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Various Artists - Total 18 Music Album Reviews

The label that defined Cologne techno may have uncoupled from dance music’s zeitgeist, but on its 18th annual compilation, Kompakt finds freedom in its ability to keep on Kompakting on.

Kompakt’s 18th annual label showcase opens with an inside joke: a track from the veteran Cologne producer Jürgen Paape called “Well, It’s Paape.” A little background: Paape is one of the Cologne label’s co-founders and a stone-faced fixture in its eponymous record shop; he’s also among the least prolific producers on the roster. Despite occupying the compilation’s pole position, he resurfaces in the least flashy way possible, with a rustling, shuffling techno groover that could just as well have appeared on 1999’s Total 1. That’s not a knock on the track, which nails the Kompakt sweet spot, that rare fusion of tough and supple, stern and pliant. Rather, it’s a way of saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Whole empires have risen and fallen in the dance-music world during the 20 years since Kompakt began documenting and codifying the sound of Cologne techno, where bristly minimalism met swooning synth pop and arthouse experiments went off on saucer-eyed rave benders. And as other sounds have come to seem more current and perhaps more urgent—first the uneven throb of dubstep and bass music, more recently the livewire sonics of a range of club styles that look primarily to Africa and the Caribbean, rather than the U.S., UK, and EU, for inspiration—Kompakt has come to seem less like a standard bearer and more like a niche concern.

But there’s freedom in uncoupling from the zeitgeist, and Total 18 proves that one of the label’s strengths is its ability to keep on Kompakting on. It’s not just “Well, It’s Paape”; many of the most satisfying tracks here could have come from any of the previous 17 installments in the series. Many of them are the work of the label’s inner circle. Tobias Thomas and Michael Mayer’s “So Mad” is a slyly spooky haunted-house ride complete with carnivalesque chords and a wraithlike vocal hook. Jörg Burger’s “Petra Kelly” harnesses the luxurious synths of Violator-era Depeche Mode for a moody, slow-burning cut with a barely concealed snarl. The irrepressible Rex the Dog fuses electro-house chug with bleep-techno flashbacks. T.Raumschmiere’s spiky, vocoder-infused fist-pumper parties like it’s 1999. At the heavy end of the spectrum, Wolfgang Voigt—Kompakt’s paterfamilias, best known for his ambient project GAS—teams up with his younger brother Reinhard for an enjoyably DGAF techno brooder that sounds a little like a duet for kick drum and dentist drill. All of these tracks demonstrate a time-tested understanding of the way dance music often boils down to fitting the right sounds to the right groove. It’s not rocket science.

Happily, quite a few of the comp’s best tracks come from relatively new players. Sonns’ “Tame” sounds a little like a Scandinavian disco rework of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” trilogy. Tom Demac and Real Lies evoke both the Streets and Pet Shop Boys in a note-perfect take on the sort of melancholy deep techno that Superpitcher pioneered for the label in the early 2000s. Aaron Ahrends strikes the quintessentially Kompakt balance of quirky, seductive, and hard hitting. And ANNA delivers a big-room floor-filler that’s effortless in its execution. Why is her track demonstrably better than hundreds of songs traversing exactly the same acid-streaked ground? It’s impossible to say, but that’s why dance music is a dark art—and why the peak of Kompakt’s wizard hat is often just a little bit sharper than that of other labels.

Unfortunately, Kompakt can’t quite sustain that hit rate across the compilation’s 25 tracks. Many of the best selections are sequenced toward the beginning for a reason, and the album tends to sag as it progresses. There are no real duds—though Vermont’s “Dschuna (Dixon Mix),” a leaden cut pairing African chant with chamber strings, comes close—but more than a few songs either feel like filler or fall back on cliché. Animal Print’s “The Last Night of Laura Palmer” indulges in a gravelly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer; Enzo Elia & Musumeci’s “Gothic Safari” goes whole hog on—you guessed it—growling lions. Still, for every slightly generic cut like Anii’s “Korzenie” (Afro-Latin percussion, one-note bassline, predictable builds and drops), there’s another like La Marine’s “Flash,” which joins a killer vocal hook and a sleek rhythm with just the right amount of funny business. At moments like this, you can sum up the spirit of the label in only one way: Well, it’s Kompakt.

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