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Kraftwerk’s Cool Robots Invade Tate, Electronica Grows Up

Ralf Hütter, Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert and Stefan Pfaffe of the band Kraftwerk. Photographer: Mike Coppola/Getty Images via Bloomberg

The coolest concerts in London are currently being staged by Kraftwerk, a veteran German band named after a power station -- performing in an old power station.

Kraftwerk’s eight sellout shows at Tate Modern follow similar, much talked about, much rave-reviewed gigs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last April and the group’s home city of Dusseldorf this year.

The robotic pop and 3D graphics fill the cavernous Turbine Hall: a triumph for Tate, Kraftwerk -- whose influential LPs “Trans Europe Express” and “Radio Activity” still sound fresh -- and especially for electronic music.

For Tate, all is forgiven after a ticket-sale fiasco. A crashed website left many fans frustrated. Some were lucky. Others paid 100 pounds ($158) or more from resellers. Everyone knew what to expect: two hours including a different album played in full and a selection of greatest hits.

The music is subtly updated with newer technology. Beats are fuller and have a little more swing, the synthesizers punchier and brighter. It’s still the unmistakable sound of what was new template for pop.

“Autobahn” had the melodies, harmonies and a chorus like lyrics of the Beach Boys (who are averse to singing odes about cars).

By doing all this in an efficient, electronic way, and by being unashamedly German (and therefore categorically not American), Kraftwerk’s musicians opened many possibilities. Thanks to them, electronica is more popular than ever.

Beyond Kraftwerk

Festivals like the Electric Daisy Carnival in the U.S., or the various international branches of Creamfields are commercial concerns catering to tens of thousands of fans. In 2012, Forbes published a list of the highest-earning DJs in electronic dance.

Whether it is their synthesized sounds, futuristic imagery or the idea that pushing buttons on electronic machines is a legitimate live musical performance, each of the artists on Forbes’s list has a debt to Kraftwerk.

Not all are great. Skrillex has earned $15 million by taking dubstep, a subtle London-based style of music renowned for deep bass and sparse rhythms, moving it to mid-range (where it can be heard on cheap speakers) and slathering the results in aggression. The result is as pleasant as a cheese-grater applied to the inner ear.

David Guetta, another entrant on the Forbes list, mixes pop with house music to create songs with the appeal of specimens in a plastic surgery slasher film.

For those who missed Kraftwerk, or seeking an antidote to Skrillex and Guetta, there’s a lot of good electronica around.

Dubstep Bass

Explore the Spartan beats, Arabic instruments and velveteen bass of Shackleton’s “Music for the Quiet Hour.” “Mala in Cuba” by London dubstep producer Mala is a bass-led delight.

Or try the house and techno of Curtis Jones, who records as Cajmere and Green Velvet. The Chicago-based producer has been making drum machines twitch with sleazy robotic energy for two decades. “Only 4 U” is a fine compilation.

Tracks like Julio Bashmore’s “Au Seve” or Kolsch’s “All That Matters” are crowd-pleasing without resorting to Guetta’s brash cash-grabbing formula.

Away from the dance floor, Dan Deacon’s “America” bristles with shimmering noise, punk vim and burbling instrumentals. Andy Stott’s album “Luxury Problems” was a highlight of 2012.

Julia Holter offers a more tranquil sound on “Ekstasis,” which has won considerable plaudits.

Rachel Evans records as Motion Sickness of Time Travel. Her synth-scapes sound like Tangerine Dream refracted through a sand and Vaseline smeared lens.

Back to Kraftwerk. Towards the end of the first set, the band played “Techno Pop.” Released in 1986, the words “Synthetic electronic sounds, Industrial rhythms all around” sounded like a daring future manifesto. That time has come.

Kraftwerk’s shows continue through Feb. 14 at Tate Modern, Bankside, London. Information:, or +44-20-7887-8888. The CDs cost from $10, download prices vary.

(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Catherine Hickley and Farah Nayeri on film, Elin McCoy on wine and Greg Evans on U.S. television.

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