Krautrock was a movement of German musicians fashioning a unique kind of exploratory, experimental psychedelia, which came of age in the early 1970s.
The name comes from the WWII epithet for Germans —krauts— and has, since, been disowned by many; the more PC (though not as widely used) usage being 'kosmische musik.' Krautrock has been described by musician/scholar/enthusiast Julian Cope as "a subjective British phenomenon," and the name personifies that.
Many of these German bands were provincial entities operating in isolation, knowing little-to-nothing about the music being made by their peers. However, when the records were discovered by listeners outside of Germany —like the British listeners tuning in to John Peel's incredibly influential show on BBC Radio— they sounded like a cogent movement operating within a singular sphere.
How it Sounds:
Like many alternative music genres personified by geography, the krautrock movement was more about proximity than similarity. But, there are definitely elements that unite all of the so-called krautrock bands together.
Chief amongst those is a sense of experimentalism, as personified by the pushing of compositional restrictions to their extremes. Krautrock outfits may, um, rock, but these are not rock'n'roll songs; the limitations of jukebox 45s razed as the bands jammed for whole sides of longplaying albums.
Jam bands and studio projects are usually thought to occupy opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but in krautrock the two supposedly-divergent ideals could serve the same artistic ideas. Can, for instance, were a crew of sweaty, hairy, mustachioed men who loved to play long and loud, to keep on jamming until they reached some heightened communal headspace. Yet, at the same time, their bassist, Holger Czukay, is one of the earliest, most influential artisans of studio experimentation; cutting up the tape recordings of Can jamming and splicing them into new forms achievable only through studio manipulation.
Krautrock bands were also early proponents of the synthesizer; acts like Popol Vuh leaning heavily on the signature sound of keyboards like the Moog. But, where other synth-centric recordings of the era attempt to be 'futuristic', bands like Ash Ra Tempel and Faust simply embraced the synthesizer as another compositional tool; introducing it to their experimental soundscapes without playing up its novelty.
Not many, really. The notion of krautrock as a single, indivisible movement is the main one. These bands were from different cities, rarely played together, and didn't feel any sense of community bonding them together.
Where the Name Came From:
On their legendary 1973 album Faust IV, Faust opened up with a 12-minute composition entitled "Krautrock." This was, however, not the founding of a term/ideology, but a reaction to how the English music press were already portraying the band. More than their German peers, Faust had made substantial inroads into the UK thanks to being signed directly to English label Virgin. Yet, the band had been bemused at how parochial and, well, racist many reactions to their music had been. Calling a composition —an eerie exercise in hypnotic drones that, sans chorus, could've been titled anything— "Krautrock" was their way of embracing an epithet, and taking ownership of it.
Years later, of course, all anyone knows is that Faust called a song "Krautrock," and that may as well have been where the name came from. Especially given it's hard to pinpoint which journalist/disc-jockey/punter/etc may've been the first to utter what was a very obvious, very English reaction to the music.
When it broke:
Like the best musical movements, krautrock never broke, exactly. It more slowly picked up steam over the years, becoming increasingly influential over the decades since the music flourished.
But, if we're to pick a moment in which krautrock arrived on the popular consciousness —when this loosely-associated collection of bands became perceived as a subjective movement— then Faust's arrival on English shores seems like the right one. Many of the krautrock bands may have been incredibly popular in their German homeland, but it was an ambitious marketing campaign by Richard Branson's fledgling Virgin Records that introduced the music of Faust —and, in a greater sense, of German progressive/cosmic music— to the audiences that would turn krautrock into a phenomenon.
Branson charged Faust with creating a sound college from previously-unused studio recordings —things that hadn't made it onto 1971's Faust or 1972's Faust So Far— that Virgin could essentially 'give away' as a way of introducing the band to British record-buyers. The result was The Faust Tapes, a not-a-real-album that retailed for the same price as a 7" single: 48 pence.
Legend has it that the label ended up selling over 100,000 copies to value-seeking shoppers, and, even if many didn't warm to its icy avant-gardism, there was no mistaking the fact that UK music fans now knew who Faust were.
The krautrock movement, as it was, is now long gone, effectively dead and buried. Yet, many of its chief practitioners continue to play and tour, and their influence on subsequent generations of musicians can hardly be understated.
Perhaps the first bands to be openly inspired by krautrockers —whilst still, I should qualify, forging a new sound of their own— were English post-punk acts like Public Image Ltd, This Heat, and The Fall. Further down the line, incredibly-popular bands who turned to studio experimentation as a means of staying artistically fresh —Radiohead, Primal Scream, Wilco— often cited acts like Can and Neu! as being inspirations.
Post-rock, as an entire genre, is indebted to the krautrock movement, effectively keeping alive the sound and ideas of the music in new ways. And the obvious influence of Can on Animal Collective means that, in a kind of trickle-on effect, many of the ideas and sounds heard on krautrock records are being taken on board by new listeners in an indirect way.