The Königsforst in Cologne, Germany seems like a perfectly respectable city park, the kind of place you’d take your dog or your baby. To Wolfgang Voigt, it was an entire, terrifying world. But then again, just about anything can take on cosmic significance if you’re on enough acid.

Voigt’s four albums and two EPs as Gas represent one of the great psychedelic visions in music. No ambient artist has done a better job of capturing the awe of existing within a greater universe. In any bush on the side of the road, any tiny patch of dirt, thousands of lifeforms eat, breathe, scurry, kill, live, die. When we look up at the sky, we’re staring millions of miles into an incomprehensible cosmos. I don’t even want to think about half the stuff that goes on in the ocean. This everyday awe, this simultaneous oneness and disconnect with the natural world, is at the core of the Gas project. And all it took was a few youthful acid trips in the Königsforst for the young Voigt to internalize it and translate into some of the best ambient music ever made.

The new Box set, comprising the three final Gas albums, plus the rare Oktember EP, elaborates on and fleshes out Voigt’s vision, in part through expanding his original compositions and in part through pitch-perfect presentation. This is a stunning box set, augmented by an artbook full of new photos of the Königsforst. Keep in mind, though, that 1) Box will set you back the equivalent of $130 and 2) each side of vinyl contains only one or two pieces of music. If you want to zone out to this amniotic ambient music, it might be a bit annoying to have to snap out of your reverie every 12 minutes or so to change the record. Alas, the more scrupulous of us unwilling to get their hands dirty with Torrent (or suffer through the inevitable, shit-quality YouTube rip) may have to in order to enjoy the revelatory expansion of these great records.

* * *

The album that benefits most from the Box treatment is 1997’s Zauberberg, which I’ve always thought was in the same league as the generally-acknowledged crown jewel of the Gas discography, Pop. An expansion of twelve minutes, evenly distributed among the album’s shortest tracks, mitigates the original Zauberberg’s main flaw, namely that its longer, more typically Gassy pieces take up more space than the stunning opening and closing drones or the frightening pieces that populate its final stretch. The shorter pieces no longer feel like filler, and as most Voigt pieces could easily go for an extra five minutes without running out of steam, all the expansion has done has increased the square footage of great music on Zauberberg.

The most welcome augmentation is the addition of a few extra minutes to the drone that opens Zauberberg. (All Gas tracks are untitled and, to distinguish between them, are usually written as the name of the parent album followed by the song’s place in the tracklist; thus, this is “Zauberberg 1.”) This is a drone so warm, immersive, shimmering and rich that its sudden fadeout on the original Zauberberg before segueing into the icy and menacing “Zauberberg 2” seemed jarring. The four minutes tacked onto “Zauberberg 1” find the drone souring into a minor-key portent of what’s to come, easing the discrepancy. The enhanced mix also brings out a frightening low end I’ve never noticed; though it’s a peaceful piece, it bristles with foreboding.

If you’ve ever been on a late-night walk and felt tempted to wander farther and farther away from home – maybe to explore the nooks and crannies of your neighborhood you never gave a second thought, maybe to just leave it all behind and live on the move – you already understand Zauberberg. The kick drum that cycles through most of these tracks acts both to guide the listener and to push them onward into the dark, and it winds through some terrifying landscapes on the road through the record. “Zauberberg 2” is all dense, foreboding minor-key strings, likely sampled from Teutonic classical music as with many Gas drones. “Zauberberg 3” is a bit easier on the ears, with comforting plumes of strings poking through the murky, lo-fi mist; it suggests the listener/night-walker has become more accustomed to the unfamiliar landscape and is less concerned with the fact that they’re far from home as much as with just how pretty everything is.

And then things get gnarly. “Zauberbergs” four through six are oppressive, creepy tangles of dissonance, five being particularly bracing in the way that the kick – subtly treated with reverb to sound like footsteps – gets gradually louder at the beginning and brings the ambient fog in with it. This is where the night-walker realizes how far they are from home; perhaps they’re a bit stoned and paranoid, and the shadows are playing tricks on them. This is the part of the record that justifies its doomy reputation, as well as its Satanic red and black color scheme. Luckily, “Zauberberg 7” is a drone even more soothing as the first one, suggesting the comfort of home.

