The crisp clear autumnal mornings have coincided with the release of “Pop Ambient 2016”. It’s perfect music for a cold walk through London, its wordless beauty providing a backdrop to the frosty start to the day. The cover photo from Highgate Woods a couple of years ago is an example of a ideal morning for this crisp beatless music. The creator of the compilation, Wolfgang Voigt, was inspired by regular walks in the woods, albeit slightly more hallucinogenically enhanced than mine.
This is the 16th of the annual “Pop Ambient” series of compilations. The “Pop” in the title is a bit of a misnomer. The “Ambient” certainly isn’t. The series captures what is happening in the quiet glitchy world of ambient music in a given year. For those not familiar with the genre, I would suggest having a look at my earlier post here which described Brian Eno’s role in propagating the music.
The compilations are put together by the Kompakt label. Based in the Belgian Quarter of Cologne, Kompakt are purveyors of fine electronic music, first via their record store, Delirium, in 1993 and then via the Kompakt label from 1998. The label is owned by Voigt, his brother Reinhard, Jörg Burger, Michael Mayer and Jürgen Paape. All of the owners release music under their own names, pseudonyms and in collaborations. They also distribute music recorded for other electronica labels.
Wolfgang commented in Wire Magazine in May 2008:
It’s always been one of my visions to have a kind of Factory a la Andy Warhol, a space for artistic expression or a castle you never have to leave if you do not really want to.
The “Pop Ambient” series is one of two regular annual series that Kompakt release. The other is the “Total” series, which collects together more techno/dancefloor orientated output on a double CD. All of the “Total” releases can be enjoyed around the home or on headphones though. The “Pop Ambient” series are usually 60 minutes or so long with typically a dozen tracks. They all feature delicate digital flower photography on the sleeves and the natural theme is very much a constant.
I personally have enjoyed all the recent “Pop Ambient” albums. Whilst ambient is often thought of as background music, there is more to these compilations. With the majority of the pieces being shorter than some typical ambient stuff which can run up to an hour, it doesn’t work its way into the ether. There is enough that is changing progressively to engage the listener. It sounds more like a dance compilation which, given the label’s background, is hardly surprising.
I saw Voigt perform under the “Gas” moniker in the Barbican cinema in 2009 in London. I say perform, but the evening was Voigt controlling the material for 80 minutes from a lap top. The music and visuals had the same arboreal motifs running through it with the visuals in particular changing and morphing continually as if walking through a cold dark forest. The music wasn’t pretty new age sound washes though. This was physical stuff, with as much a sense of foreboding as opposed to peacefulness. When I went to the Carsten Holler exhibition at the Hayward Gallery earlier in 2015, there was installation called The Forests that conjured a similar experience.
The music does work well in a live environment but it needs the visuals to provide some theatre. I saw Voigt again in 2011, this time playing with Jörg Burger at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to promote the “Pop Ambient 2011” compilation. Alex Willner of the Field, also on Kompakt, played a solo set, again the same mix of electronica and images. By way of a contrast, I then saw Willner perform as The Field at Alexandra Palace in 2013. This time there were no visuals – the performance was part of a festival and took place in the afternoon. Willner was accompanied by a bass player and a drummer. It was a thrilling set, with sense of momentum similar to the classic Neu! sound.
It is Voigt in particular who steers these releases. He sees them as providing breathing space for the remainder of the label’s output.
The new album features a mix of new and old Kompakt artists. The artists are mostly European but with exceptions. Leandro Fresco is Argentinian and our good old Brit friends The Orb (remember “Little Fluffy Clouds” for instance?) are also featured. The Orb’s 2015 album “Moonbuilding 2703AD” is a real delight by the way. The background of some of the artists such as Fresco, Dave DK and Thore Preiffer’s is the dancefloor. Others such as Stephan Matthieu and Max Wurden come from a more experimental acoustic art background. The mix in backgrounds contributes to the variety of the tracks on offer. Many of the tracks are in a similar vein to the music of Susuma Yakota who sadly died at the early age of 54 in March of this year.
I’ve picked out a few examples of what is on offer on “Pop Ambient 2016” illustrating the sound art music against the dancefloor background.
The opening track is “April im Oktober”. The title is apposite with the sound of the track redolent of the green shoots of spring peaking through the brown leaves of autumn. The slow sweeping electronic chords are perfect for this time of year. The track is performed by Stephan Mathieu. Mathieu is a self taught German electronic composer. He is also a drummer and amongst others as collaborated with that great enthusiast for experimental music, David Sylvian.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dave DK’s track “Veira”. DK’s real name is David Krasemann and his background is the Berlin club scene. The track included is a remix by the aforementioned Leandro Fresco. It is the punchiest track on offer with an actual beat and vocals, which is unique for the compilation. It also has a sparkle running through it. I’ve got both DK’s album “Val Maira” and Fresco’s album “El Reino Invisible” and both are worth a listen.
Finally “Turns” by Sicker Man sits somewhere in the middle. Building from a single string insistently plucked, it gain momentum slowly and beautifully. I’d not come across Sicker Man before. His actual name is Tobias Vethake and he appears to meld his electronic background with “real” instruments, such as guitars and cellos, which explains the content of his “Pop Ambient 2016” track. He collaborates with Gregor Schwellenbach on the track.
Before I go, I thought it might be good to head way back. The attached is a video treatment of part 4 of “Zauberberg” by Gas, Wolfgang Voigt’s main solo project. All of the Gas albums have untitled tracks.This is from the second Gas album. The video is taken from shots of the Staglieno Cimitero, one of Europe’s largest cemeteries and famous for its monuments. It was built on the side of a hill as a result of Napoleon’s edict to removal burial grounds from churches and towns. Spotter’s badge for anyone that spots the statues that these two cheery classics are based upon. Both are taken from tombs in the cemetery.
The images and the music work perfectly together.