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Ebony Steel Band, "Pan-Machine"

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Ebony Steel Band are a primarily eleven-person group of Trindadian and Caribbean musicians most well-known for paying tribute to other bands. Not to pay disservice to their original works, as they have produced Steel Away! (1976), Best of Steeldrums (1990), and Carnival (1998), but still, no one can deny their ability to breathe new life into classic songs. After their tribute to The Beatles with 2010’s Popular Beatles Songs - Caribbean SteelDrums, director Ian Shirley challenged EBS to cover Kraftwerk, one of the most classic and enduring pioneers of electronic music in history. Their effort was a complete success.

OM Swagger

The cover of Pan-Machine pays homage to Kraftwerk's most famous iconography: the red dress shirts with black ties, which they incorporated not only on The Man Machine cover art but also used in the stage outfits during the 1981 Computer World tour. Other artists have paid tribute, including the three members of Big Black on their single of their cover of "The Model," but in the case of ESB, only four of the members are featured in the photo. Perhaps eleven micro-sized robots all vying for space would be too much, but it's funny to imagine nonetheless.

Listening to the album is a delightfully calming, if multi-faceted experience. Kraftwerk were of course capable of creating some incredibly bouncy, energetic tunes, but the often mid-paced tempo led the songs to feel more relaxed than full-on, even on 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks. ESB respectfully match the tempo and feel of every song in this manner, yet I feel the tropical timbre of these covers lends an even greater chill atmosphere to them. I'd love to listen to these songs while sipping a pina colada on a beach in Hawaii! (Some day...)

I attribute this album's feel to the excellent choice in songs. There are faithful recreations of some of Kraftwerk's biggest hits, like "The Robots," "The Model," and "Computer Love," but then there are some unexpected choices in "Tanzmusik" and "Kometenmelodie 2," elevating Pan-Machine above the usual best-of fare in favor of legitimate, holistic homage. I get the sense the band wanted to give themselves a greater self-imposed challenge, and it pays off extremely well, as I rediscovered my love for less-revisited songs like "Neon Lights," "Spacelab," and "Europe Endless," which are the highlights for me.

Of course, the true magic of Pan-Machine stems from ESB's total reverence and indulgence in Wolfgang Fleur's drumming. As the original drummer for the band, Kraftwerk went from emphasizing his drumming above all else on Trans-Europe Express to him feeling largely like an afterthought on The Man Machine and Electric Café. Fleur has said as much in multiple interviews over the years. Listening to Pan-Machine, Wolfgang suddenly feels like the most important part of the band again, which helps to ignore Kraftwerk’s troubled history with various band members.

I would even go so far as to say I honestly find ESB's renditions of classic Kraftwerk tracks more inspired than Kraftwerk's own live outings over the past two decades. There hasn't been any new material from the band since Tour de France Soundtracks, nor has there been any care placed on their pre-Autobahn albums. For almost two decades, most of their live performances were based on the 1991’s The Mix remixes. Only since 2014 with the 3-D Catalogue tour has Kraftwerk truly bothered to reimagine their classic songs, although some songs are more remixed than others. No mention has ever been made of the few new tracks they played in 1998, such as the criminally underrated "Lutton" (unofficially titled; official title unknown as of the time of writing). As a long-time fan, while I appreciate the live albums Minimum Maximum and 3-D The Catalogue, these are no substitute for true new material from the band. Along comes Pan-Machine which sounds like such a breath of fresh air and should be hailed as such.

With all that said, however, in no way do ESB's performances replace the originals. They are a unique change of pace for old fans and a wonderful stand-alone experience for newcomers. Naturally, Kraftwerk belongs in the pantheon of musical innovation and their songs sound excellent no matter how they are played, yet I do not want to brush off Pan-Machine as a mere novelty, because I don’t think it is. It is a companion piece through and through, one to easily sing along to, as all the tracks on the album are instrumental. The live videos are also wholeheartedly recommended, which add invaluable perspective on how ESB recreates these songs.

Last Updated on Sunday, 08 December 2019 21:23  


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