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V.A.: "Pop Ambient 2011"

img  Tobias Fischer

When Kompakt, three years after emerging as one of the leading techno-labels, initiated the Pop Ambient series in 2001, it must have seemed like artistic suicide. The very inclusion of the word 'pop' in its title suggested acidic irony at best and a watering down of the imprint's alternative spirit at worst. In the end, the exact opposite has turned out to be true. Over the past decade, the steady stream of new volumes has created an all but incomparable archive chronicling the history of atmospheric music in general and the continuing evolution of the Cologne-based label in particular. Its general direction has intriguingly tended not towards more accessibility but rather towards increased complexity, musicality, depth and ambition: While the first installment was still marked by a reductionist philosophy and the art of loop-building, 2004's edition prominently featured acoustic instruments and the careful use of song-structures - a novum back then, but something firmly ingrained into the general stylistic vocabulary today (in fact, Dial's widely praised celebratory 2010 compilation from last year was notably marked by the exact same organisation). The norms of the series are clearly under constant negotiation, not merely picking up on external developments, but  following an inner discourse as well. As part of this process, each edition has been awarded a distinctly personal sound and conceptual twist, awarding it a strong sense of coherency and the sensation of listening to an artist album rather than a sampler. Taking these aesthetics to another acme, Pop Ambient 2011 certainly doesn't represent an  exception to that rule.

In fact, this year's collection has turned out one of the most quintessential and archetypal of the entire lineage. Despite a handful of recognisably sweet and luminescent excursions into the lands of haze and heavenly softness, a pervasive gloom and haunting sense of morbidity permeate the twelve pieces spread out over the record's epic seventy minute duration. In a sense, it would be safe to assert that it isn't just the Pop Ambient series that has grown here, but its core audience as well: The same listeners which will today take utmost delight in Alva Noto and Blixa Bargeld's „Bernsteinzimmer“, programatically positioned at the very start of the journey, would most likely have hidden underneath their beds in 2001, scared to death both of its string-ensemble-meets-industrial-textures-approach and ghostly lyrics dealing with a withdrawal from the realms of the worldly. Already the track titles indicate a move into alien territory and an embrace of nocturnal themes: „Make the pain go away“, „The other side of you“, „Dunkelraum“ („Dark Room“) - just like the rose depicted on the front cover, this music is never just plain beautiful, but  confidently struts its thorns as well. The notion of entering a terra incognita is palpable here: While Jörb Burger, on the aforementioned 2001 Pop Ambient debut, still paid tribute to the contagious side of Kraftwerk, the contribution of BVDUB, ten years later, sounds like an intricate remodeling of Tangerine Dream's „Love on a real train“, a far more obscure piece taken from an 80s Tom Cruise movie, smacking of erotic desires and forbidden pleasures.

Pop in this context refer to the tendency of the genre to usurp and assimilate  as many different influences and inspirations as possible. The press release quite seriously mentions black metal (Crato's „30.6.1881“) and romantic  symphonics (Thomas Fehlmann's take on Gustav Mahler's „Titan“, a co-operation with the Toronto Symphony under the baton of Kent Nagano) as inspirations on the material and the only instance the traditional bubble-gum-meaning of the term faintly shines through is with Mikkel Metal, whose paper mache drum computer beats and dreamy atmospherics, however, are quickly taking things to an altogether different plain. In an insidious move, the relations between an uncompromising underground stance and finely nuanced mainstream sensitivities have been reversed, with experimental sound art leaving an indelible imprint on the material. Listening to these pieces blindfold, one would hardly expect this to be a Kompakt release, but rather one by a high-quality boutique labels dedicated to the intersection between neoclassical, drones, folk and experimental electronics.

This, on the other hand, should be understood as a compliment. If acts like Bvdub and Michael Northam start appearing on the imprint's releases without ever seeming like foreign objects, then this only goes to prove that the two sides, still frequently held to be each other's opposites, are caught in an irreversible process of mutual rapprochement. On Pop Ambient 2011, repetition and beats may have all but disappeared as structural elements, to be replaced by space and sonic development. But what still makes this sampler stick out is its clear focus on melody and an inviting transparency in terms of arrangement. A perfect example for these developments is Wolfgang Voigt's „Rückverzauberung“: In its opening bars, Voigt introduces a lush and mysterious string progression, which others would easily have repeated ad libitum. Instead, he subjects it to various rounds of effect processing, cutting it up, recontextualising its building blocks and transforming them to and beyond the point of recognisability. And yet, this is never art for art's sake, but an emotionally gripping and, in the positive sense of the word, entertaining work, which makes for equally exciting and endearing late-night listening sessions.

To some, this new direction may prove to be too much, taking the music far beyond the genre's basic premises as defined by Brian Eno in the mid-70s. And yet, one should expect Pop Ambient 2011 to overcompensate this loss by the attraction of an even larger crowd of new devotees. After all, the willingness to take risks has served Kompakt well for more than a decade now.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Kompakt Records

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