by Kurt B. Reighley


Mon April 26, Paramount, 8 pm, $31.50 (all ages).

Robots, computers, cyborgs... they all share a common trait. No, not just the desire to crush their puny human masters. They love bicycles. Or, more accurately, they love singing about bicycles.

In 1961, Max Mathews, an engineer for AT&T Bell Laboratories, synthesized music on a digital computer for the first time. What tune did his tin-plated charge warble? "A Bicycle Built for Two." Seven years later, that same ditty served as the swan song for HAL, the computer run amok in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kraftwerk, the pioneering electronic ensemble of man-machines from Düsseldorf, Germany, who have engaged the services of robot doppelg...ngers in concert for over two decades, scored one of their biggest hits in 1983 with "Tour de France," a percolating homage to the famous bike race. And it took the 100th anniversary of that same event to prompt the reclusive group to cut its first album of new material in 17 years.

The blueprints for 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks (Astralwerks) were drafted 20 years ago, reveals founding member--and cycling enthusiast-- Ralf Hütter. "I wrote the whole script, the concept for the album, together with my friend and partner Florian Schneider, and our co-author of the French ["Tour de France"] lyrics, [record executive] Maxime [Schmitt]." But instead of expanding further on the single, which interpolated whirring bike chains and labored breathing into its grooves, the group turned its energies to Technopop, an aborted 1983 full-length that eventually evolved into 1986's Electric Cafe.

When Kraftwerk were approached to participate in the centennial celebration of the race, they dusted off the concept and cooked up 11 new tracks (plus a reprise of the original "Tour de France") centered around themes of cycling and fitness: "Vitamin," "Elektro Kardiogramm," and their latest single, "Aéro Dynamik." "We were doing mixes and edits while the Tour was running," admits Hütter. Still, they took time out last summer to accept an invitation from the race's director to tag along with the competitors at various stretches--albeit via helicopter and automobile.

"Of course, we already knew the roads over the Alps from our own cycling tours," Hütter adds. "But being there, inside the Tour, was a fantastic experience, and it gave us the kick to put the final touches on the album," which was released last August.

Although the band has kept a low profile since its 1991 greatest-hits package, The Mix, limiting public appearances and releasing just one single ("Expo 2000") prior to the new record, Hütter insists that he and Schneider have been going about business as usual. In addition to biking, that routine includes consuming prodigious amounts of coffee ("we're drinking espresso right now"), puttering about their Kling Klang recording studio, and checking out nightclubs.

"[Kling Klang] is like our electronic laboratory," says Hütter of their HQ, located in the same part of central Düsseldorf since 1970. Having spent years transferring their deteriorating old tapes to digital media, and swapping vintage synthesizers for laptops, more recently Hütter and Schneider (along with engineers Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz, who join them on tour) have concentrated on exploring new ways of integrating synchronized video and visuals into their concert experience. If reviews from recent European gigs are to be trusted, their Paramount show--only their second Seattle appearance (the first was back in 1975, when their single "Autobahn" actually cracked the U.S. Top 40)--promises to be a multimedia spectacular.

Despite this highly sophisticated setup, Hütter insists there is room for improvisation in the quartet's performances. "Our compositions are very basic, so we change them around, modulating sounds. There's a lot of live electronic [fine tuning], turning knobs, switching switches... very minimal, fingertip activities. That's why we can't jump around." They've also included an encore where their AI mechanical counterparts come out unescorted to perform "The Robots" from 1978's The Man-Machine.

And after the show, feel free to invite the guys out on the town. At 58, Hütter still enjoys checking out clubs. But while the electronic music innovator expresses feelings of kinship with contemporary techno producers in Detroit and Japan, one wonders: Does he hear more music he enjoys now than in the past? No. But that's nothing new. "In all periods, I think the percentage of interesting and uninteresting music, from classical to pop, disco, rock, or electronic, has always been the same."

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