(review) Kraftwerk – Tour de France 03

You know, being a musical pioneer has got to be hard. When everything you built your career on has been emulated, copied, and cloned to the point of cliche, how do you stay relevant?

Kraftwerk’s answer has been “remain enigmatic.”

After synthesizers came to the fore of pop music in the 80’s, Kraftwerk’s output dropped dramatically. They released a sort-of-remix album (it was all rerecordings, actually) in ’91 to “update” their sound. For the next 10 years rumours abounded about new material. Fans would get worked into a frenzy, especially after new tracks would appear at rare live appearances. But…nothing. Then came “Expo2000” – a bewildering single that came out of nowhere, sounded like classic Kraftwerk, but lacked a lot in the way of energy and had none of the smirking man-machine humour of earlier releases.

Now it’s 2003, and along comes “Tour de France 03.” Confusingly enough, it has nothing to do with the “Tour de France” single they released in 1983 (and that appeared, much to their chagrin, in the film “Breakin'”). It’s a new song entirely, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Tour itself. This also serves as a prelude to their first new album in 15 years, “Tour de France Soundtracks.” Apparently when every electronic band has explored Kraftwerk’s favorite themes of technology and society, all they’ve got left to write about is bicycling.

The single itself is 4 tracks – four different versions of the song. They don’t appear to be remixes of each other, but rather four variations on the theme. Version 1 is a very minimal song, with the standard Kraftwerk machine-voice intoning the lyrics. While the production and mixing is crystal-clear on the track, the song and arrangement is very much a throwback to their early works. Very sparse rhythm, very sparse melody, robotic precision to everything, bell-like string pads handling some melodic duties.

Track 2 is a more fleshed-out arrangement. Similar spartan analog beats – pretty much just a subdued 4/4 kick and hihat, but the theme is expanded, more ambient effects are used, real vocals handle the lyrics (mixed with vocoder, of course). There’s almost an ambient-house vibe to the track overall, indicating that Kraftwerk has in fact been paying attention to the genres they spawned over the past 30 years. It’s still minimal and subtle, but is a more engaging listen than the first version.

Version 3 is a very bleepy version expanding on some of the modulations from version 1. It is even more a throwback to the classic Kraftwerk sound – with the programming used and the arrangement, it would not at all sound out of place on “Computerworld.” It in fact sounds eerily reminiscent of “Home Computer” in many ways. With the exception of the “Musique non-stop”-style computer voice, version three could be an unrealsed 1981 B-side.

The single rounds off with “Long Distance Version 2”, which is probably the highlight of the album. It expands on version 2 in several ways, adding more subtle percussion, and more meticulous programming. At nearly 8 minutes long, they’ve got plenty of space to explore every nook and cranny of the original theme. It’s also a good candidate for some DJ to make a long, sweeping trance mix [hmm…maybe I’ve got a project for the weekend].

Overall, the single is sort of a mixed-bag. It’s great to hear new Kraftwerk material, and it’s perfectly kraftwerk. But that’s also the problem – it’s almost exactly what we’d expect to hear from Kraftwerk. It’s not especially new and doesn’t sound like they’ve developed much since 1991’s “The Mix.” In a market saturated with electrocalsh bands trying desperately to emulate the sounds of early-80’s Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk themselves don’t really stand out that much. Then again, they set the trend that everyone else is still following nearly 30 years after “Autobahn.” At any rate, “Tour de France 03” sounds immaculate, is loaded with lots of Kraftwerk subtlety among the mechanical precision, and is a fairly catchy song. It’s just nothing especially new.