Various Artists
Pop Ambient 2001






It is very rare to review an "old" compilation. Why the hassle if there are many subsequent entries with newer material? Because Kompakt's Pop Ambient series is something very special! It offered a new take on the Ambient formula by adding warmth, thickness and multilayered synth washes to the genre. What was once ground-breaking is nowadays quite a bit retrogressive or, if you will, "simply more of the same." I can understand that many people want a stronger, more transparent progress and a bolder revision of the formula. I, however, really like both the variety and consistency of the series that started way back in 2001 with material that was created in 2000. Pop Ambient 2001 remains a feast for Ambient fans who long for the melodious, warm and mollifying spectrum of the genre. Its thermal heat provides a great energy source during the cold winters in Central Europe, the U.S. East Coast and the Sibirian parts of the world. I do not want to talk circuitously about my motive and will get to the point: I review Pop Ambient 2001 due to nostalgic reasons. As groundbreaking and at the same time intimate as it was, it holds a special place in my heart, and I have listened to the fluffy synth thickets of the ten featured tracks time and again. Big names like Wolfgang Voigt, Markus Guentner and Ulf Lohmann are gathered here for the first time, setting the cornerstone of a genre that is oftentimes saccharine to the maximum, but so mellifluous and catchy that I don't care about the coolness factor. In fact, the whole series has always been humble and intimate. The songs on this edition were chosen by label co-founder Voigt. The importance of his choices has always been high, but never were they as crucial as on this first entry. 

The compilation launches with the now iconic synth washes of pure sublimeness and bliss of
You Don't Fool Me by Joachim Spieth. Originally featured on Spieth's EP of the same name, this track is one of the pinnacles and beautifully carved out blueprints of the genre. It is based on one of the most gorgeously warm loops I have ever heard. Their phantasmagoric shimmer transports heat, contentment and shelter. A dubby bassline is added later before the song swells down again. It is this very juxtaposition of both ingredients that is so unbelievably gargantuan, and this is one of the genre-establishing tunes I advise to every Ambient listener in particular and lovers of electronic music in general. But be careful, you can get lost in its deep alcoves. Up next is Ulf Lohmann's Because Before, or to be more precise, Because Before 3 as it is titled on Lohmann's debut album Because Before, released a few months after the inclusion on the compilation. A quote from my review is applicable in the given context: "Launching with dark but solemn synth pads and traversing brighter parts, the upcoming echoes 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." The distantly ecclesial nature of this beautiful track is winterly, but not in the frosty kind of way, for the composition depicts anything but coziness and happiness that grows and prospers as it progresses. The third track is yet again something very special: Voigt's Alltag, or rather Alltag 1 as it is called on his EP of the same title he released under his moniker All. I don't want to seem overly lazy, but since I have written a few words about the Alltag EP, I will interweave them here as well: "Alltag starts off with a tremendously positive vibe due to multilayered synth washes that are so overwhelming that the percussive elements, possibly short and backwards played acoustic guitar notes, are barely audible. This is one of my favorite Ambient tracks ever. An interesting music video of this track is added as a bonus on the Pop Ambient 2001 compilation, but it can also be seen on YouTube. The video literally visualizes the concept of multiple layers in the song by featuring flat 2D surfaces of a winter landscape – a ski resort – that are laid over each other via parallax shifts." It is the synergy of the video with the music and the matching pictures in my head that make this track a Pop Ambient hymn of the finest order. It is the third track in a row with a fuzzy mellowness and multiple layers.

