There is no real analog to Faust in Anglophone circles, except maybe in some work by Zappa or Negativland or maybe even Naked City, played at half-speed. They were writing songs and cutting songs and noises into pieces and dismantling the idea that there was a band inside this band. Depending on which one of the many versions of this album you find, you might hear the Peel session version of “Krautrock,” as demented a swirl of noise and pulsing (no drums) that anyone in this cohort ever made. The eight-minute clomp of “Giggy Smile” is like every style the band was into, jammed piece into piece, a rough cut-up of what was on the charts, with some actual catchy bits. (This band had the best hook writers in Germany, no lie.) As they put it in the manifesto they handed out on their 1973 tour: “Faust have mentioned that working as they do in the space between concept & realisation they are in fact doing nothing. Faust would like to play for you the sound of yourself listening.”
Jon Savage explained the term well in his 2011 essay for Red Bull Music Academy: “Krautrock is the term most commonly used for psychedelic, expansive German rock, but it began as an insulting piss-take, coined by the British music press in the early 70s.” That phrase, in what may have been a détournement, became the title of a 1973 Faust song (a great one). It’s often replaced by “kosmische,” of which more later. I claim no authority in the naming here. It gets you to the music, which is the important part. Most of the musicians in Dusseldorf, Berlin, and Cologne hovering around rock in the early Seventies played together and knew each other. This was a small, familiar scene, like the early days of New York rap or the people who played CBGBs in the Seventies. It took bravery and smarts to make something from nothing without a support network. That’s one reason early community eruptions of a style or practice are often intense and rich: musicians were not doing something because other people were. They couldn’t be—nobody was. Krautrock is a goofy name but a legit grouping insofar as it indicates a bunch of bands in a certain place at a certain point in time who absolutely worked together and had at least some shared goals.
That said, in the lazy way that “post rock” often indicates nothing more than moody guitar instrumentals, “krautrock” has become shorthand for drumming like Klaus Dinger’s added to electronic noises. (Half the time, people just mean “Stereolab.”) Dinger himself hated the term “motorik” for his drumming and preferred, without explanation, “Apache.” (This could be a reference to the various songs named “Apache” but it doesn’t sound like them, so who knows.) The three things to pay attention to with krautrock: timekeeping, machines, and experimentation. And it helps to remember that krautrock is actually one of two terms, the other being “kosmische.” If pressed for time? Krautrock is steady eighth notes on the kick drum and mellow keyboard sounds; kosmische is synths and guitars through echo units and freeform jams. That seems dismissive but I only mean to bookmark big and important ideas with those little tabs. The kosmische spirit of unrestricted movement and the krautrock ability to establish a human regularity that mimics the steady attack of machines—these were major and wildly fruitful innovations that have never stopped creating new possibilities. It is not exactly clear which records contain which impulses, and many of these contain both. If you lose track, just go back to Kraftwerk’s career and start from the first Organisation album and proceed chronologically. By the time we get to Trans Europe Express, we’ve done it all.
Swing and shuffle and all other American forms of rhythm were simultaneously inspirational and irrelevant. German groups were turned on by the American and British rock & roll they heard coming from military bases, but they didn’t want to ape that music. They all decided to play in ways that wouldn’t have flown in Anglophone circles: harder, weirder, louder, less human. It is also key, and less-often mentioned, that krautrock became such a magic carpet ride for so many because it was often entirely instrumental. Partly because there was some trepidation about singing either in English or not-English, these bands mostly conveyed their visions with hands and feet. Even a band like Can, with not one but two singers, created music with only episodic vocals. All the better to dream along with. Songs, in fact, are only intermittently important. These bands had places to go and signposts were distracting!
For reasons I’ve never quite understood, the Germans were more comfortable with synthesizers and drum machines. Their Anglo counterparts used them, but more timidly. The Germans went all in, making humans sound like machines and machines sound human. And the overall vibe of the experimentation was unmatched, perhaps the aspect that most makes a thing krautrocky. Politically motivated, open-minded, young, and bonkers—these are the kraut feelings. The krautrock buddies actually listened to how analog synthesizers and electric guitars really sounded—theirs was a gentle revolution of acceptance as much as action. The work keeps getting rediscovered because their respect for the gear was so pronounced. If you want to know what analog synths and guitars can do, there will always be concrete information for you in this catalog. Who listened to oscillators more lovingly than Tangerine Dream? Who respected the freakout more than Amon Düül II?
