- by Rich Morris Release Date: Label:
Ralf & Florian is the lost Kraftwerk album. Not only is it hard to get hold of, something it shares with their first two albums, but it's often overlooked even by hardcore fans. Lacking the harsh, industrial sounds of their earlier efforts, it's still some way off the metronomic proto-synth-pop of their famous works. Instead, 1973's Ralf & Florian is a fascinating collection of experimentations, representing both a bridge between what Kraftwerk had been and what it would become, and also an intriguing direction left tantalisingly half-explored.
Kraftwerk I and II hold their own place in the group's mythology, despite the remaining members having done everything possible to disown them. Even Tone Float, the one album released by Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter's pre-Kraftwerk psych-jazz band Organisation, has been rightly praised as a lost gem in the music press. Ralf & Florian, on the other hand, tends to be forgotten or, if it's mentioned at all, marked as a transitional work before Kraftwerk settled on the sound which would make them one of the most influential bands in the history of popular music.
Perhaps it's because Ralf & Florian is a little, well, unassuming. It doesn't exactly force itself forwards, musically speaking. Its six tracks feel self-contained, dreamy, inward-looking. Even its cover seems quite 'this'll do'. The duo are shown together in an odd pose, Hütter apparently perched on Schneider's knee like a ventriloquist dummy. Both men gaze slightly off to their right, both half-smiling but looking disengaged.
In the photo, while Schneider already has the anti-hippy look which Kraftwerk will soon adopt as their visual signature (short hair, severe side-parting paired with suit and tie), he looks more like a door-to-door salesman than a future-music pioneer. His clean-cut image seems especially jarring next to Hütter's lank, greasy mullet and informal checked shirt. The large semiquaver on Schneider's lapel is the final surreal touch. God knows what discerning early-70s music fans, reared on The Beatles and Stones and the hard-rock of Led Zep, made of the pair. They look unfinished, or to be more blunt, they look like a hot mess.
That album cover also gives no clue as to what the music inside will be like. Or does it? Like the two oddballs on the cover, the music of Ralf & Florian is both severe and freewheeling; it sounds like it was made in a stoner fug by people who agonise over every detail; it is meticulous, at the same time sounding palpably impatient to break through into something else, something it can't conceive of yet. Ralf & Florian is the sound of two music-makers getting frustrated with an entire lexicon of musical expression and beginning their search for what lies beyond it.
As over the whole hippy thing as they may have been, Ralf & Florian is Kraftwerk at the last point before they rejected that ethos entirely in favour of hymning modernity and technology. Ralf & Florian is the only Kraftwerk album which could really be called kosmische. Having abandoned the harsher sounds explored on their first two albums, Schneider and Hütter, along with super-producer Conny Plank, instead worked on compositions which were bucolic, drifting and serene
Perhaps this is what makes Ralf & Florian the black sheep of the Kraftwerk family: it's the only Kraftwerk album which seems to revere nature rather than technology. Where earlier Kraftwerk albums undoubtedly had an urban setting, here the gorgeous, undulating, skipping 'Tanzmusik' seems to follow a river downstream, and the hand-claps, tinkling piano and distant sighs which close it feel like an expression of pure, very human joy. It's about as far away from the man-machine as you can get.
However, this is still an album crafted by the group who would arguably do more than any other to shape the sounds of the next 40 years of music, and the thrillingly strange 'Kristallo' points the way forward, not just for Kraftwerk but for generations of crafty kids with music-making gizmos. Under a constantly shifting, heavily baroque melody which sounds like it's being improvised on the spot, we can hear a taut, minimalist, hissing, squelchy rhythm, which threads its way from early Kraftwerk to John Carpenter to the pioneers of techno and acid house. The combination of this with what sounds like an electric-powered madrigal is jarring in the extreme, and the fact that Schneider and Hütter created something so unusual only to discard it as wanting is quite breathtaking.
Elsewhere, the music is more conventional but no less stunning. The mournful piano and echoing flute of 'Heimatklänge' is simply gorgeous, as is 'Tongebirge', where Schneider's spiralling flute is backed by deep, sombre synth, creating a sound which is at once ancient and mysterious, and interestingly similar to Vangelis' 1982 Blade Runner soundtrack. The opening 'Elektrisches Roulette' ('Electric Roulette'), meanwhile, is a manic mix of just about everything they could throw in - keyboard, synth, guitar, percussion, odd vocal snippets. It constantly shifts tempo, sounds crashing in and out, as if the duo are reinventing themselves during the actual recording, unable or unwilling to settle on any finished form.
The album's main focus is 14-minute final track 'Ananas Symphonie' ('Pineapple Symphony'). Undoubtedly a great lost Kraftwerk track, it's proof of just how unjust it is that the group's early music is virtually ignored these days. Fittingly for the album's final statement, this is also the point at which Ralf & Florian's nature-worship crashes into the sleek, knowingly-kitsch Kraftwerk to come.
Over warm waves of synth and heavily-treated, wobbling Hawaiian guitar, a bland, vocordered voice intones the title. But as the waves turn evermore acidic and corrosive, you feel less like you're on a Hawaiian beach than watching one on a static-snowed old TV set, probably while numbed out of your mind of prescription barbiturates. As the queasy, slightly cheesy rhythm slithers towards its close, you sense that finally Schneider and Hütter have hit upon their big idea: a kind of nostalgia for a future which will probably never come to pass, that's somehow already a little retro, executed in a way which is simultaneously knowing, sincere, camp, chilling, funny, weird, and effortlessly cool because they will play it totally straight.
Kraftwerk will go on to embody this retro-future into the early-80s, but Ralf & Florian is where they started by going back to basics: just the two core members; music which looked to nature. In a way, it was a necessary exercise in clearing their minds of psychological clutter in readiness for the literal clearing out they would do next: from now on each album would be based around a clear subject; no more experimentation and soul-searching in the studio. When Kraftwerk reappeared on the following year's Autobahn, image and sound matched completely in a way which was, at the time, so shockingly different, so jaw-droppingly modern, it wasn't long before others started to copy them.
It's easy to see why, then, Ralf & Florian has been overshadowed. Easy, yes, but that doesn't make it OK. It's a bold, experimental work, quite unlike anything its creators did before or after, and it deserves to have its praises sung. In fact, it belongs more properly in a lineage of early-70s kosmische albums by the likes of Tangerine Dream as well as early ambient recordings by Brian Eno, Neu! and Popol Vuh. Viewed this way, it can be rightly seen as an important work, one which urgently needs to rediscovered and appreciated by a new generation of fans and aspiring music-makers.