Dettinger's Repeater is almost experimental in direct comparison to the previous trio of tracks. Reversely played synth streams and shakers are accompanied by scattered but rhythmic beats. It is by no means a 4/4 club track, but the dropped beats are indeed earth-shaking. The slight melancholy of the swirling synth base frame presents a first counterpoint to the glistening blithesomeness, but it is the salving kind of nostalgia, not the heavy, crestfallen one. Up next is Jörg Burger's Men Of Many Sayings, another regular contributor to the series. This song is released under his alias Geometric Farms, but all in all, he is much better known for his moniker Triola. Men Of Many Sayings has his trademark sound all over it nonetheless: melodious Dub basslines merge with icy shakers and whirring synth streams that are much more focused and quite a bit thinner than the opulent structures of the local tracks. A melancholic eight-note motif is played on an electric piano and looped for the largest part of the track. It is not a perfectly warm offering, but the melancholy works well in white, winterly surroundings. Up next is a remix of Alltag called All (Remix). Wolfgang Voigt is at the controls again, this time under his Mint alias. The track is actually a club-compatible song akin to his releases as Wassermann, but I cannot imagine this track being played in a stroboscope-heavy venue, for its beats may be pumping in 4/4 time, but the eight-second loop that resembles the tonal qualities of his Alltag songs are – you've guessed it – warm and saccharine.

Markus Guentner's Regensburg is next, and it is the only progressive Pop Ambient track on this first entry. Taken off his EP with the same title, the song launches in a solemn, churchly style with a minutes-long introduction section full of clinging synth bells with a slow fade-in of darkly bubbling monotonous synth strings that later turn into a vestigial three-note scheme. The bells fade out eventually, leaving these dark drones as the only audible source and allowing an undisturbed glimpse at the textures and repetitive patterns. As implied above, Regensburg is the only track on this release that ends in a different manner than it started. Having grown up near a church as depicted on his 2012 Talking Clouds EP, Guentner harks back to his childhood memories even more overtly on RegensburgReinhard Voigt's Premiere World is next, possibly referencing a German Pay TV channel that ceased to exist for a long time. The song is a proper Pop Ambient tune with a catchy eight-note motif whose crystalline structure shimmers in all colors of the rainbow. The synth pads are punchy and yet colorful, and the louder the volume level is adjusted by the listener, the fuller and more captivating the song becomes. Its layers are seemingly easy, but the cave-like atmosphere is so soothing and mellow that this can be considered as one of the strongest and forward-looking tracks. It is rapturous and definitely entrancing. While Gustavo Lamas' Mañana is so bright that it is almost bedazzling due to its echoey bells of frost, the hazy fragility of the backing synths but also due to the surprising tranquility that results from these opposing devices, the final 10+ minutes long second piece Pilot by Markus Guentner is a mind-blowing composition that evokes highly melancholic feelings and an aura of loneliness. Gloomy, reverberated pulses of deepness merge with gelid synths and icy clangs, and although my technical description does not do Guentner's offering any justice, the totality of its cleverly interwoven Clicks & Cuts devices as well as the wide hollowness of the virtual room and the resulting sustain of the synth pads make this a great re-take on the soon-to-be established Pop Ambient formula: it is not necessarily about the thickness of the synths, but their clever integration with spaces, pauses and fissures that are then carefully filled with sound waves. A superb outro to a wonderful first entry.

Pop Ambient 2001 is a terrific and genre-broadening entry of a long-lasting series. That the majority of this music comes from the feather of German musicians – minus Gustavo Lamas' Mañana – is a curious fact, but perfectly natural since the Kompakt label was established in Cologne, and not too many international artists were on board right from the start. Things have improved over the years, with illustrious artists such as Andrew Thomas from New Zealand, Simon Scott from the Fens of England or Pass Into Silence from Japan contributing greatly to the genre, further diversifying the formerly narrow concept of saccharine synth washes. Pop Ambient 2001 is definitely a highpoint, and that is even more impressive if you consider the fact that this is the first entry. I am indeed overly lachrymose in regard to this release, but I am very sure that listeners who have never encountered the series before are able to react in strong favor to it, as the balmy synth constructions don't sound dated at all and can work best during the colder months of the year. Just consider the first string of tracks. They are all classics by now, and not at all your ephemeral ditties in a fast-moving business. The series provides shelter and lets you feel right at home. It provides one of the best launches I can remember. Utterly recommended and a very important first piece of the ever-expanding mosaic.




Ambient Review 154: Various Artists – Pop Ambient 2001 (2001). Originally published on Dec. 5, 2012 at