Ulf Lohmann
Because Before






The debut album of Kompakt Record’s Pop Ambient heavyweight Ulf Lohmann is actually a collection of his two EP’s Because and Before, both of which are gathered on Because Before in their original running order for convenience purposes. All eleven untitled tracks made it to the album, nothing has changed. And change of any kind wasn’t needed back then, because the album’s existence is valuable solely due to it being produced during the exciting heyday of the new Pop Ambient movement that spread from Cologne all around the world. Naturally, excitement and the Ambient genre don’t fit together, and indeed does Ulf Lohmann’s music little to surprise the listener in unexpected ways. However, this is only true in hindsight. Back in the pioneer days when the Pop Ambient concept was still carved and reworked by several predominantly German artists, Because Before is different in that Lohmann doesn’t rely incessantly on the omnipresent thickness of the synth washes. Sure, they are in there as well, but quite often, the compositions seem to contain lots of spaces and tend to be underwhelming on the first or second listen. But sooner or later, one hopefully realizes that they fit together flawlessly with their dreamier, even mellower brethren. The variety of the offered material is unsuspectedly broad, ranging from pulsating sinecure reveries over the manifold whale-like melodies to the pure bliss of the pompous interplay of synth-related forces.


Because Before 1 is a highly melancholic track and as pathbreaking an Ambient tune as it is foresightful for one particular reason, namely the interweaving of a distinct acoustic guitar string with glistening bells, a loop of a hazy field recording, thin synth pad melodies and ecclesial organ-like washes, all of which are further accompanied by clear-cut percussion … and a rudimentary breakbeat! The mentioned acoustic guitar wasn’t used too often or prominently in the first Pop Ambient releases by the various artists signed to Kompakt, or if it was, it was filtered and multiplied in order to create a silky texture. Only a few years later did the use of stringed instruments arrive in full force, with artists like Klimek, Triola or Markus Guentner & La Grande Illusion relying boldly on the guitar as a track-carrying device, with the synthesizer goodness as a slightly less important element in the tracks. Because Before 1 isn’t the ultimate gateway to this trend, I presume, but it foreshadows undoubtedly the things to come on this subgenre and is hence aesthetically valuable despite its curious load of counteracting elements and the beat. Because Before 2 is one of my favorite vignettes, starting with Kraftwerkian 8-bit bleeps and famishing pulses à la Daphne Oram or Ursula Bogner, but enhances this emptiness with the warmly glowing fuzziness of a warped and dizzy piano loop. Again, this formula wasn’t part of the typical Pop Ambient releases of that time, making it a strong little sunshine-laden skit. Finally, Because Before 3 is the first pure Pop Ambient track that found its way on the first Pop Ambient 2001 compilation. Launching with dark but solemn synth pads and traversing brighter parts, the upcoming echo of the synth bells in unison with the equally echoey synth string hodgepodge in the background create a capsule of shelter in which the listener can almost literally bathe. This is one of Lohmann’s strongest tracks with an utter beauty attached to all of its constituents.


Because Before 4 marks the first entry of the so-called whale song offerings. That particular meandering synth string is typical for Lohmann and inherits both the feeling of a positively arcane antiquity and the tonal similarity to the pitched-down majesty of whale songs. Distant wind chimes and corsucating synth washes complement the main melody. The whole song consists of one loop only that is repeated time and again, as all ingredients are already there from the start. A terrific and peaceful loop-based Ambient tune. Because Before 5 is a strikingly sad and isolating song, presenting a similar main melody like Because Before 4, but here it is set in minor, and the minatorily quavering backing synths and their spluttering pops make this a heartbreaking, loneliness-evoking song that will surely find its fans, but is all too grim for my liking. Luckily, the short Because Before 6 leaves the crushing atmosphere as it moves into a territory full of Far Eastern mystique with looped echoey acoustic guitar structures that end with fizzling. A dubby bassline is introduced shortly before the end. This is yet again an atypical Pop Ambient take that strikes off the synths completely – even the bassline seems to derive from a bass guitar. Because Before 7 brings back that shining downpitched whale synth in a three-note incarnation with a rapturous aurora of omnipresently synth string pulses and deeply embedded clicks. It’s a towering track of a positive fogginess. While the heavily loop-based Because Before 8 harks back on the welcome whale synth formula and merges its trembling superstructure with loops of gurgling water, the mystical dusky glows of the three-note loop in Because Before 9 are clearly inspired by Gas’ final and aptly titled Pop album. The song is as majestic and ceremoniously as it is rather deep and post-apocalyptic. The thunderous pads cut rhythmically through the synth heaviness. The ultra-short Because Before 10 brings back the whale sweeps for the last time and can be considered an afterthought or addendum to Because Before 8, but the final Because Before 11 takes the cake by presenting a superbly angelic synth melody whose soporific qualities are tranquilizing and becalming. Slightly metallic scintillae in the background plus a constant layer of pink noise create an entrancing moiré of peace. This one might be too dovish or placid for Pop Ambient fans, and yet it has its distinct qualities not heard on any other song of the album.


Because Before is way too new to be seen as an instant classic yet. But future generations of Ambient lovers will probably be interested in it due to the various Pop Ambient-related blueprints and concepts that are merged on this release. The glowing warmth of the otherwise reduced orange front artwork points to the mellifluous, golden days of the new Ambient concept from Cologne. Depending on what you want from an Ambient release, whether you want to be surprised, taken to different places, cure last night’s hangover, need a little inspiring background music or stop your work for a moment, this album cannot fulfill all your wishes. But it is, I believe, an important contemporary document both for the history of the Kompakt label as well as for the new Ambient style. Of course it is permissible to get rid of any nostalgic feeling and see it as just another Ambient release. But even in this case, Because Before shows Lohmann’s particular style of not relying on heavy synth washes. While these seem to work almost all the time, the Cologne-based artist plays with the juxtaposition of space and sound, with blurry piano sunbeams as well as with his signature whale-like synth that inherits both the – admittedly distant – sound qualities of these animals and the arcane New Age-esque solemnity of these synths. But this is not meant as a degrading remark, for Lohmann intermixes this particular synth setting into the gleaming yet slightly hazy loop-based ambience. These sound elements have their comeback on Lohmann’s 2005 EP On Frozen Fields which is a fitting appendix to this album, as are his regular contributions that are scattered throughout Kompakt's Pop Ambient compilations.



Further listening:
You can listen to Because Before for free on this link to Kompakt.fm




Ambient Review 079: Ulf Lohmann – Because Before (2001). Originally published on Jun. 6, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.