Honoring the gear is one way that Cluster and Harmonia and Kraftwerk all found new voices, as well as lasting power. Perhaps the effects of war made Germans more sensitive to the power of technology, as well as the role of radio in spreading liberating ideas. Can I have no explanation for, except they are maybe the most global of the Krautrock bands. Damo Suzuki is Japanese, Malcolm Mooney was entirely American, Jaki Liebezeit was German but half Motown at heart, Holger Czukay was from outer space, Michael Karoli could have been a psych player from Leeds, and Irmin Schmidt always felt vaguely Russian to me. There are no bands here you want to skip, and Can is the one where every single inch of tape is worth hearing. Their reach is as intense as that of Neu!, and then some. You find them smack dab in the middle of The Fall (the only band Mark E. Smith wrote a song about) and the Jesus and Mary Chain (who covered “Mushroom” for years). You find “Vitamin C” smack dab in the middle of hip-hop culture, and Stephen Malkmus has covered the entirety of Ege Bamyasi, not just “Vitamin C.” Their blend of dance music and improvisation would make them a jam band—except it doesn’t, which is down to how rarely they noodle and how deeply strange their vocalists always were.
Which brings it all back to Kraftwerk, connected at some level to almost all of the groups here. They are, undoubtedly, part of krautrock at least until Autobahn, when their current history begins. In fact, if you go see their excellent 3D live show, currently on the road, you will not hear any material earlier than Autobahn, which is when their krautrock simply becomes Kraftwerk music. They went on to become, even for those averse to hyperbole, one of the five or ten most important acts in the history of popular music. Kraftwerk are really simply their own category. That said, there are at least five albums from the years before Autobahn that find them absolutely into the hairy clutches of krautrock, right up to their ears in patch cables and sweet, sweet repetition.
The twenty albums below are just a start — all 68 of Sasha’s recommendations can be found here. The albums Julian Cope recommended in his Krautrocksampler are listed here, and Jon Dale’s guide to Popol Vuh and Phil Freeman’s guide to Klaus Schulze might also be of interest.
Even though he is no longer considered a part of the group by the time of this album, Conny Plank is listed and credited as composer and producer. We still can’t call this a synth album because Roedelius and Moebius are using a variety of electronic tools, and they don’t often let arpeggiators and sequencers do their thing. They lay hands on keyboards and guitars and knobs and stick with the music. A masterful sense of space and silence blooms on this album. Some of this is just Moebius tapping on a guitar and sending it through echo but he is able to make the result feel like ice dripping in a harboring cave. Some of the sounds here are so doomy, like bits of Sabbath hacked up and run through a small oven. The organ! Cluster II feels simultaneously ancient and modern, even in 2022. Moebius is so crisp with his little guitar figures! A rich socket of sound.
And then there’s Can, who always sound so confident, even at their jammiest. Michael Karoli’s voice is strong on “Dizzy Dizzy” (“head is curly and messy”?) and “Quantum Physics” is one of the better quiet Can tracks. I wish there were more Can albums this skeletal and rubbed out. Karoli’s electric violin all over “Splash”? More nuts than usual. “Chain Reaction” is peak Can sprawl, everyone trying to match Jaki’s titan pulse.
The boys team up with Conny Plank again to snake through the echo madness. Side two (“Kluster 4”) of this album is a complete freakout in the most krautrock sense—pure indulgence and pure satisfaction. Side one is clogged up with the German narration of a Christian text that had something to do with the funding of the album. I translated a bit and gave up. Edit that part out, if you can. A glorious basket of electric mayhem and some of the best rock flute ever, frankly.
A real monster and a real double-album. Yeti feels like the work of a band with so many ideas and so much enthusiasm for those ideas that they couldn’t stop themselves from playing all over each other and the tape itself. It’s one of the few things I’vve ever heard that actually feels psychedelic in that it is hard to imagine the people who made it were entirely of sound mind and body (and that is not an insult). “Burning Sister” sounds like The Kinks, maybe chasing a truck of their own gear, already on fire, and “Archangels Thunderbird” is like a different version of Black Sabbath, with a woman much scarier than Ozzy singing. The three long improvisations that close the album suggest an anarchist version of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and who’s to say that’s not exactly what Amon Düül II was?
This is no one-man band thing. Achim Reichel has a whole cast, a kind of krautrock all-star thing going, with Conny Plank and Klaus Schulze and drummers and an orchestra and the whole nine. This is his moon shot, his bigtime epic and he delivers. The opening section, a quiet drive up a rocky hill, is an exquisite kosmic landscape, and he returns to this in the final third. What he builds it all up into involves an orchestra, singers, and a controlled jamboree. People love the kraut and kosmische axis because of albums like Echo, where a single walk takes you through a bunch of locations, some entirely improbable but all of them welcoming.
