1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
Krautrock is an ambiguous term, conceived during the late '60s as a term to describe the rock 'n' roll that was coming out of Germany. And that was it. Many have now adopted Kraftwerk as the flag-bearers for the "official" sound of Krautrock, which is far from accurate, but also not entirely wrong. After all, the bands in central Europe were more eager to split from the blues-based rock that English and American bands were producing. This experimental nature created plenty of oddball bands (such as Can, whom we've already seen), which included a number of groups that incorporated electronic elements. Kraftwerk is the flag bearer for these groups, to be sure.
Autobahn is widely credited as the album that would define the sound Kraftwerk is now known for (the group had released three previous albums that fell more into the more "traditional" Krautrock sound). The band hadn't completely phased out organic instruments yet —you'll hear guitar, flutes and violin from time to time— but they had phased everything else (bad pun). Synths, electric keys and Moog bass abound.
The defining moment however is the electric percussion of Wolfgang Flür. Kraftwerk didn't invent electric percussion, but it did invent its own. The band is renowned for building instruments of all varieties, and they custom built all the percussion on this album themselves, and it makes a noticeable difference between the previous album, Ralf und Florian, and Autobahn.
This isn't a concept album, but rather an album made up of conceptual songs. The title track was meant to simulate the sensations of driving down Germany's famous motorway, and at 22:43 in length, it gives the opportunity to experience every emotion that driving brings. The thrill of cruising with the top down speeds up to mimic the renowned speed limit of the title highway. Tone shifts replicate the sound of cars whizzing by in the other direction, and the carnival-esque theme that arrives near the end of the track could be the dashboard radio, providing a soundtrack of its own.
The album's other four tracks, although much shorter than Side A, come with themes far from that of driving. The "Kometmelodie" duo mix creepy sci-fi synthesizers with more upbeat melodies to present different outlooks on space. "Mitternacht" echoes with eerie chords like a forest in the middle of the night, and "Morgenpaziergang" wakes up as the warmer morning after.
Autobahn wasn't Kraftwerk's biggest album, but it was certainly the album that led to what's been a massively influential career. If you find yourself bothered by what some consider to be a robotic personality from the band's later music, you're probably best sticking with this one.
INTERESTING FACT: There are many legends about Kraftwerk, as they've secluded themselves well from the media. Ralf Hütter, the group's vocalist and main electronic organizer, is factually an active bicyclist. A legend is that the group would drop him off 100 miles from shows so that he could bike the rest of the way. It's been confirmed that it's happened before, even if not for every show.