Neu!’s debut is Krautrock at its best, stripped down to its essentials of pulse and texture.
Krautrock has always had a tenuous relationship with mainstream prog, or even more experimental forms. While much of the music seems to have the same sense of experimentation and willingness to journey into worlds unknown, there is rarely the crossover appeal for many prog fans – or, when there is, it seems a distinction must be made between what is “prog” and what is “Kraut”. On the surface, I suppose there are quite a few differences between the two: Krautrock doesn’t have the flashy instrumental exhibitions or overriding album concepts a lot of prog does, and classic prog rarely places so much importance on pure rhythmic pulse or trance inducement. However, it would be difficult to argue that these two musics don’t exist in the same family. For all its reported grandeur, the music of bands like Yes and King Crimson doesn’t necessarily aim for any higher purpose than the music of Can or Neu! – nor does it contain any more spiritual weight.
Are those subjective claims? Of course, but determining what is and isn’t prog will vary no less among listeners. Krautrock is great prog, and Neu! is as definitive a specimen as any. Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger jumped ship from Kraftwerk at a very early juncture. In fact, it was so early, Kraftwerk’s now famous trance-bot methods weren’t even in existence yet. What the two ex-werkers took with them may have been the human touch, because immediately after their departure, things became a lot more mechanical for their former band. Rother and Dinger were instrumentalists, so it was only natural that their new band should focus on the performance end of the “motorik” beat. Theirs was still music for the Autobahn, but rather than streamlined and futuristic, it was somehow vulnerable and timeless.
“Hallo Gallo” begins the first album, and is arguably a marvellous encapsulation of the Krautrock style and a masterpiece of rhythm: tight drums, funky guitar scratch, a coolly insistent bassline, futuro synths, and effects-laden guitar slinging wide acid-fried launches into deep space. Neu! is remarkably economical where its influences cultivate excess: the exploratory guitar and keyboards discover new aural landscapes where the pioneers of prog would remain hours blissfully adrift. “Hallo Gallo” is intelligent dance music in every sense of the term: it’s the ass inviting the mind out onto the floor. Nobody leads; both are simply in motion. Similarly, “Sonderangebot” is a murky soup of noise and silence: an interlude of clanging cymbals, and ambient fuzz, a kind of breathing nebula. The song bleeds darkly into “Weissensee,” a droning parade of dirty, cone-filtered guitar that anticipates the pastoral psychedelia of Flying Saucer Attack and Hochenkeit. “Negativland” opens in jackhammer drills and coalesces into a lock-tight, bass-driven martial progression of stabbing guitar and industrial noise: it’s dark but strangely danceable. Something like krautpunk: syncopation, cerebral and serrated. Amazing stuff.