Maybe bassist Dieter Dierks sounds so good on these albums because he engineered and mixed them in cahoots with Rolf Kaiser. For all the bullshit surrounding the generation of these commercial releases, the Cosmic Jokers tapes are really special stuff. Schulze here is finding pockets of the analog synthesizer that none of his very able peers could find. Göttsching was as good as Rother in pulling things out of the guitar that had no precedent in terms of style or trend, and the vocalists all seem to have no idea what pop vocalists are supposed to do, all to the good. An actual cosmic swirl and a sort of benchmark of non-reggae dub?
Four full LP sides of Schulze creating worlds. The focus is organ and synth, with some orchestral and percussive fleshing out. He really lets each track unfold from what the synth patches do. When I talked elsewhere here about the German cohort respecting the machines and listening to them, this is what I meant. Kraftwerk were convinced they knew better than everybody, even the machines. This is the inverse, Schulze just drinking in the magical texture and resonance of his oscillators, letting it flow and feel and prosper. Doesn’t sound much like a cyborg, for what it’s worth. My favorite is side four, “Neronengesang”: dark and airborne. The feral “roars” are worth the price of admission.
Julian Cope liked this one for the proto-punk qualities, in contradistinction to the late period Can records he often denigrates. No need for invidious comparison! Malcolm Mooney was a great lyricist and singer. There is something wild about a version of Can where you can understand the words, which development does not make it make any more sense. This is well-recorded and forceful stuff, sort of “normal,” as Can albums go. Michael Karoli’s guitar is way out front, so it’s that and Jaki Liebezeit’s drumming making the scene behind Mooney. (Irmin Schmidt’s keyboards are a bit submerged here, though they do lift the party when they cut through.) “Thief” is as good as anything the band ever did, if simply for giving everyone a very clear iteration of How Jaki Tuned His Drums.
A one-off triumph by some Hungarians living in Dusseldorf, Edge of Time is gently bananas, a perfect pastiche of 1970 Pink Floyd. This is a perfect kosmic kraut record, in that it is fundamentally structurally relaxed while also being very carefully assembled and smart about its loopy tendencies. There are some vocals, but as with most kosmische, they’re not very important (mostly monotone recitations) and the songs are really just containers for the descending wobbles and angelic buzzing. Some totally astonishing tones in the last five minutes here—real outlander stuff.
True story: When I was 13, I heard Aqua, by Edgar Froese and Music For Airports on the same day. I was looking for the Eno, which I’d read about, and was lucky that a friend of my Dad’s had a copy. The Froese is what haunted me, though. It seemed to move like an organic, living creature. I also could not remember what it was called, so I bought the Eno and that was that. Zeit is 74 minutes of water and fire and elemental churn, a close relative of Aqua’s. That cello from the first Tangerine Dream album, as played by Conrad Schnitzler, got into Froese’s matrix, and some of the best stuff here pits the synth against the cello. Heavy drone energy here, almost Eliane Radigue-level stuff. This music is just so confidently detached from normal pitch and rhythm. The second disk of this double LP is sort of sound design as much as music. It’s all, as Cope suggests, really powerful stuff, not easily ignored. Froese and his crew seem to know how sound operates and what kind of music can come from this new gear. If Zeit does any single thing, it establishes that the sustained tones and subtle modifications that come from synthesizers are not something to be taken lightly. They will have their own logic and way of moving forward. Tangerine Dream got that memo before most.
Man o man does this one deserve a bigger spot in the bugged out firmament. Hamel is a keyboardist who decided not just to go it alone but also to leave it alone. Much of this album is one or two instruments—mostly organ—and tons of space and silence. The organ was big you say? Few places let it get bigger than this album, a genuine space crash of drones and repeating organ figures dancing around the perimeter of this rarely analog void, brushing into Steve Reich territory a few times. Very beautiful and creepy and great.
Was 1972 simply the best year for recorded music? So many genres suggest that the only plausible answer is yes. As Rother was to Neu!, so was Manuel Göttsching to Ash Ra Tempel, a loose band that revolved around a few permanent members. Vocalist “John L.” (not his actual German name) screams and sings “we all are one” but the tone is much calmer than the hairy debut album. Klaus Schulze is gone and most of the space is taken up with Göttsching’s silvery, heat-seeking guitar patterns. A template for a kind of electric/acoustic post-classical folk is embedded here, something to make plants grow and tempers cool. John L. sounds good because the rest is so good. Anywhere else, he’d be out on his ass.
