Those of us who love the label have learned to cherish the eccentricities of Kompakt’s house design. Kompakt is acclaimed for stark minimalism, and their CD packaging is no exception to this. Everything is printed with the same boldface caps font, a rounded Ariel lettering whose appearance conjures as definitive a visual identity as that claimed by any record label in the last twenty years. To see the no-nonsense Kompakt logo on the back or spine of any CD is to be invited into a momentary sensation of ineffable pleasure, a pleasure of anticipation built on long associations with a brand that has earned the highest levels of trust.
So it is not without a degree of hesitation that I regarded the advent of Kompakt’s Pop Ambient series. Certainly, the familiar aura was evident, the warm lettering and utilitarian design sense that we find so endearing. But—ambient? Certainly, a label so intimately associated with the cause of minimalism would find the lure of that most minimal of genres irresistible. And yet, ambient as a genre is frequently abominable. Not to put to fine a point on it, but there is often a fine line between even the best ambient music produced by electronic producers and that produced by so-called “New Age” musicians. I would argue that it is extremely difficult to do ambient music well, for the reason that any genre that prides itself on quietude and simplicity naturally runs the risk of becoming little more than a rustic diversion—space-age postcards of deadened tranquility, music sapped of all but the most rudimentary qualifications.
Unfortunately, much of the music presented on Pop Ambient 2006 falls squarely on the wrong side of this divide. Pass Into Silence’s “Iceblink” epitomizes some of the genre’s worst tendencies, with sweeping synthesizer chords and isolated notes plunked in echoing expanses. “Baghira”, by Markus Guentner & La Grande Illusion, returns to the sweeping synthesizer motif (a seemingly unavoidable ambient concession), but this time there are soft guitars being gently picked and what appears to be soft French horn accents in the distance. Unfortunately, these two tracks occur fairly early on the disc, and they set the tone for the majority of the album. Even many of the better tracks still make use of so many of these same rudimentary elements that it is, at times, difficult to draw a conclusive judgment as to what is actually interesting and what is merely dross.
Thankfully, Alex Patterson and the Orb arrive just in the nick of time. Patterson is rightly considered one of the architects of modern electronic music, and his explorations into the common denominators of house, dub, and ambient successfully laid the groundwork for almost every artist who followed in these genres. Almost unique among the contributors here, Patterson infuses his track, “Edelgrun”, with a dub feel not dissimilar to what you might expect from a Pole album, with gentle rhythms emerging from the strumming of warped guitars and hand drums. Ambient music does not necessarily preclude rhythm, as many artists seem to believe. Another artist who plays interesting tricks with rhythm is Kohncke / Heimermann, who’s “Albatros” is not only an unlikely cover of the Fleetwood Mac hit but a stylistic homage to vintage Popul Vuh. Anyone who remembers their soundtrack work for the Werner Herzog classics Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God will immediately recognize that distinctive flanged guitar.
There’s good stuff scattered throughout, even if the best tracks still contain unmistakable reminders of the genre’s worst attributes. Andrew Thomas’ “M+K” is a surprisingly poignant mélange of off-key minor chords, and the effect is not dissimilar to what you might expect a Samuel Barber dub plate to sound like. Speaking of which, Erik Satie shows up with “Gymnopedie”, covered here by Klimek—the track is docile but still quite melancholy, the crystalline plucked strings recalling the modern folk movement, with its febrile musical imagery, as much as anything else. Dub recurs again on Triola’s “Tropfstein”, one of the few tracks here that actually succeeds in building a modicum of tension through a slowly escalating rhythmic structure.
Popnoname’s “Wandel” is, frankly, disconcerting, a minor-key dirge filled with sinister allusions bracketed by only minor concessions to lighter textures. Pop Ambient 2006 works best when the musicians remember that minimal music is not necessarily an invitation merely to create comforting melodies and calm horizons—like any music, it can also challenge the listener. The question is, how to do so in a quiet manner?