The first of Kompakt's Pop Ambient compilations appeared in 2001, one year after the Cologne label's co-founder Wolfgang Voigt released his last album, Pop, under the GAS alias. Voigt is responsible for curating the series and creating its distinctive floral artwork, but the four albums he released as GAS arguably instantiated the genre. Now eight albums deep, this series of beat-driven, minimal ambient music makes the title of the final GAS album appear and sound like a statement of intent and not the half-joke it probably seemed to be at the time.
This year doesn’t differ much from previous years in that many of the contributors and the album’s overall impression remain basically the same. In 2007, the series' aesthetic bled perceptibly into other idioms, subtly changing the framing of the term “pop ambient” and its goals, musical and extra-musical. The textural collages built around delay pedals that make up roughly half of Deerhunter's Cryptograms point to the compilations in particular. The success of another 2007 release, the debut LP from The Field (who contributes "Kappsta II" to this compilation) led listeners to the Pop Ambient series in a more direct way: the original “Kappsta” appeared in the 2007 edition. The critical attention paid to both of those records, which lent the former a certain nonspecific experimental credibility and further established the latter’s uniqueness, will inflect the way most of us hear this record even as the musical content remains much the same.
The series thrives on the combined, frictional awkwardness inherent in its two namesake genres. "Pop" is non-specific but ubiquitous; whether or not we seek it out, it leaves its imprint on every cultural product we consume. It's high fructose corn syrup, a binding agent that makes ideology taste better. And naturally it's a metaphor for money, one that’s closely managed despite the permeability of its borders. The idea of ambient music, on the other hand, seems more determined and hermetic despite the fact that the notion had almost reached middle age by the time the term “pop” was born: Satie coined the term “furniture music” in 1917 while “pop” started to circulate in the mid-1950s. The two terms clock each other from across the room of history: “pop” is nominally public music that aspires to privatization and monadic consumption (as embodied in iPod ads) while ambient is, at least in Brian Eno’s formulation, inconspicuous music that aspires to public ubiquity. The two intersect forcefully and formally, however, in that they are both non-teleological.
Of the 12 tracks on offer here, only a handful truly benefit from earbud scrutiny. “Oceans Day,” a track by Markus Guentner, opens and sets the tone for the collection: at its heart is a sustained digital tonewheel swell, worried by incongruous, phasing clicks and developed by disembodied bits of acoustic guitar dub. The track seems meant for lossy, reverby settings; the qualities that accommodate themselves to physical space seem overly insistent, almost anxious on headphones. On the other hand, Ulf Lohmann’s “My Pazifik” is near-Reichian in its rigorous, pharmaceutical calm. Two of the compilation’s best tracks imbue the genre’s bedrock minimalism with classical squalor: Klimek’s “The Ice Storm” and DJ Koze’s “Nymphe und Schäfer.” The first lifts a swell of strings from a k-holed Brahms and chips away at its post-romantic façade with hi-hats that could chap lips. The second begins, appropriately, with the sound of crickets before fading in a languorous, symmetrical strings sample, digitally distressed to give the impression of listening in, standing on a stranger’s lawn, to a skipping record as he dozes off. Such a liminal image may well stand for the whole series.