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Celebrating 20 Years Of Wolfgang Voigt's Gas
David Stubbs , November 1st, 2016 07:43

Wolfgang Voigt's ambient techno project turns 20 this year and is celebrated by a new box set on Kompakt. Long term fan David Stubbs sees Gas as a bridge between Krautrock and "the great dancefloor movements of the late 20th/early 21st century"

For an immediate, extended introduction to the dense topography of Gas, I recommend track five on Königsforst, the third album in the Gas series, released in 1999. It begins with the ghostly, celestial, blast of Alpine long horns, a looming, three-note motif which reverberates throughout the track, rolling magisterially like fog passing over vast hills of tall pines. After a minute or so, a 4/4 beat strikes up, muffled and diminished, like an outboard motor on a lake below overwhelmed by mist. The track swells and recedes, ebbs and billows, coming and looping and overlapping again and again, inverting the conventional Techno relationship between rhythm and texture. Here, the rhythm, although as essential as a heartbeat, feels minuscule by comparison with the atmospheric surroundings, as if rural Germany has risen up and precipitated from a great height on the beatbox below.

What is Gas? It's the project of Wolfgang Voigt, co-founder of Kompakt records, who have released 21st century techno-ambient, minimal/maximal, micro/macro work by Justus Köhncke, Superpitcher, Gui Boratto, The Orb, Thomas Fehlmann, The Field, among others. A restless and eclectic consumer of music as a young man brought up in Cologne, whose tastes took in everything from James Last to Karlheinz Stockhausen, schlager to Scritti Politti, Schoenberg and Wagner to glam rock, he became disaffected by what he saw as the “tight-ass” rock and pop scene of the 1980s. Krautrock was a distant memory at that point, while in West Germany the energy of its unique take on post-punk (Einstürzende Neubauten), DAF, Der Plan, Die Krupps, Liaisons Dangereuses had dissipated overall, codified as Neue Deutsche Welle before evaporating in pop blandness. Since the late 1960s and the wave of experimentalists that included Can, Faust, Neu!, Cluster, etc, the battle of new West German music had been to establish its own, progressive identity, resorting to avant-garde methods to evade the imported cliches of Anglo-American music. This was, and perhaps remains, a perpetually losing battle – the consumer appetite in Germany for mainstream British and US trad rock is far bigger than for the likes of Faust or Amon Duul, or Liaisons Dangereuses, and in the 80s, its poodle-haired dominance was especially strong.

For Voigt, however, and others of his generation, the rise of acid house was a blessed release. He relished the “anonymity” of the genre, in which the imperatives of forming a group and striving to become a familiar pop face by playing familiar music were suddenly out of the window. Berlin flourished as a natural home to Techno but so too did other German cities, not least Cologne, where Voigt released a number of 12”s under a dizzying array of monikers, primarily Mike Ink but also ranging from All, Auftrieb, Brom, C.K. Decker to Vinyl Countdown, W.V., Wassermann and X-Lvis. These represented a revival in a great German tradition of the recent but also distant past – free-ranging, industrious, electric invention.

The four albums Voigt would release as Gas, however, currently being rereleased as a box set, represented his most towering achievements. They consist of Gas (1996), Zauberberg (1997), Königsforst (1999) and Pop (2000).

What is Gas? It happens to be the abbreviation for the geographical triangle of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, suggesting some all-Teutonic conglomeration, a corollary to DAF's “Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft”. However, when Voigt describes these albums as “GASeous” music, it's clear that the moniker is meant in its chemical sense. Each Gas track is a beautiful variation on the Königsforst track described at the top of this piece; a place where, as Voigt has said, “the forest meets the disco”, in which thick, epic, diaphanous waves of noise tumble across a phutting, muted 4-4 beat, in a deliberately asymmetrical relationship. But of what do these great, droning, shapeshifting clouds of sound consist? They're samples, but solid ones melted in the studio into air, their source unrecognisable given the intensity and the process of their slow heat treatment. We understand from Voigt that the derive from old Austro-German masters like Wagner, Berg and Schoenberg, as well as sundry pop records reworked extensively; a compound, released from all original context, a host of dead matter revived by 21st century studio alchemy.

