[9 January 2007]
Music-making technology and techniques have developed considerably, but ambient music has changed little since the ‘70s. Cosmic krautrockers still loom large over the pop landscape—Neu’s stringent repetition, Ash Ra Temple’s barely-there guitar brushstrokes, and Tangerine Dream’s sci-fi synthesizers directly and indirectly inform everything from Keith Fullerton Whitman’s laptop drift music to Marc LeClair’s aquatic extra-minimal techno. The works of contemporary composers like William Basinski and Alva Noto aren’t very far removed from seminal pieces by Brian Eno and Harold Budd. Each year scores of anonymous young experimenters release discs that could pass for ‘90s home listening masterpieces like Slowdive’s Pygmalion and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works. And this lack of conscious innovation sits just fine with most listeners—ambience is about alluring timbres and subtleties, simple sounds born of equal parts craftsmanship and pure luck. This is, after all, music you’re supposed to be able to ignore.
So those coming to Pop Ambient 2007 in search of shock and awe have the wrong idea. The seventh of primo German electronica label Kompakt’s yearly round-ups of all songs shimmering and wispy, this year’s compilation boasts a number of familiar names and even more familiar tropes. If you have a taste at all for this kind of stuff, you’ll find no more rewarding annual one-disc overview, and if you’re a diehard, the selection of rare and exclusive tracks should suck you in as well.
One of this edition’s main draws is “Nach 1912”, a rare track from electronic music legend Wolfgang Voigt’s long dormant Gas project, available for the first time on CD. One of the album’s more engaging cuts, “Nach 1912” pivots on a dubby bassline and boasts one of the comp’s only drum machine beats. The washed-out melodic oscillations atop the insistent rhythm make this track more of a surreal trip than a pastoral comedown. Little distinguishes the track from standard fare by other late ‘90s headphone techno artists like Pole, though, so it’s certainly for the best that it’s again available at a reasonable price.
Another standout, The Field’s “Kappsta”, also features percussion prominently. The song’s a simple one—the beat’s four-on-the-floor, and the Juana Molina-like glitched vocals vocals that accompany run in a tight, consistent loop—but it possesses a confidence and palpability absent from wallpaper-y fare like Andrew Thomas’s “I Am Here Where Are You”. Which is enough to encourage us to stay tuned for the upcoming full-length on which “Kappsta” will appear.
Meanwhile Klimek offers a bit of a surprise with the plaintive “Ruined in a Day (Buenos Aires)”. Music to Fall Asleep To, the act’s 2006 LP, lived a bit too well up to its name, but this piece sounds verdant and vibrant, with strands of spliced guitar and piano echoing ad infinitum in a way that would make Fennesz grin. Orb member Thomas Fehlmann also provides a compelling, meditative track. “Next to the Field” rides the overworked line between folk and electronica more successfully than it has any right to, seductive vapor trails emanating from delicately plucked guitar.
Other contributions are merely nice-enough. Popnoname’s “Hafen” sews and formless blanket from nondescript clusters of blurry tones, Triola’s “Das Wunder der Kulperhütte” blandly evokes clouds with its gentle masses of treble, and Ulf Lohmann’s “Lai King Est” ends before you realize it’s begun. These songs’ dryness is inoffensive, though, and ambient is one genre in which “inoffensive” isn’t a pejorative.