Zauberberg is scary, but I’ve always found it comforting. Its arc is the neatest of any Gas record, suggesting a journey from home into the unknown and back again. That it’s neatly encapsulated in 77 minutes, the length of a nice walk, mitigates any chance of the listener succumbing to the call of the wild. The universe is impossibly vast. Within every forest, down every street, under every rock, there’s so much to see and know. You could start exploring every forest, walking every street, turning over every rock and make that your life. But what would the point be? It’d be far more comfortable to live ignorant of the universe’s pointless mysteries.

* * *

1999’s Königsforst is the least of the three reissued records and the one that benefits least from the upgrade in sound quality. It’s the murkiest of the three, as well as the one with the least meticulous sound design. It comes with two additional tracks that were available on the original vinyl version of the album but not on subsequent CD pressings or the last Gas compendium, the CD-only Nah und Fern (cheaper than Box but far lower quality). But they’re haphazardly tacked onto the end and do nothing for the album’s already bumpy and scattershot arc.

Yet it’s still a Gas record, meaning it’s world-class ambient, and it’s arguably the record that gets to the heart of what the Gas project’s about. In comparison, every other Gas album is something of an outlier. Zauberberg is darker than most, Pop is more straight-up ambient than ambient techno and Gas is more club-oriented and not aesthetically in line with the other records at all. But Königsforst distills the qualities that make the Gas aesthetic so singular. It’s a mission statement, made clear by its naming after the place that inspired the project.

Zauberberg and Pop explode into psychedelic life as soon as you press play. Königsforst doesn’t really explode into anything. If the other two albums represent the peaks of an acid trip, this is more of a comedown record. It’s emotionally neutral and driven more by the kick drum, louder and less reverb-drenched than on other Gas records, than by the drones. And much of it just isn’t that interesting. “Königsforsts” two and four are pretty much the same with different kicks and mixing, while three feels like a lite version of Zauberberg’s dissonance that sits in a weird limbo in the middle of the album. On such a neutral album, it’s incongruous.

But there’s still plenty of brilliant sound design here. Listen to the shimmering, crystalline tone that glints at the edge of the murk of “Königsforst 1,” or the sawing strings on “Königsforst 6,” or the kick drum that beats so fast as to become a bassy blur on “Königsforst 4,” or the eerie backwards guitar that makes periodic appearances throughout. “Königsforst 8,” one of two vinyl-only tracks, even features an angelic harp that’s unusually untreated for a Gas record. These sounds have to peak through the murk to be heard, a bit like shafts of sunlight through a thick forest canopy; it’s easy to see Königsforst as the daytime counterpart to Zauberberg’s night.

The murkiness, though it robs the music of a lot of its potential beauty, heightens the sense of uncertainty, as if there’s a bit of mist in the forest or things are getting dark. There’s a low-end choir throughout Königsforst, most obvious on two and four, that seems to leer out of the fog. Students of ambient music (or film) might draw connections to Popol Vuh’s soundtrack to Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, a movie about a group of people disappearing into the forest.

* * *

2000’s Pop is by far the best-known Gas album, so much so that the Voigt narrative is often limited to that album alone at the expense of the other great Gas records or his various projects under his own name and others. It sits comfortably atop many lists of the greatest ambient music ever made, and deservingly so. But it’s a bit of an outlier in the Gas discography. Only two tracks feature a kick drum; this is the only Gas album that could really be classified as pure ambient rather than ambient techno. And the emotions it generates are almost entirely positive.

