It feels monolithic, immovable, not to be trifled with.
Gas is more than just a moniker; it’s a world. The four albums and two EPs Wolfgang Voigt released under the name in the latter half of the 1990s conjure a half-lit, psychedelic fairy tale that’s scary, as all trips are at least a little bit, but also filled with awe and wonder. Each record is composed of the same elements, chiefly string samples and the ominous throb of a 4/4 kick drum that’s wont to disappear at any moment. But their personalities are distinct. They feel like different views of the same place, nominally the Konigsforst in Germany where Voigt dropped acid as a teenager. The illusion of worldbuilding is aided by the forest artwork that unifies the latter four Gas releases. But it’s a safe bet plenty of listeners would imagine a tripped-out walk in the woods even if they’d never seen the art – and that not everyone thinks of forests, either.
The original run of Gas records yielded about six hours of music, which seemed enough. With Voigt’s hands tied up in literally dozens of other projects, it seemed unfair to ask Voigt to ever stamp the Gas name on another album. The bar was set so high, anyway, that a bad Gas record would besmirch the name as badly as Indie Cindy did with the Pixies’ (who also initially made four albums). But, thanks to a revival of interest coinciding with the project’s 20th anniversary and the Box set that celebrated it, a fifth Gas record, Narkopop, now exists.
Voigt made the initial Gas records in his thirties, inspired by experiences he had in his teens; he’s now in his fifties, and it’s worth wondering how well he remembers his wanderings in the German forest. Narkopop was more likely made to sate the fans than because of any flash of inspiration. The bad news is that sometimes, it shows. There’s little of the bewitching sound design of the original Gas records – nothing as evocative as the bell that glints at the edge of “Konigsforst 1,” or the pneumatic sound effects that made Pop sound as if it had its own set of lungs. Mostly, Narkopop relies on strings to get its point across, plus a kick drum that’s deeper and more subterranean than before – less a guide through the darkness than part of it.
Its structure is also a bit wonky. It begins with a short drone (all the tracks are simply called “Narkopop” followed by their number in the tracklist) before segueing into the cavernous “Narkopop 2,” a journey in itself that threatens to deepen the album. Instead, we emerge on the other side and are greeted by two relatively insubstantial drones. The process repeats when things darken around “5” and “6” before “7” drones vacantly on a major chord for ten minutes. It’s the same issue Konigsforst, haphazardly sequenced and hardly helped by Box’s decision to tack on two extra tracks to the end, has. Neither album feels like a journey in the way Zauberberg and Pop do; they don’t take you along with them, they just float by your ears.
Narkopop is the least of the Gas full-lengths save the self-titled. But it’s still a Gas album, meaning the bulk of it is excellent, and it’s reassuring to know Voigt still has strict standards regarding the project and isn’t just slapping the name on something substandard to shift units. A lot of effort clearly went into this thing. It’s the best-sounding of the Gas albums, bassy and rich. It’s also the one on which the most happens. Most earlier Gas tracks barely change. Here, they shift and writhe. The spidery, aquatic guitar that opens “6” is forgotten about once it disappears into a blizzard of strings. “2” rides a swooning, romantic progression before it’s subducted by a terrifying minor chord and slowly sours from there. And “10,” sprawling to 17 minutes, ditches its kick entirely in its second half to let the album ride out on a shimmering drone.
The improvement in fidelity means there’s a heaviness here new to the Gas project. The low end is thicker and murkier, almost recalling drone metal (“6” could be a cut from Altar, Sunn O)))’s album with Boris) or the oppressive dub of Vladislav Delay’s Multila. The chords change slowly, and the BPMs often drop into the double digits; the whole thing moves like molasses. Box expansions aside, it’s also the longest Gas album, taking up nearly the entire length of a CD. Its sheer size imparts a sense of awe. It feels monolithic, immovable, not to be trifled with.
Simply put, it’s a very different Gas record, and it doesn’t seem quite of a piece with the others. The reasons it succeeds are different, and though it’s made up of the same basic elements, they’re assigned different roles. Albums by such elusive projects don’t often beg the question of what their creator will do next; four years after Tomorrow’s Harvest, nobody’s asking about the next Boards of Canada album. But it’s worth wondering if it’s a one-off nostalgia joint or the beginning of a new chapter in one of the most vaunted projects in ambient history. Something feels wrong about this odd little record sitting by itself, isolated from its peers by 17 years. Maybe it needs a friend. Maybe it shouldn’t exist. But it’s here, it’s new Gas music, and I suspect even those initially skeptical about it will be happy to get more and more lost in its depths.