VA: Kompakt 100

I'll admit that I was initially a bit surprised by the format of Kompakt 100. Aware that the Cologne label was preparing to celebrate its 100th release in grand fashion, I anticipated something like a Kompakt Total x 2 release featuring twenty or so new tracks; instead, we get two discs of twenty-one remixes, with roster artists re-inventing their favourite tracks from the label's catalogue. Information accompanying the release eschews the normal hyperbole but instead astutely characterizes the collection as an “encyclopedic overview” that showcases Kompakt's genius for “constantly re-defining the limits of techno music.” Certainly it is comprehensive (in spite of the obvious limitations imposed by a two-disc span) as well as a representative overview of the label's styles and artists, and, based on the evidence, there's no exaggeration in claiming that the label has continually redrawn the techno landscape with each new permutation. Upon due reflection, the remix concept now strikes me as just about perfect: the label honours its past by focusing on its existing catalogue yet its present (and, by implication, future) is celebrated too when the remixes are such fresh and radical re-inventions.

What qualities make Kompakt's 'Cologne sound' so distinctive and identifiable? Imagination for one, as the artists are infinitely resourceful at finding ways to spin new compositional and melodic variations while keeping the 4/4 groove firmly in sight. While the sound is advanced and sophisticated, it's relatively conservative too; no Kompakt track will likely be mistaken for one from Raster-Noton or Orthlorng Musork, for example. And Kompakt tracks will rarely be called minimalistic, as expansive arrangements imbue the imprint's music with rich dimensionality. Yet there's no denying the label is adventurous too, as shown by its Pop Ambient and Schaffelfieber branches. Kompakt resolutely goes its own way, its focus too strong to be jarred by trends that arise elsewhere.

The comp's tracks typically find a perfect middle ground as traces of the originals are retained with new material generously added by the remixers. Consequently, we get double versions of Superpitcher's “Tomorrow” that are so differently handled they're virtually two different songs aside from the common vocal elements that appear in both. Naturally, every fan will be tempted to decry the omission of personal favourites (mine would include Jürgen Paape's “So Weit Wie Noch Nie” and Michael Mayer's “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” and “Speaker”). But fixating too greatly on what's absent seems misguided, as even the most perfect collection must operate upon the fundamental principle of exclusion. The more enlightened listener, on the other hand, revels in the wealth of electropop, schaffel, techno, and ambient glories that are here.

The set opens in ambient mode with The Orb, whose version of Ulf Lohmann's “Because Before” is even more beautiful and grandiose than the original. Lohmann's up again, this time his “Because” given a slinky boogie treatment by Thomas/Mayer. Sascha Funke takes Thomas Fehlmann's “Radeln” for an irresistibly smooth ride through lush microhouse climes, as does Jonas Bering with his crystalline, spectral version of Dettinger's “Intershop.” Another highlight is SCSI 9's transformation of Lawrence's “Teaser” which becomes an almost unrecognizable facsimile of the moody original. The see-sawing strings and sampled vocals in Lawrence 's version intermittently surface but, in SCSI 9's hands, it becomes a propulsive, bass-driven dance mix. Many of the tracks features vocals with two in particular standouts. Never, for example, has German electropop sounded as delectable as it does in The Modernist's buoyant version of Justus Köhncke's “Weiche Zäune.” Even better is Köhncke's and Meloboy's radical overhaul of Freiland's “Frie,” here rechristened “Frei/Hot Love.” It's turned into trashy Euro-pop with soupy strings that ooze just the right amount of kitsch. Perhaps the best of the lot is Kaito's magnificent treatment of Superpitcher's “Tomorrow.” Kaito adds layer upon reverberant layer to the original's vocal until hi-hat showers and bubbly bass lines elevate the song to a higher plane where it ultimately becomes mesmerizing, anthemic trance.

Naturally, the collection isn't without its flaws, although they're generally of the minor variety. The elephantine noises that DJ Koze adds to Reinhard Voigt's “Zu Dicht Dran,” for instance, hardly elevate the track above the original, but such moments are brief blips in the continuum. In general, Kompakt 100 is a bona fide event that celebrates not only the label's deep catalogue and the very fact of Kompakt's existence as a label, shop, and distribution company. It has re-configured deeply our conception of what techno is and what it can be, and its music has consistently forged unpredictable, bold paths. No matter how incomplete it might be, Kompakt 100 provides a wondrous sampling of the label's riches.

August 2004