The effect of Gas's music is international in its accessibility. Its colourised granules and uniquely scented atmospheres evoke a range of emotions, all of them essentially positive, resurgent, inspirational. Gas is too intrusive to be classified strictly as ambient but neither does its subdued beat make it killer dancefloor fodder. What is it good for? Among many answers, one I have found is as a soundtrack to jogging. A random mix of Gas tracks saw me round my one and only half Marathon in 2009 at London's Royal Parks. The padding beat provided an appropriate percussive accompaniment to my running stride, while the gaseous overmatter pumped slowly through me like endorphins, the cumulative repetitions assuring me that despite the monotonous and grinding nature of my task, I was doing all right, getting there, accruing mile after mile.

That might read as banal but despite the self-important air of dark ambient, amorphous electronica that evokes the downbeat nature of existence and its lurking horrors, making music that genuinely uplifts, without descending into jarring, partyhat cliches is a rarer commodity. Even in their most broody, dissonant moments, Gas tracks, in their myriad, inflected, abstract, sober, narcotic ways, energise and fertilise the weary spirit. Random examples: 'Zauberberg III', homing in like a Borealis, drawing slowly in and out in a ritual, luminous celestial dance, if anything too short at a mere 13 minutes. Track two from debut Gas, its grainy, nebulous swell pushing the needle into the red of distortion each time it pushes forth, kicking with a beautiful little back-twist each time. It's like some bass-drone abstraction of whalesong, synthetic and soulful. Or track five from the same album, like a distant sea siren pirouetting slowly to shore, its impending arrival causing splashes and disturbances in the nighttime lakeside water as its glow spreads across the rippling surface. Or 'Pop IV' from 2000’s Pop, last in the Gas series, the single most played track on my iTunes collection, whose silvery, encrusted, carousel motions represent the unlikeliest source of the purest pleasure I have ever derived from any recording, it appears. Or 'Pop VII', the album’s final, triumphant statement, as if the forests have indeed come down from the hillsides and taken to flotillas of boats, sailing towards us to restore a former magic to the world. All of the energies that make up the gas of Gas are sourced from all that he finds best in music, a riposte to the trad, mediocre celebrity driven actual pop of the eighties and certainly the 90s, to which these records offered an oblique and bracing alternative.

Gas's seeping effect is international but it's significant and important that they come from Germany. The forest is a recurring motif in the art work to the Gas album. Enclosed on three sides, Germany is a country of vast interiors whose forests have always been a well-spring of myth and sense of creative self. Even some of its most electronically minded musicians took recourse in the forest, Stockhausen and Klaus Schulze both making homes there. It was where early Germanic tribes took refuge as a base to repel the invader, it was where the Nazis derived a dubious sense of National Aryan identity, envisaging the New German as an authentic woodsman; it is the locus of fairytales and other representations of the collective subconscious. It was where Wolfgang Voigt went in his youth to take LSD.

Although Voigt does not particularly cite Krautrock as an influence, there is a connection between Gas and the great 70s experimentalists. Both are expansive, fertile soundscapers drawing on the topography of their homeland. Voigt once even talked of Gas as pumping rhythmically with the “deep soul of German Techno”. Both incline towards the instrumental, the electronic, soundmaking that paints pictures, to loops and repetitions, music that is at once very much about surfaces yet carries a deeper significance.

However, Gas are the link between Krautrock and the great dancefloor movements of the late 20th/early 21st century – minimal Techno, micro-house, and the more complex, crumbling derivatives of those scenes which have proliferated since. Gas records hove like slow tornadoes, bearing with them the broken-down detritus of the epic achievements of past musical times and show how these can provide the mass of tiny building blocks for new musics in our own times. 20 years on, they still rage with unexplored future possibilities.