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Various Artists - Pop Ambient 2019 Music Album Reviews


Kompakt co-founder Wolfgang Voigt curates the latest in the label’s ambient series with a compilation of dark and moody tracks that reflect the best of what modern-day ambient has to offer.

When Kompakt launched its first Pop Ambient compilation in the winter of 2001, CDs were selling in massive quantities. The notion of paying $15 for one in order to get an hour-long mix of instrumental electronic music seemed perfectly normal. Kompakt even sweetened the pot on that inaugural CD—it included a trippy QuickTime video that you could play on your computer.

At that moment, ambient music was still understood within the context of rave, and hearing these sounds in a “chill room” while coming down from a night of drugs and dancing was for many still a recent memory. In the two decades since, ambient music has grown more ubiquitous while also losing some of its distinction. Vastly improved tools for the creation and dissemination of electronic music have led to a flooded market, and playlists of “functional” music have proliferated, giving casual music fans easy access to ambient music for any occasion. But in this time of plenty, individual artists can find it harder to stand out. In this climate, as the Pop Ambient compilations continued to arrive each year, it was hard not to wonder about the point of it all. Do these comps make sense in the streaming era?

For Pop Ambient to matter, a given record has to be coherent over its complete length. We should approach these releases as playlists, an invitation to a music experience that lasts for an hour-plus, with considered flow and sequencing. And since Pop Ambient is assembled by Kompakt co-founder Wolfgang Voigt, the man behind the influential ambient project Gas, we can hear each set as a reflection of whatever he’s into at a specific time. Pop Ambient 2019, which delivers as a playlist as outlined above, has something in common with the first edition, in that much of the music on it seems to exist in relation to Voigt’s contemporaneous ambient work. In 2001, that meant the warm, fizzy textures found on the 2000 Gas album Pop. And here, that means darker tracks with moody strings and gradually shifting drones redolent of Narkopop and Rausch, the two most recent Gas albums after a 17-year hiatus.

The most striking section of Pop Ambient 2019 comes in the middle of the set, where the Gas influence is most prominent. The tracks by Kenneth James Gibson and Morgen Wurde, are dark, throbbing coils of energy. Gibson’s track recalls the see-saw feedback drone of early Stars of the Lid, while Wurde’s “Schien Immer” is a drafty, vaporous swirl of gloomy strings positioned against a bright keyboard shimmer, like watching two suns on the same horizon, one rising, one setting. Gregor Schwellenbach’s tense and swaying “Rot 2,” which follows, also features strings, but in a neoclassic mode that brings to mind Arvo Pärt or Morton Feldman. The three tracks together work like a suite, and this 23-minute stretch of the compilation is heavenly, rich with feeling while emotional specifics remain just out of reach, representing the best of what ambient music has to offer.

The back half is heavier with synth-driven drones, and tracks by Thomas Fehlmann and Leandro Fresco take mix gliding, steady-state tones with soft whooshes and bass pedals that help them to breathe. Selections of generic ambient (see series mainstay Triola’s limply melodic “Arden”) are par for the course for Pop Ambient, but the set’s modest ambitions and comfort with slipping into the background make them relatively easy to overlook. Eighteen years in, Pop Ambient 2019 makes a solid argument for the continued existence of the series, ranking among the best of its installments.


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