Radioland: Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity revisited at Village Underground

Matthew Bourne is too much of a maverick to be considered a part of any scene, even what would count as ‘alternative’ jazz. Lately a fascination with vintage analogue synths means he’s as likely to be seen twiddling the knobs on his Memorymoog as he is creating unruly improvisations at the piano. The 37-year-old’s ambitious new collaborative live project goes straight to the source.

It’s a darkly intriguing contemporary spin on the seminal Teutonic band Kraftwerk’s electronic concept album Radio-Activity, recorded all of 40 years ago. Friday evening’s performance at east London’s Village Underground (part of the Convergence multi-media Festival) came in the middle of a brief UK tour that comes to an end tonight in Milton Keynes. The Shoreditch venue is a renovated warehouse, and its towering, spartan interior and exposed brick walls was a perfect vessel for Radioland’s mix of hard-edged industrial grooves and ethereal, moog-infused soundscapes.

Sporting a handsome beard and surrounded by his synths, Bourne was joined onstage by the French electronica experimentalist Franck Vigroux and video installation artist Antoine Schmitt who generated minimalistic graphic animations on a large screen backdrop. He evoked something of Kraftwerk’s early LP sleeve pop art iconography (the autobahn and radio transmitter dial) with them, improvising in real-time as well as using musically-generative technology.

On Radio-Activity, Kraftwerk had given birth to an against-the-grain electronics-only mix of Stockhausen-inspired conceptualism, Krautrock and pure pop song. But Bourne’s Radioland project wasn’t taking the retro route. It’s a version more relevant to 21st century electronica, and it’s a less naïve, more unsettling, intense soundscape than a mid-1970s era Kraftwerk could ever have dreamt up. Bourne artfully improvises around the original album’s poppy hooks, as on the memorable title track theme that’s played against an ear-shattering electro throb that gives it something of a menacing air.

Contrasting with the original’s romantic utopian concept, this felt more like the harsher, more unstable radioactive glow of contemporary dystopia. Yet with the warm ambience of analogue circuitry and Vigroux’s use of vocoder vocal, a more tender, human side came through just as convincingly.

– Selwyn Harris

See the last night of the UK tour tonight at The Stables, Milton Keyenes

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