VA: Pop Ambient 2012

Kompakt's ever-reliable Pop Ambient series returns with its annual installment, this twelfth one similarly structured to the ones before yet still managing to squeeze in a surprise or two. As usual, familiar names appear amongst the credits—Wolfgang Voigt, bvdub, Triola, and Marsen Jules, for example—but also some unexpected ones—Superpitcher, for one, who makes his first appearance on the Pop Ambient series—and some unfamiliar ones, too. In this case, we've got: Mohn, a new, so-called “ambient-grunge-down-beat” project from Jörg Burger and Wolfgang Voigt; Morek, a well-known figure from the past who re-emerges anonymously on Kompakt with a new alias; and Axel Willner, who opts to contribute under the Loops Of Your Heart name rather than via the better-known moniker The Field.

In truth, the album splits to some degree into halves, with the first presenting a series of modestly satisfying pieces and the second half offering a higher batting average overall. Mohn's “Manifesto” opens the album rather inauspiciously with five minutes of subdued, slow-burning detonations and eruptions—a somewhat underwhelming intro, to be frank. Slightly better is Superpitcher's “Jackson,” which manages to retain the signature uplifting character associated with the producer's music while at the same time fitting it snugly into the ambient template; the piece is also memorable for the lulling way it floats an ethereal voice almost subliminally overtop its piano-centered base. A richly atmospheric setting of strings-heavy peacefulness, Morek's soothing “Pan” encapsulates the Pop Ambient sensibility in a mere five-minute running time.

But i t's with the advent of Triola's “Richmodis” that the collection begins to elevate itself above the merely passable. To his credit, Jörg Burger contributes an out-of-time and mystery-laden dirge whose bells, cymbal shadings, and organs transport the listener to some unnamed exotic locale where all manner of shady subterfuge and intrigue is taking place—don't be surprised if something like Popol Vuh comes to mind as you monitor the track's clandestine movements. Voigt's “Rückverzauberung 5” likewise arrests one's ears with its phantasmagoric loops of vibraphones, strings, pianos, and Piazzolla-styled bandoneons, and even more Voigt's decision to present the instruments as if they're swimming woozily in a turbulent sea. Up next is “Your Loyalty Lies Long Forgotten,” which is prototypical bvdub and not just because of the title. As he's done before, Brock Van Wey once again conjures into being an emotionally affecting piece whose loops, in this case, of vaporous textures and voices broods ponderously. In its flickering flow of repetitive cymbal and piano flourishes, “Swans Reflecting Elephants” in similar manner identifies itself as a Marsen Jules production from its first moment. New to the Pop Ambient fold is Simon Scott, whose “For Martha,” a lush and melancholy serenade heavy on supplicating strings, is an album standout. Following that late-album highlight, Willner's Loops Of Your Heart piece, “Riding the Bikes,” eases the listener out on a thoroughly relaxing note with circular loops of delicate guitar filgrees. Even a single run-through of the album reveals that the series name is, in fact, a bit of a misnomer, as the tracks aren't ambient in the textbook sense. A better term for the series would be something like Pop Meditations, given that the tracks rarely blend inconspicuously into the background yet do nevertheless exude a restrained moodscaping quality. Thos who've been with the series since the start won't be disappointed by this latest chapter, even if not all of it impresses quite as much as the scene-stealing tracks by Scott, Triola, and Voigt. It's their contributions that recommend the release most.

February 2012