Pop Ambient 2012
I‘m mentioning Kompakt‘s Pop Ambient compilations all the time in many a review, so I might as well get serious and review the latest installment of the long-running high-class series and allow it the place in the limelight it deserves. Let me tell you in advance that I am very fond of the Cologne compilation for personal, nostalgic reasons, as many good things happened to me in the winter months when each entry is usually released. However, even when taking an entirely objective stance – if that‘s even possible –, the music press acknowledges the importance of the the series. In 2012, the series is still surprisingly stripped down, humble and doesn‘t take itself too important, providing the perfect environment for enjoying the music either as a background sound wall, while working at home or with your attentive ears wide open. As usual, there are flowers featured on the front artwork and the contributions of the 10 artists on the back. None other information is given, it is all about the music and your relaxation. It is as if the time stands still and nothing has changed since 2001. This is exactly the feeling I want to preserve when listening to the Pop Ambient series, and despite two experimental tracks, the 2012 entry keeps things mellow and streamlined, giving the listener exactly what he or she expects.
Manifesto by Mohn, the new project of Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt, opens the disc and is a remarkably thick and corpulent track with 15-second long punchy and dark synth pad pulses whose sustain is accompanied by vaulted dub bass lines and muffled sizzles. The concept of space and sound is of importance on this track: after each synth burst follows a fragility that is even more brittly due to the swirling bass lines. A towering intro track that is incredibly dusky – especially when only the blurred synths and bass lines are heard – but nonetheless soothing. Jackson is the first Ambient track by dance combatant Superpitcher. A howling synth string is accompanied by much more prominent synth pads of warmth and brightness. A thronging, vestigial piano loop enters and quietly shimmering bells fade in for a short time as well. The piano loop grows larger and overtakes the song and builds the focus. Everything fades out a few moments after this high point. Pan by Morek is next, and Kompakt makes a big secret about the artist‘s real name behind the pseudonym. However, he is said to be known in the Kompakt universe. Anyway, Morek delivers the warmest track on this release with slowly pulsating acoustic guitar chords that are warped almost beyond recognition. Rain-like burbles and sudden slightly oriental tottering pluckings of a stringed instrument enter the mix. The intertwined peacefulness of the background strings with the playful warmth of the oscillating counterparts makes this a mellow and yet lively track. Coming up next is Magazine, the project of Daniel Ansorge, Jens-Uwe Beyer and John Harten. Their inclusion is a huge surprise, for their style of sawtooth Kraut rock and glacial static noise-fests doesn‘t make them a logical conclusion. They are nonetheless featured on this volume with their very own remix of the song The Visitor‘s Bureau, and boy, do the guys achieve great things with a standard formula: leaving out the beats of the original in order to let the synth pads shine. On top of this, however, they complement these pads with compellingly spectral synth washes of cherubic quality. The whole mood remains icy and in the realms of airy spirits. A rather cold song due to its elevated nature, but richly textured and very thick. Triola‘s Richmodis follows and is similar to Mohn‘s Manifesto with its clanging background pads, but swirling laser-like sound effects, tone shifts and reverberated hi hats make this a livelier track. The mood, however, is the same. It is deep and yet brightened by fade-ins of magnificent wind chimes. A spellbinding track and a huge favorite – Triola delivers on every Pop Ambient release, and his entry on the 2012 edition is no exception!
