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Holy Hell! Zauberberg Turns 20

Holy Hell! Zauberberg Turns 20

Zauberberg works so well because it’s specific not to a time or place or scene but a universal human experience: the awareness, fear, and acceptance of the unknown.

At a certain point in the middle of the night, everything becomes a bit Zauberberg. As you gaze down half-empty streets, barely illuminated by flickering streetlights and the melancholy glow of living-room windows, you understand how precariously you’re perched on the edge of the universe. You’re tempted to walk into the void, to abandon it all and just keep going, to see all the sights you can see in this unfathomable world before you die feral and starved in the forest.

That fear is at the heart of Gas’s second album. Zauberberg starts with a placid major-key drone that suggests beauty and benevolence. But slowly but surely, the notes flat and the mood sours. By track two, you’re trudging uphill through a cloud of minor-key mist. The trademark Gas kick drum is the only guide through the fog, but it’s as reliable as a will-o’-the-wisp. You get the feeling it could disappear at any time, and it does – usually just as things start to get terrifying.

Zauberberg trades in fear of the unknown. But here, the unknown isn’t so much what lies ahead as what’s all around. Ominous sounds glint through the murk: mysterious strings on track three, a slow hunting horn on track four, and, of course, the kick drum bouncing just ahead. Everything’s slathered in reverb, creating the illusion of distance, as if you’re looking down the road towards your half-lit destination. You know the album will be over in the time it takes to do a load of laundry, and it mercifully ends with a drone just as calming and comforting as the one that opens it. But while it’s playing, it seems to suggest a world greater and scarier than itself.

The story of the Gas project is well-known. Wolfgang Voigt, the German responsible for the project’s four albums and two EPs (plus dozens of other projects, none as consistent or fully realized), spent his youthful summers tripping acid in the Konigsforst in Cologne, Germany. The Konigsforst seems to be a perfectly respectable city park, a good place to walk your dog or your stroller. But when you’re deep enough in a psychedelic mindset, every tree and bug and snake and snail takes on cosmic significance. Zauberberg isn’t about being in the Konigsforst so much as connecting with the larger cosmos through the small-scale awe of being in nature.

Zauberberg is one of the best ambient albums ever made, and the expanded version on last year’s Box reissue is even better than the original. If Zauberberg has a flaw, it’s that the more ambient tracks feel interstitial between the 4/4 behemoths that make up its meat. The Box version expands the album by eleven minutes, evenly distributing the extra real estate between each track so everything clocks in at around or over ten. Unfortunately, you’ll need to shell out the equivalent of $120 on the sumptuous set, which includes the last three Gas albums but not his self-titled debut (good, if derivative) or his Modern EP (great but unrepresentative, drawing on the cues of classic psychedelia rather than creating a new acid experience from scratch.)

The record turns 20 this year, and it’s aged remarkably well. Early ambient techno (The KLF, Black Dog, The Orb) took after British rave culture and aimed to capture an experience synonymous with that scene and the drugs it devoured. Those who didn’t grow up in the afterglow of those mighty warehouse parties might have a hard time grooving to those acts’ comedown music. Zauberberg works so well because it’s specific not to a time or place or scene but a universal human experience: the awareness, fear, and acceptance of the unknown.

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