Album Review: Karl Bartos – Off The Record

[Bureau B; 2013]

There’s a pretty big shadow hanging over the latest release from electronic composer and former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos. And after reading that first sentence, you should know exactly where that shadow comes from. Kraftwerk’s immeasurable contributions to music have all but guaranteed that any former member’s musical output will likely—and probably always unfairly—be compared to the vast and creatively dense discography of their former band, especially when they continue to mine the same sonic territory. Bartos joined Kraftwerk in 1975 as a percussionist and is credited with helping to shape the songwriting on seminal Kraftwerk records like The Man-Machine and Computer World. He stayed with the band up until 1990 when he left over what he felt was a lack of creative forward momentum and the increasing perfectionism of founding members Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider.

But if Bartos ever felt a need to branch out from his previous solo works or from those of his former band (which are admittedly quite similar), then his latest album Off the Record gives little indication of that. And while fans of Kraftwerk and sterile motorik beats will find something to like here, there seems to be very little of Bartos’ own personality in these tracks—which is possibly how he wants it. The cover art even goes so far as to present an emotionless automaton, face rigid and eyes staring blankly ahead as the album’s representative. And there is something to be said for losing your identity completely in music, but in this case, it seems more like an issue of slightly re-tuned ideas and too many threadbare musical redundancies.

The album opens with lead single “Atomium,” and between its robotic vocals and mechanized rhythms, the song clearly has no intention of severing any ties with the aesthetic that Bartos worked so closely with for so many years during his tenure in Kraftwerk. The music creates such a strong connection with his past work that the song, for better or worse, could pass for a Kraftwerk work-in-progress—though not nearly as accomplished. It does have the occasional interesting bit, such as the thickly amorphous bass synth that saunters into view from time to time but even this creative curiosity is passed over fairly quickly.  Skipping over the somewhat forgettable, sterilized chrome-plated rhythms of follow-up “Nachtfahrt,” the album actually becomes fairly interesting as Bartos reaches further into structured electro-pop on “International Velvet.” The sputtering synths and dry-ice beats work well here as Bartos manages to sustain something akin to a memorable melody and has the forethought to give it the room to expand and contract without unnecessarily compressing the notes. And “Without a Trace of Emotion” actually manages to make a valid point about the homogenization of pop music while still retaining a rather striking melody. The synths feel slightly less sterile and more inviting, though the way in which the instruments interact still feels somewhat reflexive.

The album again falters noticeably as it runs through the video game chirps and blips on brief interstitial “The Binary Code” and “Vox Humana,” with its mechanically filtered vocals and repetitive synth lines—and the less said about the six second track “Silence,” the better. That one is pretty self explanatory. However, on “The Tuning of the World,” Bartos creates a song that perfectly balances the synthetic and organic. Sounding like a more masculine version of the antagonist machine GLaDOS from the Portal video games, Bartos delves surprisingly deep into the ideas of religion and mortality and the nature of human beings. If he had further explored the oddly affective ideas that he cultivates on this track, then Off the Record might have been something really astonishing, as opposed to a decent electronic album from someone who used to be in Kraftwerk.

But as casually damning as that last statement seems to be, the truth is that Off the Record has glimmers of real brilliance, but they are mostly come with a strict adherence to rote electronic beats and formulaic synths. It is impressive to think that Bartos, now 60, is still managing to further the ideas that he helped to define back in the 70s, but if he wants people to think beyond the obvious associations, he is going to have to give people a reason to do so. And Off the Record, despite a few promising tracks, never provides a strong enough reason for listeners to do anything but go back and admire what he accomplished with Kraftwerk.