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Reviews

Kompakt (various artists)
Pop Ambient 12 Simon Jay Catling , February 7th, 2012 12:05

If it was Wolfgang Voigt, Michael Mayer and Jurgen Paape's love of microhouse and techno that brought them together in the 90s, then the ensuing Pop Ambient compilations that run in parallel to Kompakt's showcase Total series has always felt like something of the science lab away from the main hub. It's the back room where they lose themselves away from the minimal percussive stops and whirring rhythmical loops that have defined them as an entity over approaching fifteen years.

Of course, in truth ambient has never really been that far from the fulcrum of many Kompakt releases, no matter how near the dancefloor they've ventured. Just look at Walls and The Field albums of last year, dancefloor music that wasn't even necessarily made with that in mind (The Field's Axel Willner makes constant references to the fact he rarely goes clubbing in his current residence of Berlin anymore). The edges of their four-to-the-floor beats were smoothed out, gently airbrushed away. Walls' Coracle was an LP as equally set for the solo listening experience as it was remix fodder for the Berghain or Panoramabar.

As far as this year's instalment goes, we get, of course, label co-founder and repeat contributor Wolfgang Voigt, with the fifth instalment of his 'Rückverzauberung' series. It's a restless composition that's come to typify his musical movements over the past few years, with cascading xylophone sounds and piano notes that feel as though they're dropped atop a flight of stairs to scatter downwards. They quiver together uncertainly, and result in by far the most challenging listening experience of the ten tracks here. Triola too is on typical form, 'Richmodis' plunging background and blurring piano chords in contrast to the thin-sounding cymbals in the foreground that splinter over its canvas. The two collaborate for the opening of the compilation too as Mohn, placing sporadic clusters of reverberating sound at distances apart from each other on 'Manifesto.'

Other returning artists include bvdub, whose 'Your Loyalty Lies Long Forgotten' sets a recurring chimed motif alongside vocals that stick for a moment, before being washed away among the background reverb.

Superpitcher, meanwhile, is somewhat closer to ambient pioneer Brian Eno's original intentions for the genre as "atmospheric music". In truth Aksel Schaufler has never been at his best on these compilations. His experiments are always admirable at this slow tempo, but far from as satisfying as the playful pop-based minimalism that's so enlivened his solo albums of the past decade. Marsen Jules is methodical on 'Swans Reflecting Elephants' too, yet his mix of soft and hard textures offers more interest, at times sounding like he's literally beating the soft tissue of the track with whatever he can find to hand. It's probably The Field's Axel Willner who impresses most out of the returnees, debuting his Loops Of Your Heart project with the closing track 'Riding The Bikes.' The warmest sounding track on the compilation, it gracefully unfurls around a blissed-out acoustic guitar loop.

Of the first timers, Morek's 'Pan' is flecked with tints of violin and cello amidst rainfall samples and more conventional sustained aural pleasantries, with fellow Cologne-based label/collective Magazine and Simon Scott opting to play it relatively safe. The latter's inclusion here is notable in its continuation of the label's long-held shoegaze influences, perhaps, but the ex-Slowdive man's 'For Martha' is more a symbolic nod than anything too intrinsically linked within the piece itself.

As usual, Pop Ambient 12 is a pleasant listen that offers a diverse range of methods with which to approach the term 'ambient'. There's a timeless quality to it all, as there is with much of Kompakt's output; they truly seem to exist in their own bubble, unconcerned with the fads and trends that govern the huge sprawl of electronic music in 2012, instead content to work away in their studios and labs. Though in the past attracting criticism for sticking too rigidly to their sonic principles, the label's belief in simply pursuing the music that they like now ensures that, almost 14 years on, they have acquired that rarest of things in an ever changing musical landscape: a sense of consistent identity.

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