Karl Bartos

ICA, London - 22 July 2003

"The audience were as incredulous as they were ecstatic"

[Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos]

With poor pre-publicity (even the ICA website had no trace of this just a week before the event), I relied upon an eagle-eyed friend to flag this up and get tickets. Former Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos has already released two solo albums under the name Electric Music. With the first album a natural successor to the legendary Kraftwerk sound, the second a tribute to 60s guitar pop. Tonight was the world premiere of material from Bartos' third album so there was the possibility that this would be either a Beatle's-inspired trip or more Teutonic techno. I suspect most hoped for the latter. Our minds were put at rest once Bartos took to the stage and elements from Kraftwerk's The Robots combined with new material came thundering out of the PA.

Assisted by two colleagues who played and added backing vocoder vocals, with three huge screens behind him, just squeezing into the ICA's stage space, and projections of CGI graphic men talking on telephones and moving up escalators, this had all the presentational hallmarks of Bartos' former band and a fair few similar sounds and song subjects. Recurrent themes of communication, celebrity, technology, etc. were all strongly represented. On 15 Minutes of Fame (not a Sheep on Drugs cover!) celebrity is the topic with Bartos (seemingly referring to the reality TV phenomena), lamenting that "Stars ain't what they used to be". Test cards from around the globe formed the backdrop to the fourth song - a slightly more spaced out number, whilst a later track was introduced as "inspired by New Order" - and it showed. Of the new material, I Am The Message stood out on its own - the highlight of the new album.

[Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos]

By now we were about half way through the scheduled 40 minute set and the London audience were responding with a wall of cheers, whistles and claps after each and every track. Suddenly, the sounds from the PA sounded familiar, bleeps became sweeping synths and, has the back projections soon confirmed, Bartos had returned to his Kraftwerk days with an absolutely superb rendition of Computer World. It is not a cliché to say that the crowd went wild. Because there is no real love lost between Bartos and the two remaining original members of Kraftwerk - Hutter and Schneider - I didn't really expect to hear any Kraftwerk tracks. Maybe a couple, maybe in the encore. And it seems many shared this expectation. For when Bartos then launched into The Model (complete with original black and white fashion projections) the audience were as incredulous as they were ecstatic. Unfortunately, this classic track was slightly marred by a dodgy radio mike. Post encore, the technical glitched continued into another Kraftwerk song, a very heavy bass rendition of Telephone Call, but it soon righted itself. This Bartos interpretation outclassing the original version with ease.

Surprisingly, the Kraftwerk classics just kept coming. As the intro to Trans Europe Express rang out, the already frenzied audience were whipped up beyond all that had gone before. Once again, with great lead vocals, Bartos proved he could recreate an authentic Kraftwerk sound and the backing vocoder voice was spot on. Making a personal lyrical change, instead of the original line "Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie", we got instead "Meet Bernard Sumner and Johnny Maar"! Giving his thanks for the rapturous response he'd received and with time slipping away, Bartos made it clear that the next track was the last one. And how better to close a brilliant evening than with a unique rendition of the glorious Tour de France? Coinciding with the event celebrating its Centenary and the release of Kraftwerk's single Tour de France 2003 (from their new album Tour de France Soundtracks), Bartos added his own personal inflection to the French language lyrics and the slap bassline didn't quite have the edge of the original, but the wide panning stereo bicycle chain sounds still managed to send a chill down the spine.

[Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos] [Karl Bartos]

In true star style, Karl Bartos thanked everyone for their support, went down to the front of the stage to touch hands and promised that he'd be returning later in the year for a UK tour. Those of you who didn't manage or bother to get to the ICA for tonight's show should waste no time in planning to get tickets for that tour. Even ignoring the Kraftwerk tunes, Bartos has proven that he knows just which buttons to press to have the desired effect on his followers. Simply terrific.

Rob Dyer