I have no idea if Kraftwerk, explicitly or not, ever suggested that electronic music would one day find itself in such a fortress of old guard entertainment as the Sony Centre in Toronto. Such is the endless frontier of the Dusseldorf group's influence, looming larger by their secrecy: it casts a layer of tantalizing plausibility over every credible interpretation. I assumed their legacy would be the only thing on display Saturday night, but that severely underestimated their music's reach. The current 3D concert tour, with its first Toronto show in a decade, could not be more apt.
Kraftwerk is no longer so avant-garde as to make their audience reel in shock or disgust. But they still inspire wonder in the span of their influence, their prescience, and the unmatched majesty of the sound.
It was also a night for refurbishment. Kraftwerk's image from the Autobahn-era onwards embraced Germany's lingering postwar reputation and turned it into a weapon. They took the discord in seeing the faces of friends and neighbours as Nazis and hardened it by embodying their – and our – mechanic tendencies. We recognized our own robots and wondered disturbed whether they burdened our flowery conception of humanity or actually shouldered it. At the time, some couldn't take the question and cried fascism. But a mirror can't be broken by mudslinging.
Saturday night, as the curtain drew up to a roaring audience, our first image was mortality: four aging German men in skin-tight Tron suits, standing behind neon-traced podiums perhaps borrowed from a space-themed children's game show. The face plate had fallen off before the show even started. The band's ego was exposed, a tangle of wires and circuits desperate to receive the transmission of vindication from the audience in the form of applause.
It quickly became clear why they didn't just send four imposters styled after any of their most iconic eras: Kraftwerk is no longer so avant-garde as to make their audience reel in shock or disgust. But they still inspire wonder in the span of their influence, their prescience, and the unmatched majesty of the sound.
So when the music actually started, there was no resisting, on their part or ours. Helmed by founder Ralf Hütter on Vocodor, the setlist was a clean and scholarly argument for Kraftwerk as rules of This And Every Universe, Especially The Ones With Computers. The visuals all pulled from years past, whether it was the black-and-white reels during "Tour De France" or the computer generated graphics that prevailed, rendered from Lawnmower Man era graphics and given a slight, splendid polish. They were never anything less than totally entrancing, until a song’s repetitive lyrics occasionally stalled its visual representation. Then, as on opener "The Robots," audience enthusiasm would dull as we began to internally justify that this wasn't, in fact, just a really expensive YouTube lyric video.
But the flow was relatively unimpeded. My highlights: "Computer Love," with its stark movement naming off secretive government organizations and "business, numbers, money, people" the soulless recitations even more chilling post-Snowden, post-financial meltdown. The timeliness was more literal on "Radioactivity," its environmental plea of listed nuclear disasters updated to include Fukushima. They didn't gloat, but gave us a personal address, and the severity of the synths gave our horror a place to live. Finally, the jolly bounce of their hit "Autobahn" was coupled with the sight of a Volkswagen Beetle zooming down an endless, single lane highway in an uninterrupted pastoral setting. I admired it as a beautiful looking road and wished all the crumbling lanes that currently strangle our city could look like that. Then a sick feeling came over me as I realized I had admired a stretch of fake asphalt.
The past was firmly theirs, and even perhaps the future. When they came out for that most artificial of musical performance rituals – the encore – they played a newer track called "Planet of Visions," an ornate transcontinental squelcher that aimed to vanquish every other piece of Detroit-aping techno I've heard. It may have been looking to the past for sounds, but it was a rare composition that progressed the subgenre with definition and clarity.
Forty years ago Kraftwerk gambled that we would one day live in a Computer World. It paid off, and now they will never die. But time moves slowly. Babies are only just starting to swipe books like iPads. Ten or 20 years from now we will still look to their music to inform our present.
When Hütter said goodnight I felt a strong empathy for fans of royal coronations: I could have watched that clinical, manipulative procession again at least three more times. This tour is for Kraftwerk the entity to accept and relish its role as electronic music's divine prophet. A group that can – and actually did – still dazzle young girls to leap on stage and claw at them as they take a bow. Their catalogue is now a star chart for modern life. Why shouldn't they drink that up?