Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
Were it not a well-known fact that the Kompakt techno label hails from Germany, one might be inclined to think of the label as being Swiss-made, their copious output so rhythmically precise so as to seem like clockwork. When -- so many years ago -- I reviewed their fifth entry in the label’s Total series, a handy compiling of their vinyl output for that year, the CD’s punctual release was like that of an almanac, as dependable as the changing of the leaves and autumn harvest.
The past few years though, I have become wholly unable to keep up with the label’s mechanistic output, be it their continued Speicher singles series, the Total compilations, or even the big album releases from the likes of Superpitcher, Matias Aguayo and Michael Mayer. And yet, when in mid-December a CD of Kompakt’s annual Pop Ambient compilation dropped through my mail slot, it was a refreshing arrival. The Pop Ambient series (now in its 13th year) seems to arrive at the exact same time every year -- about the middle of December -- right after End of Year lists have been filed, with Top 10 or Top 50 rankings fussed over for weeks, a year’s worth of listening and re-evaluating crammed into a few hectic weeks between major holidays, holiday-shopping and travel-booking while hand-wringing to make sure every relevant track or album has been loaded into iTunes and auditioned.
Its raison d’etre feels simple enough: Komapkt’s mighty roster of techno/trance/house producers sift through their hard drives for the beatless miniatures that they craft far from Berlin superclubs, in the wee hours. It’s music for soundtracking mornings, to lullaby children to sleep, to quiet the mind on a commute, or after a night of clubbing. And after such listening to big, meaningful, critically-consented-to, year-encapsulating, Zeitgeist-y fare for year-end considerations, the latest Pop Ambient entry is always a welcome respite for these over-taxed ears. That each cover shows a flower in bloom underlies its purpose, a brief glimpse of aural beauty amid the bustle of modern life.
When the 2013 edition arrived, it was my go-to first-listen of the day for the cold last weeks of 2012, something to soundtrack the whistling of the kettle, the grinding of beans, the bubbling of oatmeal, something to not exactly listen to, but to leave on, to allow it to become wallpaper. I’d replay it again with afternoon tea, or when dusk fell at 4pm, again when reading right before bed, its crystalline melodies mingling with the whistling of the radiators. Pop Ambient serves as an alembic, a palette-cleanser, something to leave on in the background as the first bone-chilling day of winter arrives, the wind gusting at the windows, snow wafting about against a gray sky.
And it’s only this year that I realized how often I utilize these discs during such blustery days, even if I would be hard-pressed to distinguish between 2004’s or 2007’s or 2011’s entry. They’re indistinguishable, in the best possible sense. It was news to me that this year marks the first pop ambient delicacy from label co-founder Michael Mayer, who generally releases glittery, hands-in-the-air techno anthems on albums cheekily entitled Mantasy. “Sully,” which opens that album in more muscular form, emerges here as a gossamer, hazy thing.
These tracks, coming from folks like Aregentina’s Leandro Fresco, Triola (a pseudonym for Jörg Burger) or Kompakt founder Wolfgang Voigt (whose diaphanous albums from the 1990s made as Gas are an obvious touchstone for the entire series) evoke memories, half-remembered things. There’s a moment when a piano line --sustain pedal firmly pressed-- begins to melt away like an icicle, reminding me of one of Erik Satie’s compositions, which themselves served as precursors to Brian Eno’s own concept of “ambient” music. And at album’s end, there’s an exacting cover (courtesy of Kompakt star Matias Aguayo working with Burger as Terrapin) of Pink Floyd’s “Cirrus Minor,” who themselves melded classic rock moves with space-enhancing atmospherics.
We all know that flowers bloom but for brief moments before wilting and fading away. And all too soon, it’s time to consider new music, the first sounds of 2013, the albums that will vie for my consideration for the next eleven months. Already, Pop Ambient begins to move towards the bottom of my listening pile, perhaps never to be heard again. Such ephemeral sounds only add to its charms though. And come December, like clockwork, I’ll be awaiting its quiet splendor once again.
Pop Ambient 13 is out this week via Kompakt.