Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express”

Album cover for Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express

This week, I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk’s LP release “Trans-Europe Express” from 1977. I grew up with the electronic sounds of this group. My father had three Kraftwerk’s among his record collection. Their third album “Ralf und Florian” bored me and I only really liked the title track of their fifth album “Autobahn.” However, I enjoyed their fourth album “Radio-Activity,” listening to it frequently throughout my childhood and teen years. In rural Ohio, nobody I knew had heard of Kraftwerk. I was surprised to learn how important and influencial that had been. Most of this album is too mechanical and repetitive for me, but I did come to appreciate a few songs: mostly “The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies.

The title presents the main theme of the album: a European railway service crossing the continent. Through that journey, Kraftwerk visit on other topics including reality vs illusion and celebrity. Much of the music suits the railway journey concept, having the mechanical rhythm of a train and long simple melodies and synth pads that imply long-distance travel and continuously scrolling landscapes. Unfortunately the title of the opening track “Europe Endless” feels all too appropriate, because I often felt that the songs were way too long.

Trans-Europe Express

The title track, “Trans-Europe Express,” travels for a full six and a half minutes and then continues seamlessly into the next track “Metal on Metal.” Thus started the second side of the original vinyl release. A synth percussion resembling something between a snare and a closed hi-hat open the song. A sine-effected short delay effect modulates this sound, which sounds like a phaser. This phase-effect suggests motion. Adding a kick sound and a bass-synth, we have the repetitive accompaniment that runs throughout the song. Orchestron strings play ascending chords. The recurrance suggests passing landmarks. It’s a triumphant motif that gets repeated ad nauseum.

Using a vocoder, Kraftwerk have the synthesizers chant: “Trans-Europe Express.” Again, this with ascending chords. We keep rising and rising and going nowhere. The strings play a melody, with very sparse accompaniment. Afrika Bambaataa sampled this melody and other elements of this album for their 1982 hip-hop classic “Planet Rock.” As with most of Kraftwerk’s melody lines, it’s simple and charming and becomes a motif of the song. Most of their works consist of a small set of two or four bar patterns that get layered in alternating combinations.

The Hall of Mirrors

I most enjoyed the track “The Hall of Mirrors” from side one. Without the on-going robotic rhythms heard throughout most of the album, this song feels warm and hauntingly human. I especially like the quietly echoed pulse-synth bass line combined with the reverb-rich percussion sound. The bass has a beautiful rich rounded sound. Each note of the bassline is played twice, and then echoed so that when the bass rests, it drifts off into the reflections. I believe that percussive sound is an organic sound, something like somebody slapping a show on the hallway floor with the mic far away to capture all of the reverb.

As we hear through much of the album, there is little to no chord progression. There is a hint of I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IV. Most of Kraftwerk’s accompaniment consists of a repeated pattern that stays within the same chord, or repeats a small set of chords in a way that defies the idea of a progression. They create the rhythmic version of a drone overwhich they alternate syth melodies and pads, with oft deadpan chanted vocals with occasional melodies. The lyrics here and chanted, like a sinister warning from beyond, of celebrity and illusion. About self-discover and human transformation.

Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass
Even the greatest stars
Live their lives in the looking glass

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