German electronic music label Kompakt has been used to the tight schedule it gave itself. Every year, it would release a Pop Ambient collection and a Total collection. The imprint has always been very diligent about this until 2013, when Kompakt threw itself a little celebration commemorating its first 20 years in business. And we can hardly blame them. If you ran a label that pedaled obscure electronic music with little commercial potential for a solid 20 years while watching the music industry crumble around you, you would pat yourself on the back, too. Now that the party is over, Kompakt have thrown themselves back into the compilation whirlpool with Kompakt Total 14. It’s very large — 25 songs over two discs, 79 minutes for the first one and close to 78 minutes for the second — and therefore comes out varying in quality. There are no stinker moments to Kompakt Total 14, it’s just that some tracks are more engaging than others.
One of the more difficult aspects of the collection is how homogenized the first disc is. “Take Control” by Gui Boratto and Coma and Hell is a fine-enough example of a catchy dance track sprinkled with just the most minimal of arrangements, but placing it next to Kölsch and Gregor Schwellenbach’s pleasant if uneventful “Cassiopeia” just hides it all the more. Tempo, dynamic range and keyboard timbres on most of the first 12 tracks start to sound more conventional than they actually are. That’s too bad because it otherwise gets off to a great start. Dauwd’s “Lydia” and COMA’s “Atlantis” are prime candidates for dishing out that feeling of urban isolation. But by the time you get to “Delta” by Superpitcher, a Total exclusive, you’ve heard the same beats too many times before. Again, an unfortunate thing since the shifting bass and a creepy use of vocal samples do make for a unique backdrop.
It’s on the second disc where we move away from the light boom-tick-boom-ticks that overwhelmed the first one. The unique elements of Kompakt’s current roster are sharpened within just a few tracks, giving you flavors of electronic music that you may have never tasted. This exotic feeling starts with the sublime bouncer “Unter Hölzern” by Thomas / Mayer and transfers over to a digital shuffle by Thomas Fehlman named “Eye”. Michael Mayer takes us to the lounge with the Matias Aguayo mix of “Lamusetwa”, a slimy, noiresque toe-tapper that no listener could soon forget.
The arrangement for “Die Fette Gazelle and the Hidden Sixpack” by the Modernist is treated more like a pop song that happened to pass a DJ’s mixing desk. But that’s why the label has an act like GusGus in the first place (at least I tell myself that) and their mellow pop track “This Is What You Get When You Mess With Love” is nice but neither makes or breaks the collection. The concluding number “Heuriger” by Jürgen Paape, however, is something to another one of those moments that takes the album out of its hard electro ground and spices it up with something completely unexpected. The beat is propelled by a thick and happy offbeat and the main rhythm section sounds like a polka band. A very dated keyboard plays an easy figure that saunters over the top, expecting nothing and receiving little. When thrown together, it’s terrific. And leave it to the Voigt brothers to create yet another track that can stand out in a sea of 25 of them. “Tischlein Deck Dich” is another piece of pseudo-goof that layers its cake with unfamiliar guitar samples, tinny horns and a modest two-note figure that sounds like a toy. Excellent.
And so with Total 14, Kompakt reinforces what the world already knew about it — that it has a front and center seat for experimental beat-driven electronic music that enjoys playing with and then surpassing expectations. More of the same isn’t always such a boring thing.