The second half begins with Rückverzauberung 5 (meaning re-enchantment) by Wolfgang Voigt. He picks up the threads he left on the 2011 release which featured Rückverzauberung 1 and merged ecclesial strings with shimmering high-frequency square lead orchestrations and placid sections. The fifth rendition is surprisingly postmodern and jazzy in that it features eerie pianos, coruscating xylophones, incisive accordions and mercurial background strings that further enhance the juxtaposition of despair and mystique and the oscillation between contentment and craziness. Voigt has always been known for his blending of orchestral music with electronic synthscapes, but it is on Rückverzauberung 5 that the real instruments take over the reign with the electronic strings as their subordinates. Even though this track is horribly incongruous on Pop Ambient 2012, the music itself is utterly brilliant. I don‘t know if many people appreciate it in the given surroundings, but I for one like it really much! Next is Bvdub with one of his typically long track titles. Your Loyalty Lies Long Forgotten consists of various multilayered monotonous synth strings. The drone factor is light, but the atmosphere is deep due to the coldness, the repetitively wobbling piano notes and the crescendo near the end when the faux-choir synths get louder and more intense. This track is for the lovers of monotonous but cleverly fleshed out Ambient that features multiple layers that work in unison but are traversed by the occasional cacophony or opposing elements. Swans Reflecting Elephants by Marsen Jules is an unexpectedly drum-heavy tune with staccato improvisations on a classic drum set, icy cymbals, piano sprinkles and warm synth pads. This is yet another track whose melancholy is utterly beautiful, but purposefully broken by the clarion performance on the drums. I am not particularly fond of this style of Ambient music, so this track doesn‘t do much for me, but the synths are modulated flawlessly and the piano melody is salient. The penultimate track is For Martha by Simon Scott. I am a big fan of his drone Ambient, and all the more surprised by both his inclusion on the compilation and the shift in style he presents here: this is a proper drone track with accompanying scintillas of entrancing angel synths, but the predominant mood is foggy and sad and meanders between three different monotonous parts of which two are played two times and are grouped among a multitextured pulsating core. This song craves for your attention as its synths are dominant and stern. The final track is provided by Axel Willner of The Field fame. Here, he releases an Ambient piece called Riding The Bikes under the name Loops Of Your Heart, and the style presented on this tune is similar to Klimek‘s Milk And Honey album. Willner‘s contribution is built on an acoustic guitar loop with wind swirls, gently cascading acid remnants and gleaming background synths. Again, this is Ambient music which I generally don‘t like – the loop is too obtrusive and I don‘t dig the whole construction. In fact, the parts I do like are too quiet and happen in the background. A rather weak closing track in my opinion, and I very much prefer Willner‘s tunes he delivers under his moniker The Field.
The very good news is that Kompakt‘s Pop Ambient series is still alive and kicking, offering more of the same soothing sounds with no huge surprises, which is fine by me. Not everyone is fond of the same old formula, however. Andrew Gaerig sums it up in his review for Pitchfork as follows: »PA12 is damned by its place in a series that grew stale several years ago.« And you know what? He is right! However, as with every tradition, habit or nostalgic artifact, I embrace the timelessness and the permanent repetition of the formula. Since I am also a huge fan of Exotica music, this is easy for me to say. The world keeps spinning around me, and I am sitting in my hut and dream about the old times. Isn‘t that … negligent? Whatever it is, I am truly looking forward to every new entry in the series, and it is surely no ironic coincidence that of all things Pop Ambient 2009 is the compilation which I am the least fond of – and which altered the well-known formula heavily with the focus on eschatological soundscapes and acoustic guitar pluckings. Am I a person living in the past, a boring maverick waiting for any change to disappear? The answer, generally, is no. The answer in terms of the Pop Ambient series, however, is yes, and I admit that this is a sad fact. It‘s just that I‘ve grown so accustomed to the series and that all of its volumes remind me of cozy fun times in winter with grey skies and white streets; I also keep coming back to each volume very often, so they don‘t fade into the distance. Since this is a highly personal feeling, I cannot get rid of it without getting rid of myself. I can therefore totally relate to listeners and reviewers who favor more exciting and changing Ambient concepts to the veteran series of all Ambient compilation, and if I try very hard to let loose of my rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, I get their point. But I want the Pop Ambient series to continue featuring more of the same with only slight alterations and experiments. So far, my wish was their command, and I am looking forward to the following years.
Not exactly a further reading, but a listening opportunity, for Kompakt allows you to listen to the whole compilation for free on their Pop Ambient 2012 section.
Ambient Review 037: Various Artists – Pop Ambient 2012 (2012). Originally published on Feb. 15, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.