Machine Soul, a two-disc overview of the history of electronica, begins where it should, with those groundbreaking German gearheads Kraftwerk. A fanfare for the common machine that’s set to bristling bleeps and automaton voices, ”The Robots” no longer sounds as unearthly as it did 22 years ago. But for anyone old enough to recall first experiencing it back then, the song triggers instant flashbacks to electronic pop’s first invasion, in the ’70s. Were the mechanistic textures of Kraftwerk tracks like ”The Robots” and ”Trans-Europe Express” novelties, we wondered, or did they signify the dawn of a new music that would eventually overtake rock?
Even after all this time, techno champions and rock-raised skeptics are still debating that question, but Machine Soul pays no mind to doubters. A flawed but nonetheless ambitious anthology on a scale never attempted before, the collection treats electronica as what it is: a long-standing genre with roots, definable historical periods, founding fathers, and stars. The producers — who include Moby, by now an elder statesman himself — act as if it is perfectly normal and acceptable for music to be devoid of guitars, verses and choruses, and conventional vocalists. By the end of the second disc of this sweeping collection, you’ll probably feel the same way.
Starting with Kraftwerk, the first half of Machine Soul welcomes us to the machine by way of the earliest electronic hits of the ’70s — Donna Summer’s rhapsodic ”I Feel Love” and odes to modern conveniences like Gary Numan’s ”Cars” and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s ”Electricity” that now sound as primitive as garage-band punk. From there, disc 1 reveals how subsequent acts, not content with recycling initial formulas, made the genre darker (Cabaret Voltaire), incorporated hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa), explored its party-music potential (Newcleus), and crafted taut masterpieces of frigid soul (New Order). Some of these early hits, like Bambaataa’s influential ”Planet Rock,” sound more gimmicky than they once did — both lyrically and musically — and others feel as antiquated as videogame Ping-Pong. But they’re all essential, laying a groundwork that’s harder than concrete.
M/A/R/R/S’ acid-house anthem ”Pump Up the Volume” kicks off the second disc, and both its pioneering use of sampling and its thicker-than-stew groove announce the album’s plunge into the new forms of electro-dance that emerged in the late ’80s. Machine Soul dips into many of these myriad offshoots, from R&B electro (Inner City) to party rave (the Shamen, Prodigy) to ambient (the Orb) to big beat (the Chemical Brothers). The dated sonics of proto-electronica are replaced by warmer, expansive classics like Moby’s ”Go” and the Orb’s ”Little Fluffy Clouds,” in which the music literally seems to blossom like a field of flowers. (And no, that last line was not Ecstasy-induced.)
In his liner notes, producer and co-compiler Johan Kugelberg says Machine Soul was originally conceived as a four-disc set and admits that a package half that size is inadequate. He’s right, and purists and initiates alike will surely quibble with the choices. In terms of history, where is Herbie Hancock’s ”Rockit”? Where are tracks by acts outside the U.S. and U.K.? Is the West Coast best represented by Uberzone instead of Crystal Method? Is ”Life Is Sweet” the best Chemicals or big-beat track? Machine Soul is a terrific survey that encompasses a broad number of acts and styles, but among the missing are Goldie, Fatboy Slim (heard only via a Fluke remix), DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin, 808 State, Tricky, and drum-and-bass overall. (The album’s subtitle, An Odyssey Into Electronic Dance Music, may explain the latter omission — drum-and-bass isn’t known for setting butts in motion.)
By excluding hits like Prodigy’s ”Firestarter” (or Utah Saints’ mesmerizing ”Something Good,” a personal favorite), Machine Soul also doesn’t demonstrate how mainstream this music has become. But in a sense, it doesn’t have to. Just as computers feel as much a part of the daily grind as a cup of coffee, so does the music rooted in them. If one defines authenticity as that which is true to its time and self, there’s no more genuine music in the year 2000 than that which emerges from technology (as opposed to, say, rock that re-creates punk or Beatle-pop or Gram Parsons-style country). By the time Machine Soul closes, with BT’s trance-y ”Godspeed,” the metallic harshness of Kraftwerk, the Normal, and other pathfinders on disc 1 has melted away, replaced by a soaring electronic spirituality. The machine has become much more than a novelty, and it truly has a soul after all. B+