The Man-Machine: Kraftwerk Materialize at ACL Live ... Or Did They!?

German synthesizer pioneers pop in 3-D

Late-Sixties German engineering perfected electronic music past, present, und future. On a night streaked with lightning, Kraftwerk proved at ACL Live that the curve they set might never be met.

Kraftwerk in 3-D at ACL Live. (Photo by John Anderson)

Routing back through Austin after debuting their multimedia slingshot at Bass Concert Hall in 2015, one-half founder and sole remaining initial member Ralf Hütter – flanked by Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, and live video programmer Falk Grieffenhagan – reiterated a musical concept the future can’t catch. Genius grows at the intersection of paradox, so when Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and Cluster created synthesized dance music minus standard rhythmic foundations (i.e. live musicians), they invented bodyrocking beats for mainframe minds. Dance music you don’t have to move a muscle over.

So it appeared on all three levels of ACL Live at the Moody Theater last night, as what looked like a two-thirds-full house donned 3-D glasses to visualize four men in green-screen-looking suits standing at space voyage consoles out front of a giant screen broadcasting a constant stream of computer dreams. Retracing its second stage discography start to finish over the course of two hours, and handily enough mostly through the title tracks – Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (’75), Trans-Europe Express (’77), The Man-Machine (’78), Computer World (1981), Electric Café (’86), and Tour de France Soundtracks (2003) – the quartet moved minimally and never spoke a word. Meanwhile, their synthesizer suites bent to euphoric, ever-shifting beat patterns barbed with everlasting hooks.

Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk performing at ACL-Live on Tuesday. (Photo by John Anderson)

As kinetic as it resounded, heads barely moved, their cardboard goggles affixed to an omnipresent screen as if they themselves resided within it. Welcome to the ones and zeros party taking place inside your computer device. Where else could electricity run such strong currents and not necessarily jolt its recipient physically?

Plucked fiber wires, stuttering drum machines, pulsating sound washes crossed audiovisual circuits with space station simulations, fashion runway come-ons, and Tour de France news reels. Eighties Laserium visual upscaled long before the millennium, yet even if Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang Musikfilms spool out as largely rudimentary – is that EKG machine simulation? – combining primal oscillations with sometimes crude digital graphics maintains a paralyzing effect. Your foot taps where your body yearns to move, but your brain’s breakdancing.

“Autobahn” shifted waves of keyboard over drop-beat tempos, mimicking the change-up from Volkswagen to Mercedes Benz onscreen. “Neon Lights” lit up an aural merry-go-round, every carnival of your youth sprung to life, synths fluttering and beats throbbing, phasing. The sonic boom of “Geiger Counter/ Radioactivity,” Morse code programming over Cuisinart thumps and bumps, casually split the atom. “Tour de France” interlocked distinct movements into a single techno gallop set to Hütter’s favorite cardio, uphill moments met by heart-strain synthesizer.

Kraftwerk belongs at ACL Fest as surely as teens TikTok.

The encore marched the Germans offstage to reveal four dancing robots behind the screen, a moment that truly called the evening’s musical reality into question. Had a band just replayed its oeuvre onstage, or had The Matrix revealed your audio visualizer? Far more disturbing, when you removed your glasses, the humans onstage suddenly appeared blurry, 2-D, as if maybe they weren’t there at all.

Fun Fun Fun on the Autobahn: Kraftwerk. (Photo by John Anderson)

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Kraftwerk, ACL Live, 3-D, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, Falk Grieffenhagan

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