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V.A.: Kompakt Total 12

img  Tobias Fischer

To Wolfgang Voigt, the implications of minimalism have always extended far beyond the realms of music alone. In keeping with his personal mantra of „less is more“, they've turned into a guiding principle for his own artistic output as well as the offerings of kompakt, the imprint he initially founded as a small record store in Cologne in 1993 with his brother Reinhard and, famously, first customer Michael Mayer. Today, kompakt has outgrown its initial insider-tip-status („We're not a small, but a medium-sized label“, Voigt stressed in an interview for German weekly Der Spiegel) and even turned into an industry leader when it comes to professionalism and technical savy, continuing their physical business into the present while embracing the opportunities of the digital era - with the label's portal representing one of the few genuine alternatives to the virtual megastore-monopoly of beatport. The latter is an important indication of where the enterprise is headed: Towards a status, where, paradoxically, the competencies built up over two decades in the traditional brick-and-mortar-business may turn out to be equally relevant as a know-how in developing tangible brands in intangible environments.

This is certainly true of the Total-series, an annual sum and summary of kompakt's finest moments, which has been running almost as long as the label itself. The temptation to blow up the compendium beyond all proportions must undeniably have presented itself at a time when the limitations of physical media no longer apply. And yet, the curators behind the series have contrarily taken a step into the opposite direction. While a conceptually comparable collection like John Digweed's Structures Two is making full use of the 21st century's unlimited bandwidth paradigm, squeezing a staggering forty four tracks into a single volume, Total 12 is returning to a slender seventy minutes of music. Rather than indicating a slowing down of kompakt's momentum or a drying up of the creative well, it is a conscious move counterpointing the unhealthy hunger for „more“ and an exercise in balance and grounding. In keeping with this approach, the focus has shifted back towards the label's core, to the founding trio and (albeit merely on the vinyl version of the sampler) to family-friends like Jürgen Paape, who was already represented on Total's debut in 1999. And so, already before the first note is sounded, the impression is one of compression, condensation, concentration and quality.

It is all the more remarkable that the compilation resulting from these processes sounds as eclectic and diverse as previous, far more epic efforts. Included on Total 12, among others, are Matias Aguayo's novelty-hit „I don't smoke“, a track so obnoxiously good-humoured and playfully stuffed with uplifting toy organs that, for an entire Summer, it managed to irritate and impress the entire community; „Remodernist“, on which long-time kompakt-family-member Jörg Burger stages a most welcome comeback of his Modernist-alter-ego with a blissfully hypnotic seven-minute magic carpet ride pierced by anthemic Underworld-style-guitars; „Playground Altona“, a richly layered soundscape deepened by on-location-field-recordings of playing children and a calmly pounding four-to-the-floor-kickdrum; or, conversely, Life and Death's remix of GusGus's „Over“, which celebrates the virtues of  skeletonism by riding on little more than a deep bassline and droney atmospherics haunted by ghostly figments of the original vocal line. As always, the action is taking place within the familiar square of pop, ambient, avantgarde and techno, a quirky concoction which seems to make no sense on paper but has found a perfectly natural home at kompakt, perhaps because these elements are connected less by concepts, but a shared sensibility for sound: Direct and yet detailed, transparent yet mysterious, glossy yet never over-polished, it feels like an emblemary watermark embedded into the very dna of the tracks and as though this multi-artist collection had been secretly masterminded by a single producer.

At the same time, there is a sense of fuzziness to Total 12, not so much in the sense of a lack of direction, but rather in terms of a delicate disorientation. While previous entries into the series would either seem to  aim for musical progress or at least mirror the status quo of a particular season, this most recent collection is testimony to a simultaneity of many different approaches, of artists both opening up to adjacent camps and nurturing ever more personal approaches. The contributions by the three kompakt heads are probably the most striking examples of this tendency. On Michael Mayer's „That's What I Told Sanchez“, delirious sound snippets are dancing on top of a Mexican-style techno-loop for eight minutes, Reinhard Voigt is penetrating to the core of a slow-burning pulse on „Guide My Hands“, while Wolfgang Voigt is entering into a zone of friendly bell-motives, crackle and operatic singing with „Frieden“ („Peace“), a gentle, almost self-forgotten mediation on silence and the sounds behind the music. To anyone familiar with the back catalogue of these artists, these compositions will no longer offer any unsettling revelations. Rather, they must be considered as fresh perspectives on familiar topics, like a sculptor returning to his pieces to add a few delicate corrections with his chisel.

Which points to what has always driven kompakt deep underneath its accessible surface: A cyclical view of history pared with the will to constantly question oneself. On closer „Tiefental“ by Mohn, the sequencers sound like psychedelic guitars and the drum machine like a spaced-out percussionist, but rather than presenting a vision of things to come, the music is wilfully carving out its own niche. Which is perfectly in tune with the fundamentals of minimalism: Stripping music down to the bone will not uncover the future, but a composer's personality.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Kompakt Records

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