But the thing that truly sets Pop apart is that it contains none of the terror and awe that define Zauberberg and Königsforst. Pop is a miniature sauna of sound, a place where you can isolate yourself and feel great for a little over an hour; it’s comforting and contained, not frightening and vast, and it’s by no coincidence the shortest of the Gas albums contained here (as well as the only one left relatively untouched by the reissue). The mood sours towards the end, but Pop never congeals into anything really unnerving. The comparatively brooding “Pop 6” and “Pop 7” feel more like a comedown than a wrong turn into a dark place.

If Königsforst is the part of the trip where the drug’s wearing off and you’re starting to accept things are going back to normal, Pop is where everything sprouts tendrils and turns to trees and plants before your eyes. This thing feels alive. It breathes. It pulsates, shifts and snores like some giant, gelatinous being. And it comes on strong. The first few seconds of Pop are almost overwhelming in the flood of images and sensations that they invoke in the brain. At first, this might not be such an “ambient” album, but as you come back to it, it becomes as familiar and reassuring as your own bed, and its pillowiness becomes its most desirable property.

Pop might not have the perfect arc of Zauberberg, nor does it so frighteningly evoke the vastness of the universe, but this is the peak of Voigt’s formidable skill as a sound designer. The clanging bell that bounces through “Pop 4” is one of the most mind-blowing sounds I’ve ever heard in a piece of ambient music. The whole thing’s choked with hiss, but it’s not the hostile kind favored by noise musicians so much as a gentle, steam-like murmur. And I’ve tried for years to figure out what exactly it is that makes the album’s two almost-identical opening tracks sound so alive. Is it the backwards cymbals? The way the drones rise and crest before new ones bloom beneath them? That weird bubbling noise (and what the fuck is that anyway?)? Pinning down Pop’s magic is futile. The best strategy is to sit back and surrender to it.

* * *

Collectors will appreciate Box for the inclusion of the rare Oktember, released shortly before Pop. At only two songs and spanning 26 minutes, Oktember is a bit too short to be as engrossing as the Gas full-lengths, and its second, eponymous track (the tracks actually have names on this one) is an experiment in mid-range murk not far removed from the less inspiring stretches of Königsforst. The true revelation here is “Tal 90,” one of the most stunning drones in the Gas discography. Rich and bassy, with strings not unlike those featured on “Königsforst 6” and what sounds like a fake guitar preset on a cheap Casio coursing throughout, “Tal 90” feels like a bridge between the most ambient moments of Königsforst and the style mastered on Pop.

Some fans will be peeved at the exclusion of the first, self-titled Gas album from 1996, as well as the still-rare Modern EP from 1995. But Box celebrates the aesthetic of the Gas project as much as the music, and Gas and Modern aren’t aesthetically in line with the others, lacking the project’s unifying forest theme. Both are good albums – especially the explicitly psychedelic, almost New Age Modern, which finds Voigt testing out a lot of the ideas he’d put to use later. But they lack the deep, brilliant sound design of his later work, nor do they as effectively evoke cosmic dread as Zauberberg and Königsforst do. Had Voigt retired the Gas project after his first album, the project would be known as a vaguely intriguing one-off, and perhaps Modern would have become a cult grail among ambient fans, similar to Shinichi Atobe’s Ship-Scope.

Box isn’t trying to be completist. Instead, it gives physical life to Voigt’s vision. I haven’t had the chance to handle the Box itself, but promotional videos by Voigt’s label Kompakt present it as a sumptuous thing, spilling over with liner notes and booklets. The albums themselves look great, all those spidery branches and twigs and leaves bathed in eerie, unnatural light, stamped with the Gas name in a minimal but formidable serif font. And there’s that new art book, Konigsforst 2016, which you can peruse as you listen and experience secondhand what inspired the young Voigt. Still, the music itself is more than sufficient to conjure a world out of nowhere. This is some of the best ambient music ever made and also some of the best techno and psychedelia.

  • Gas: Zauberberg/Königsforst/Pop

    It’s hard to imagine ambient techno getting much better than this. …
  • Gas: Oktember

    Gas tracks sound best when you’re outdoors, anyway, as they dare you to wander further and…
  • Gas: Pop

    Pop feels alive. …

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