Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was written for the bouncy guitar sound of Pat Metheny, and while I have come across the piece in a number of other guises, it is his 1987 Nonesuch recording which is pretty much the definitive thing. I have nothing against re-arrangements of this kind of piece and I’m sure it goes down a storm at live gigs, but to my ears the electronics used by Powerplant lose too much of the life and colour of real guitar strings. I’m actually quite glad the lads don’t try and make the electronics sound like anything other than what they are, and there are some moments where the music could be straight from a Kraftwerk track, which I suppose shines something of a new light on Reich’s minimalism of that period. 3 minutes into the first movement, and you only need a chuffing train effect or similar industrial emphasis to parody the band whose music is treated in the following three numbers. The mellifluous central movement becomes rather headache-inducing and treble-heavy in this version, and the final movement, which should have enough funk to make you want to bop on the living room carpet, becomes a rather dour march to which I could only imagine Daleks might fancy doing a few turns. It’s OK, but doesn’t really turn me on in the same way the original did—either that or I’ve just become a cynical old nerd.
Kraftwerk has been around since the 1970s, and no doubt most readers of these pages have a secret stash of their albums tucked away somewhere. No? Well, their kind of electronic, minimalist pop suits Powerplant’s approach very well indeed, and the arrangements of the three numbers here work decently enough, even if you know the originals. I was never that enamoured of the Tour de France title track, preferring the more gritty, ‘beats per minute’ physicality of some of the other numbers on the album, but Powerplant have a decent run at it, making it even more of a frothy pop number than you would expect. There are a few aspects of these settings which sit less easily to my mind however, and it mostly boils down to the placement of live instruments against drum computers and heavy electronics. Since the Kronos and Balanescu quartets this medium has taken on a life of its own and good luck to them, but any string quartet almost invariably sounds horribly twee and ineffectual in this kind of context: a bit like a Snoop Dog rap being read aloud by Bonnie Langford. Only the sections where the sound is more heavily filtered and treated does it sound as if the strings are competing sympathetically with the electronics. The same goes for glockenspiels and vibraphones or whatever else Powerplant is using—these instruments just sound a bit ‘girly’ against all that chugging synth. Again, I’m sure this comes across highly effectively live and appropriately amplified, but my suggestion would be to integrate these sounds more somehow, rather than leaving them pure and unsullied like a fresh strawberry on top of a pepperoni pizza.
Carbon Copy is an intriguing track which uses an African berimbau, one of those bent sticks with one metal string and a resonating globe at the base. This adds interesting resonance to quite a funky track, but again, the subtlety of an authentic instrument is lost somewhat. It comes into its own through sampling and processing of the sound, which adds depth to the whole thing, but ultimately I felt this didn’t go far enough—you can be truly groovy with a good deal less drum-kit, and in the end the whole thing turns out more like a demo sketch than a completed piece.
Javier Alvarez is a respected Mexican composer and percussionist, and his Temazcal introduces a different sound world. Fizzing maracas create a field of noise, over which electronic noises create their own layers of ostinato and interruption. The title means ‘burning water’, which I’m told can be interpreted as its purifying effect—as in a sauna. The creative synergy between the excellent percussionists which make up Powerplant and the serious input of a decent composer shows more of the direction in which Powerplant are at their best. No doubt Kraftwerk sells more tickets than Alvarez, but for me this is the best track on the album.
The final audio number is Audiotectonics III by the sound design half of this group, Matthew Fairclough. Written for an instrument called the xylosynth, a cross between a xylophone and a synthesizer, the samples include a wide variety of African, European and South American instruments. It’s hard to escape the feeling of someone playing with a new high-tech toy and the piece doesn’t really ‘do’ very much other than demonstrate the instrument, but it is interesting to hear and spectacular in its own way—certainly enough to shake the dust from your woofers.
If the Steve Reich piece is your prime motivation for seeking out this disc then I wouldn’t recommend it above, or even as a supplement to the Pat Metheny original, though I admit there are few if any alternatives available at the moment. Since Bill Bailey’s ‘Kraftwerk Tribute’ I have unfortunately found it quite hard to take Kraftwerk arrangements too seriously, but the tracks on this CD are good fun and quite effectively Krafted. The fairly short playing time and rather mixed programming of this disc make it somewhat hard to recommend, either to classical or pop fans—it falls somewhere in between, and I can see it being neither fish nor flesh to both. If you want to know where contemporary percussion is currently at however, with all its stylistic fusions and multi-media effects, then this is as good a place to start as any.