Florian Fricke is the man behind the curtain here, as Froese and Göttsching are in other groups. Here, Fricke lulls us into thinking everything is going to be OK with his Moog bubbling, ably aided by Holger Trulzsch’s hand percussion. Side one is a magical thing, as healing and positive as music gets. The second side, “Vuh,” is one massive chord played on a church organ that breaks through the earth on the constant white noise ribbon cymbals. The album is essentially one long build that seems sort of unplanned and benign at first and then feels like a deep tissue injection of something warm and equally benign, but 500 times as strong.
Having met in Kraftwerk as sidemen for the Ralf and Florian show in 1970, drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother decamped with producer Conny Plank to change the game in December of 1971. Are they low-key responsible for the Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth, and Stereolab? In part, they are. (You’ll need to listen to all three albums to hear this happen.) On the first album, Dinger establishes his famous motorik or “endless straight” drumbeat, which is really not the A-Z of this duo. (Very very important to remember that.) “Hallogallo” is the template, the Stereolab seed, pitting Rother’s humming and detonating guitars against Dinger and his steady kick-drum eighth notes, played without dynamic shift or surcease. Neu! found so many ways to make repetition soft and echo hard. Rother re-tuned his guitars and made gossamer melodies and batshit noise, and Brian Eno stole at least half of that. Neu! also loved playing with tape playback speed, which is just one of several underrated innovations. “Weissensee”? Ambient music, sort of? With gentle beats? The three-song second side of the album is supertitled “Jahresüberblick”—the “year in review,” or “annual report,” a nod to Dinger’s interest in advertising. “Im Glück” is a placid haze of guitar and double bass manipulations. “Negativland”? Sonic Youth, from Confusion Is Sex, maybe. Neu! have dozens and dozens of ideas, and their status as a duo brings that out, because there’s really nothing on this album that isn’t a fully thought-out idea. This album swirls more than it stomps and much of it has no beat at all. Water? Jackhammers? Barking? A legendary soup of soft perceptual fuckery.
My favorite albums of the entire Eno/German collision were the two he made with Cluster, which have oddly different titles, possibly because of how Cluster felt about being Cluster. This one finds Moebius and Roedelius calling themselves Cluster, and Eno reducing each track to a clearly heard collection of elements. Foregrounding everything is his skill and, on this album, we really hear the energized middle space where Cluster lives. There’s some very welcome bass guitar and a higher class of engineering here. The result is a perfect high summer record: woozy and full of dense colored liquid.
Here is where the fellas go in and cash up, getting a lush round sound out of the whole kit. Actual drums (from Mani Neumeier of Guru Guru)! Actual bass (mostly Rother)! It sounded like the gang was going for the big time, rather than breaking up entirely, which is what they did. This album is beautiful and goofy and loose and tight and even gets into what Julian Cope calls their “Charlie Brown” material, where the sweetness and light is perhaps too intense. Moomin or doomin’, there are those dudes.
Schickert made it all: art, echo, guitar, voice. (The paintings are fantastic.) This is something you can imagine someone doing now with a Line 6 pedal at a basement noise set, which is not a knock on 2022 or 1974. Schickert did not care about your tiny expectations! He goes off, and balances a truly intense middle freakout with some desolate rows before and after. Small, alone, but one of krautrock’s richest oddities. Do not pass this by.
It’s worth remembering that in the several years before they became Kraftwerk Kraftwerk, they were absolutely a part of a local scene, and that’s audible here. They’re already the cleanest of the lot, don’t get it twisted. No mistakes allowed is the Ralf and Florian way. There are no weak tracks on Kraftwerk albums—they don’t allow it. And there is a lot of Neu!’s chug in this music, even though Dinger and Rother were long gone. Florian is still playing the flute, though not for much longer. “Klingklang” has a multipartite structure that more than resembles Tortoise’s “Djed” from twenty-five years later. With that sweet Conny Plank clarity, this is one of the stronger krautrock albums. “Wellenlange” is the boys tapping on guitars and letting sounds swirl around and hang–this should have been a whole album. This song is one of my favorite moments in this whole era, and really unlike anything else.
Pretty quickly, Georg Deuter got into a very heavily anodyne version of the new age routine, a thing he is likely given too hard a time about? Some of his more peaceful albums are great, frankly. This one deserves a huge profile, in that Deuter saw improvisation as something he could do in a minimal fashion. This is entirely open-ended without being jammy at all. A German guy playing sitar? You’ll have to sort out if that bothers you. Feels pretty organic here, in the midst of eight tracks that flow steadily until it’s actually flow, and we move through long passages of water sounds and sine waves. Really utterly fantastic mind-mapping and tone-swapping.