Various Artists
Pop Ambient 2004

Kompakt
2003
B-



ith the arrival of Pop Ambient 2004, the fourth installment in this annual series, Kompakt remains on course with its respective summer and winter release schedule for the Total and Pop Ambient series. There’s some strange comfort to be found in the regularity with which the label adheres to this plan, regardless of the tumultuous vicissitudes of change which reign elsewhere. As before, established Kompakt artists and new recruits contribute pieces that float unmoored upon serene ambient waters. Untethered to the signature beats of the label’s Cologne sound, the artists liberate themselves from one set of conventions while binding themselves to another. It’s a curious concept, truth be told, given the degree to which the label’s music is founded upon dance rhythms; the very idea of Kompakt ambient seems almost oxymoronic, at the very least a strange mutation when broached in the context of its familiar house styles. Furthermore, the ‘pop’ element only adds to the mystery, as there’s little aural evidence to indicate a pop song-like quality.

Other conundrums emerge, too, as one grapples with the merits of this latest chapter. If we use Brian Eno’s infamous definition as a guide (“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular: it must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” Music for Airports, 1978), do we condemn a piece for being too ignorable when being so would, on one level, seem to be the ultimate achievement? Do we bring to the latest installment an expectation of change from its predecessor, or does that also seem an inappropriate expectation given the static dimension of the genre? Ambient music apparently must be such that it’s capable of receding unobtrusively into the background while simultaneously being distinctive enough that it sustains the scrutiny of critical assessment.

Thankfully, less fraught with complication is the experience of listening to the music, all worrisome critical considerations aside. The fourth edition changes little in format or sound from the first three, although the personnel evolves each time with individual styles predictably evidencing unique qualities. In general, the sound is by turns blissful, sculptural, dreamy, and nocturnal, and in particular ranges between resonant guitar epics and towering synth atmospheres. Kompakt regulars Klimek, Wolfgang Voigt, Ulf Lohmann, Jörg Burger, Markus Guentner, and Donnacha Costello re-appear, while new recruits New Zealander Andrew Thomas and Japan’s Tetsuo Sakae make noteworthy contributions. The release is bookended by guitar pieces, with Klimek’s ‘Standing On the Beach (Gun in my Hand Mix)’, an incandescent sound sculpture of reverberant guitar shimmer, the opener. Some of the tracks are fine if unsurprising variations on already established themes. Ulf Lohmann’s ‘Audrey,’ for example, buries crystalline dubby echoes of bells within oceanic washes of ambience, and Markus Guentner’s ‘Damit Du Endlich Weisst, …’ is a thick synth drone grounded by minimal bass notes and tinkling chimes that grows so slowly in volume it’s almost imperceptible. Voigt dons his All guise for ‘Logopedie 99,’an extended drone that sounds like a hundred overhead electrical wires buzzing in unison, with different pitches overlapping pushing forward and elbowing others into the background. The two newcomers make lasting impressions. On Thomas’s two ‘Fearsome Jewel’ tracks, surging waves lap insistently against ambient shores amidst tinkling pianos and surface crackle, while Sakae dons the moniker Pass Into Silence for ‘Sakura,’ a gorgeous, sweet lullaby that eschews ambient washes for echoing pan pipes and gentle one-note melodies. The closer, Costello’s ‘To Thee This Night (I Will No Requiem Raise),’ is the longest track at almost twelve minutes and the most powerful. It exudes an epic, magisterial sweep as its layers of gently plucked and strummed guitars swell to generate a deeply melancholic mood. It’s hypnotic, cinematic music, evocative of wide-open plains of immense magnitude, that subtly segues from the opening guitar section into buzzing washes of hiss that gradually replace the guitar playing. The track becomes an exercise in deep listening, as submerged shuffles can be heard flickering deep inside the amorphous waves of hiss. It’s a spectacular ending as it pulls one even further inside the music as opposed to merely basking in its lush ambience at an aural remove. It’s a remarkable end to Pop Ambient 2004, another satisfying edition in Kompakt’s ongoing ambient series.


Reviewed by: Ron Schepper

Reviewed on: 2004-01-07

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