The Pop Ambient series on the Cologne label Kompakt has been running since 2001, and in well over a decade one release from that series stands alone: 2002, but why?
The simple and short answer is that not all albums are created equal. Just as Exile On Main St. is better than Beggars Banquet and The White Album is better than Revolver, so Pop Ambient 2002 is better than say Pop Ambient 2005. The only theoretical logic I can glean from this is that 2002’s proximity to the inception of the series meant there was a distinct focus on establishing it, whatever ‘it’ means? The brand? The style? The idea? The concept? There’s a consensus that Pop Ambient 2003, another early edition, is the best, so as a theory it’s as good as any.
But that theory is a bit of a cliché, and it’s appropriate because Ambient music is viewed with so many, and as such is still (relatively speaking) a niche genre. Many people’s aversion to ambient music is due to what it lacks – narrative. In conventional songs this is typically provided by lyrics and they’re imbued and or mirrored by changes in compositional structure and sequencing.
Most ambient tracks require the application of an external narrative, and all those that appear on 2002 are no exceptions to this. They’re composed of a locked groove, synths or a diluted or distorted string arrangement, which is then married with repetitive glitches or a set or sets of additional sequences that resolve and or bleed into the resumption of the overarching pattern.
Indeed the most celebrated ambient music is able to transcend the ‘limitations’ of this precept by being provided a pre-packaged meaning, either in its genesis or its branding. If you didn’t know that William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops series was inspired by its aftermath, would you associate it with the 11th of September attacks? How about Brian Eno’s (probably) sarcastically titled “Music For Airports”? Clearly this album is retrospectively and fairly celebrated as Eno was in the vanguard, and its title was making a statement that in an era filled with derided but popular genres such as Punk and Disco, ambient music was and should be considered, like, proper music too.
Pop Ambient 2002, and all of the releases in the series, takes a different approach – making the music the focal point and allowing each track to retain a thematic malleability. This starts with accessibility; the album cover is a flower, and the title “Pop Ambient”. This is still narrative driven branding of course, though here ‘Pop’ is used as a misappropriation, a feint attempt to entice an audience who may have an aversion to the ambient genre. Plus calling it just, just “ambient” seems haughty. The insertion of the Pop prefix could double as a passive aggressive retaliation to how pretentious (careful now) ambient music can be and how precious its makers can be in defending its worth.
Facts are thin on the ground for some of the tracks and who they’re by. ‘Tal ’90’ by Tal is an exception as it is a pseudonym of Wolfgang Voigt, one of the founders of Kompakt. Voigt’s regular use of aliases is surely an attempt to prevent lazy and insignificant comparisons with works under other his monikers, such as his rougher dub oriented work as ‘Gas’. In a culture obsessed with contextualisation and a desire to apply it wherever possible, it’s welcome that Voigt’s focus on accessibility through employing degrees of anonymity makes the music impenetrably arcane and somewhat immune from the cliquish evangelical snobbery that pervades music criticism.
‘Tal 90’ is good choice to open the album. Its ten minute melancholic synth loops gently, replete with subdued static. It could easily be the soundtrack to a image only Terence Davies-esque documentary of Stasi activity in 1970’s industrial Dresden during a harsh winter, or it could be a soothing ambiance you can get stoned to whilst staring at the ceiling. There’s no right answer or hidden meaning to be deciphered here.
‘Sommersonnenschein’ (which in English means ‘Summer Sunshine’) by Novisad, follows a similar formula to ‘Tal 90’, albeit with its layers fusing with frenetic frequency. Strip away its other elements and the string arrangement could underpin a Joni Mitchell or CSN song. It has an engrossing distorted glitch that’s sped up so it sounds awfully similar to torrential rain hitting the windows on a conservatory roof. The soothing wooing of an (almost) fluty melody, a simile of light even, cuts through the drone’s gloom and marries perfectly with the strings. Does it make me think of summer sunshine? Nope, and having translated the title it still doesn’t.
On repeated listens elements within each track reveal an affinity with one another, such as the hazy strings of ‘Sommersonnenschein’ appearing on ‘AG Penthouse’ by Triola. ‘Java’ shares the verbosity of ‘Tal 90’, but diverges structurally, relying upon a bed of subtly elongated classical instrumentals that are mildly distorted and elongated. The unobtrusively stunted and blunted chiming effect on ‘Java’ becomes fulfilled over cushioned beats on ‘Donaunebel’. ‘Grount’ by Dettinger, a spaciously minimalist effort, also features chiming, but this is used as the main melody and is punctuated with distortions of small animal like cries that dissipate softly amid a circulating squeaking noise that shouldn’t be satisfying but somehow is.
Splitting the tracks up into efforts that evoke an elevating or melancholic mood doesn’t work, as each track contains quantities of both. Eventually they’ll be matched to the moods and surroundings you feel they’re synonymous with. However, with the Pop Ambient series being compilations, it’s appropriate that there are attempts made at showcasing the variations of the genre. ‘DD Rhodes’ by Jz-arkh (which could easily be an emcee from Brooklyn) heads towards the easier, lighter scale of the spectrum. It borrows the Basic Channel build – with the gaps between the slow vibratos eventually being filled by a shimmering sequence that reveals more with each repetition. ‘Dry Retch’ by Donacha Costello has a morose artifice in the utilisation of sinister base chords that agonisingly navigate their way amid a series of stock accents. During the crescendo these are infused with higher pitched watery inflections and further embellished with an intermittent popping hiss, akin to pressure building in your central heating pipes. It’s the album’s most austere track, but in the right circumstances just as calming.
Upon purchasing an album some folk tend to listen to the last track first. This never made sense to me. I mean, imagine skipping straight to the last five minutes of The Usual Suspects? But as a broken clock is right twice a day so those numpties would be right here, as ‘Alles fliesst nichts bleibt’ by All is a real tour de force. It merges the orchestral glide of ‘Donuabel’, the richness of ‘Tal 90’, the repetitive glitching of ‘Java’, that subtle chiming found on ‘Grount’, and Sommersonnenschein’s strings for seven minutes of soothing bliss. In the unrelenting media driven age that implores us to consume as much of its information as possible and tempts us be as ubiquitous and competitively vocal through its mediums, ‘Alles fliesst nichts bleibt’ and the other tracks on Pop Ambient 2002 has become a great antidote.