Music

Various Artists: Pop Ambient 2006

It is not without a degree of hesitation that I regarded the advent of Kompakt's Pop Ambient series.


Various Artists

Pop Ambient 2006

Label: Kompakt
US Release Date: 2005-11-22
UK Release Date: 2006-09-04
Amazon
iTunes

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?

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image