive it seems less gratuitous and more of a jab at how common this kind of thing is, especially in house music, shamefully.
Even the tracks on HD nominally for the techno heads are not without bite, as the majestic, beautiful “Riding The Void” is almost overbearingly sarcastic. It sounds like an Ellen Allien track with lyrics like “When our hands touched… on the dance floor,” and you can just imagine Schmidt snickering to himself as he says it. But it’s such a lovely, incredibly produced piece of music you barely feel guilty for succumbing to Schmidt’s manipulations. “Strom” is another major highlight, an ode to electricity and its units, whose flourishes (that bass line around the word “musik”) and subtle melodic resonances are endlessly captivating. HD asks a lot from the listener, including bearing with a cover of “My Generation,” but what you put into it HD returns in multitudes. Unlike the academic music sometimes found on similar labels which are difficult listens, HD is candy coated and goes down easy without diluting its cynicism and caustic ideas. HD has plenty of strong “techno” cuts to satisfy those of us who tend to dislike pop music, but no matter what your genre proclivities, HD is well worth repeated listens.