Music Features

Karl Bartos: Off The Record - audio-visual screening

Kraftwerk’s recent retrospective residency at London’s Tate Modern may have caused technological meltdown (something the group themselves would doubtless not approve of) but just a few weeks later, an audio-visual event from one of the key members of the group’s history resulted in much less pandemonium.

Karl Bartos was part of Kraftwerk from 1975 until his departure in 1991, and played a pivotal role in classic albums such as Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine. Yet the premiere of his latest album, Off The Record, delivered as an audio-visual screening at the Rough Trade East record shop, drew little more than curious members of the press and a smattering of Kraftwerk die-hards, some of whom were dressed in Man Machine style red shirts and black ties.

Off The Record had an unusual gestation. While, strictly speaking, it is an album of new recordings, its tracks are based on fragments of music and melody Bartos has kept during the course of his career in an audio diary of sorts. Over the past two years, he’s been reworking these snatches of ideas until the album was fully realised. At Rough Trade East, the record played over the PA while three television screens, each with several pairs of headphones, played specially made films. Two of the screens played four Off The Record tracks with their accompanying music videos on a loop, while the third played more unfinished tracks and further aural sketches with the hypnotic on-screen supplement of a reel-to-reel tape player.

Bartos remains an electronic musician and, as such, it’s impossible to analyse his work without near-constant comparison to his former band. Indeed, the notes given to each attendee upon arrival reveal he’s rightfully proud of his achievements and composition work within Kraftwerk, even if he can’t resist a cheeky dig at their current tour (“Forget about technical nostalgia in 3-D”). Unsurprisingly, the hallmarks of Kraftwerk – electronic melodies, drum machines, themes of technology, progress and patterns – are all present in Bartos’ solo work. Also, like Kraftwerk, the more you listen and the more you pay attention, the more the human aspect to the music is revealed. Despite the inorganic nature of the instruments and the preoccupation with machines, it’s music with a real beating heart that has a wide emotional range.

The videos Bartos has created to complement his songs are simple yet effective. Particularly evocative is the film for Nachtfahrt (“night ride”) which features little more than Bartos driving his car (yes, on an Autobahn) during a picturesque Hamburg storm. The routine and the kinetic forward propulsion of a motor-driven journey juxtaposes with the unpredictable force of nature in the storm, much like how the ordered and the indefinably beautiful often go hand-in-hand in Bartos’ musical creations. This kind of unlikely marriage often comes across in Bartos’ album notes too, where he goes to great pains to produce lists of the exact equipment used to produce a song, yet will also prosaically describe the time or place he’s trying to evoke.

As an event, the music-with-pictures-as-promotion approach is a little difficult to get a grasp of, perhaps because it’s a relatively unusual experience for a music writer. The title ‘audio-visual screening’ suggests something more in line with a cinema rather than some headphones and televisions, but once you allowed yourself to be fully immersed in the project, it all began to make more sense. Of all the music present, only the industrial-influenced Atomium failed to hit the mark – its metallic clanging and gurgling robotic voices sounding more like a parody of Kraftwerk than anything else.

Karl Bartos was actually in attendance at the event, though what his intentions were with regards to interacting with the screenings remained unknown, as he was unable to escape the attentions of the hardiest Kraftwerk devotees. You can imagine his night was much like that of the attendee who didn’t know what to expect – he probably had an enjoyable evening, drank up the culture available and revelled in the hubbub of people, yet found it tricky to become fully engaged with what was going on. Though music is often a solitary experience, when in a room with others it can become something more communal and transcendental, yet this didn’t quite come to fruition. Off The Record appears a promising album, and one that could reveal more and more with repeat listens, and Bartos’ gift for a connecting visual is sharp. It was just the setup that didn’t quite hit the highs that the ever-inventive media deserved.