Once upon a time, before visions of tomorrow arrived with Tron and the Internet, Germany's Kraftwerk was the future — a band of robots "dancing mechanik." Until recently, though, it's been anyone's guess what, exactly, the grandfathers of electronic music do all day. Kraftwerk has been one of the most reclusive and fallow groups of the last quarter-century.
Now, the studio gates have been knocked ajar. After a five-year delay, 12345678 The Catalogue, a deluxe box set reissuing Kraftwerk's winning streak of masterpieces and then some (spanning 1974's Autobahn to the 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks), was finally released this week. But the real revelations are contained in The Anthologie, a secret companion set collecting the projects amassed during the group's lost years. The Anthologie provides an unprecedented peek at ways in which the computer world Kraftwerk foresaw in the '70s and '80s became a fact of life in the '00s, all while highlighting the group's knack for procrastination, its tastes in body suits, and its desire to snuggle — and be snuggled.
Obsession abounds throughout Anthologie. One disc is dedicated entirely to co-founder Florian Schneider's year-long fixation on LOLcats, a forgotten passion that survives only in the demos for the concept album I CAN HAZ DAVID BOWEES FON NUMMER. Rumor has it this project pushed Schneider out of Kraftwerk last winter after nearly 40 years. But it wasn't for the music on NUMMER. It's the best record Kraftwerk has produced in decades, recapturing the whimsy first flashed on its punning 1975 album Radio-Activity. According to a rant Schneider posted on his Facebook wall, his exit was hastened by a daily habit of forwarding new mixes of a track called "This Is Hilarious" to bandmates — an abuse of EMI e-mail policy, if not of technology in general.
The set also provides such ambitious diversions from the group's groundbreaking oeuvre as leader Ralf Hütter's very own Jay-Z mash-up. Taking his cue from Danger Mouse's Beatles-sampling Gray Album, Hütter brilliantly combines The Black Album with another 20th-century masterpiece — John Cage's silent composition 4'33". Though the fruit of this experiment sounds exactly like Jay-Z's original, listeners will be surprised at how the Buddhist calm of Cage's extreme minimalism takes hold at the precise moment the gunshots from "Allure" kick in.
The Anthologie closes with the only real dud in the set. What initially sounds like a stab at the post–T-Pain hip-pop market turns out to be Schneider reading some of his more lecherous tweets through a Vocoder ("@ralf: have u seen my mannequin?"). His 140-character come-ons cop too liberally from Jeremih's summer jam, "Birthday Sex," albeit with unspeakably lewd references to pocket calculators and Madame Curie.
After 12 hours of nonstop head-scratchers, the more anguished rumors about Kraftwerk's work habits are put to rest. As recently as last June, Hütter was still describing his average day in the drollest of terms, this time to the U.K.'s Guardian: "I wake up in the morning, I brush my teeth, I go to the studio, I work, I go back home, I eat, I sleep." So it goes at the famous Kling-Klang Studio. Thanks to The Anthologie, and the miracles of modern-day box sets, we now know he also Googles, aimlessly.