If ever there was a time to write an essay about the futility of attaching scores to record reviews, this is it. Wolfgang Voigt, co-owner of the well-regarded Kompakt label, finally puts on CD the four ambient dub albums he made under the Gas name for Mille Plateaux in the late ‘90s, and he puts them out as one four CD set. Four discs, 26 tracks, with enough superficial similarities as to wholly confuse the uninitiated, no song titles, no vocals or words, one beat (used sparingly), four and a half hours.
The question of whether or not Nah Und Fern is good is almost mind-bogglingly pointless, as well as hard to parse. At any given moment, the music is likely to be beautiful in at least one of several ways, as an immersive total experience, these four discs are captivating and maybe even life changing; they tend to reward total commitment and vast apathy on the listener’s part to about the same degree; the vast majority of people who don’t spend their time reading record reviews would probably think your stereo is broken if you played these for them; you are almost never going to listen to them casually; they are a staggeringly ambitious and accomplished piece of work or works; they could conceivably put you to sleep; they have no role in most peoples’ lives; they could soundtrack the whole damn thing if you were willing to take it that far; they are not music; they are music taken to its most ravishing extreme.
Are we doing a buyer’s guide? Then on the basis of historical/culture importance, these are seminal, gorgeous recordings, given a very nice package, and anyone who has ever heard Pole or Basic Channel or Echospace (or, for fuck’s sake, Collected Ambient Works Volume Two) needs the collected works of Gas if they have somehow not obtained it already. But given this collection’s relatively limited run and availability, as well as the starkness and vastness of the music, it’s hard to recommend to most people. If you do buy this, you will almost certainly listen to it very, very occasionally, for it is the musical equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank (and on headphones, the effect multiples until it makes you feel like you’re in Altered States or something).
Are we building canons? Voight’s work as Gas is some of the best, most beautiful examples of a form that few people work in, let alone live in, a form that also makes trying to describe why he’s good incredibly hard; you try explaining why one 15 minute, drifting, endless soundscape is better than another. The four albums – Gas, Zauberberg, Koenigsforst and Pop – are all deservedly and indisputably classic, and the progression that Voigt makes over their course means that there is enough variation here to make each disc worthwhile, even with the others around, as well as ensuring that a trip through all of Gas Und Fern is a rewarding journey. While all four albums have their place, listening to them in a row benefits the Eluvium-prefiguring Pop especially; after three-plus hours of variations on the same bluntly soothing/numbing template, the relative, yes, popness of those seven tracks comes out of the blue, and by contrast seems like the most perfect melodies ever devised by man. You could even say the box as a whole is worthwhile simply to experience that effect – after doing it myself several times, I’m tempted never to listen to them apart again.
Am I trying to give you insight into the experience of the music? I’ve been listening to it on repeat for days now, with the occasional break for either silence or music of a much more conventional sort (and if you’re bored with your listening staples, try some Gas – afterward, verse/chorus/verse never sounded so good, or so daring). I’ve listened to it so quietly it’s barely on, so loud it’s shaken the door to my room. I’ve sat unmoving, staring at my computer screen trying to encompass all of the music in my head. I’ve talked on the phone and not “heard” it. I’ve cared, not cared, loved it, hated it, thought “anyone could do this,” been so moved by a particular turn in the sound that I knew only a true artist could have created it. I thought that I could productively listen to nothing but ambient dub for the rest of my life, and wondered why I was wasting all this time listening to a producer warp loops until you could no longer hear the orchestral, polka, brass band, synth pop, schlager sources, as iit became one rich smear. The damn thing has maddened me, trying to figure it out or figure my reaction to it out. Like, say, David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE, I’ve decided it works best if you just sit there and let it wash over you. I imagine I will file my copy away and not touch it for months or even years, and then stumble upon it again and listen to nothing else for a week.
I guess I could try and split the scoring up, give each disc its own number; they would all be pretty high, certainly. But from the new, unified title on down, these discs ask you to treat them as parts of one mammoth work, phases in an exploration of what Voigt refers to as “different zoom, loop and alienation techniques.” The result, in total, is so uncompromising, so completely successful in achieving its aims, and those aims are so far removed from what most people want or expect from music that a high rating is the only option.