VA: Pop Ambient 2011

By now, the question isn't so much whether the annual appearance of Kompakt's Pop Ambient installment isn't predictable (of course it is) but more whether the sounds it presents are predictable too. While some of the contributors stray little beyond their established zones and the style associated with the series itself (e.g., Marsen Jules' “Once In A Moment,” a pretty but familiar riff on loop-based piano patterns, cymbal showers, and strings, and Jürgen Paape's “Ein Schöner Land,” a wistful meditation punctuated by strums and vocal swells), others attempt to change things up in subtle but significant ways.

Certainly the seventy-minute collection begins memorably with a melodramatic and portentous track from ANBB, the group project of Alva Noto and Einstürzende Neubauten member Blixa Bargeld. The sole immediately identifiable Alva Noto signifier in “Bernsteinzimmer” is the thick bass throb but the track otherwise distinguishes itself as arresting and unique, merging as it does weeping strings, whispers (calling to mind Chris Marker's La jetée), and Bargeld's brief but nevertheless fabulous vocal turn where a range of emotion, from defiance to resignation, is conveyed in little more than a few lines. Bhutan Tiger Rescue (Ewan Pearson and October) makes its debut appearance with “Beginner's Waltz,” a pretty setting whose simple keyboard motif and sleighbells lull the listener into a state of entrancement—despite a wave of grime that advances and threatens to overwhelm the gentle sounds. Likewise, the stately keyboard melodies of Mikkel Metal's “The Other Side Of You” immediately catch one's ear, and the slow, string-drenched unfurl that accompanies it proves to be just as lovely. bvdub's “Make The Pain Go Away” oozes heartbreak in the most beautiful manner in its melding together of vaporous atmospheres and mournful vocal figures. An occasional hint of encroaching dark ambient storms emerges in a couple of places, including Barnt's “Libretto,” a haunted evocation from Daniel Ansorge, co-founder of the krautrock-inspired label Magazine. Though on aural terms alone it would be possible to miss the connection, “Titan” is actually Thomas Fehlmann's take on Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (known as the “Titan”), a solo treatment that follows Fehlmann's October, 2010 appearance with members of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano. In truth, the eight-minute electronic drone setting would seem to suggest Holst's The Planets more than Mahler's first but is captivating nonetheless.

One thing that is noticeable is how relatively minor a role textural static and glitch plays in the collection and how symphonic the material often is by comparison. Wolfgang Voigt's “Rückverzauberung 1,” for instance, has more in common with Eno-styled ambient music than anything Gas-related, as Voigt purifies his sound and focuses on gentle synthetic string weaves above all else. In some respects, then, it's business as usual—not that there's anything wrong with that, as devotees of the series will attest—while in others, changes of varying kinds appear to be afoot.

February 2011