Autobahn is split between a milestone title track and a less memorable flipside. Radio-Activity pads a knockout single (“Radioactivity”/”Antenna”) with conceptually savvy window dressing. 1977′s Trans-Europe Express, however, marks the beginning of an artistic peak that brings Kraftwerk to the dancefloor as it substantially expands the quartet’s influence. Its sumptuous textures, jagged beats and retro-futurist style would be revisited, sampled, and imitated by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Donna Summer, the Human League, Afrika Bambaataa and just about anyone who’s ever programmed a synthesizer to shake its groove thing.
Trans-Europe Express is an album about identity in which Kraftwerk situates itself between the European classical composers of the past and the future musicians of the world: The melodies are as rich and romantic as its rhythms are stark and skeletal. While its octave-jumping bassline and strict pulse links disco and marching music, the violin-like synths of “Europe Endless” reach back to 19th-century Romantics like Franz Schubert (who has a song named after him here), Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and many others. “The Hall of Mirrors” pushes the narcissism of Romanticism to Expressionistic extremes. “The artist is living in the mirror with the echoes of himself,” Ralf Hutter declares as the sounds of feet walking through an echo-drenched hallway keep time. “Showroom Dummies” twists a criticism of Kraftwerk’s anti-stage presence into a badge of pride: We are mannequins; we will dance, and so will you.
All of this is abundantly clear on the title track and its continuing medley cuts “Metal on Metal” and “Abzug.” Here the effect is much more ominous; had they been played in a traditional disco arrangement of symphonic soul, these horror-evoking synth riffs would probably clear the floor. Instead, they’re both cool and hot like synthetic James Brown; a combination Kraftwerk takes to greater extremes in its next album, 1978′s The Man-Machine.