Pop feels alive.
Just three years after the massive Box set, here’s Pop, Wolfgang Voigt’s fourth album as Gas, originally released in 2000 and now available on vinyl on its own. Vinyl seems like an odd way to enjoy this greatest of ambient albums, especially in the 3-LP edition we find here. Wouldn’t it be more of a treat to sink into this stuff and have to snap out of your reverie to flip the side? Pop is a headphones album, best enjoyed while sedentary rather than on the long walks the darker, scarier Gas albums like Zauberberg reward. The best way to enjoy it is to find 64 minutes in your day where you don’t have to move, then free-fall into it.
Pop blossoms to life in one of the great openings in ambient music. It’s almost disorientingly psychedelic as it begins, and your first listen to Pop will probably be spent wowed by its environment before its physical pleasures start to register. Pop corrals sounds that’d never previously appeared anywhere else in the history of ambient, not least a hissing, pneumatic bubbling sound that seethes in the stereo field surrounding the first two tracks. There’s something distinctly humid, spongy, wet, and organic about this record. Listen to how it seems to insinuate itself into the very environment it’s heard in, how dendrites and tendrils and floral blooms seem to unfurl before our eyes. Listen to how it breathes, like some giant, gelatinous being. It practically has its own set of lungs. Pop feels alive.
This is the only Gas album where the signature kick drum that throbs beneath the music is largely absent. Usually, the kick functions like a guide through the murk of Voigt’s music, a guide bouncing just ahead like Miyazaki’s living light pole. But Pop requires no guide; it’s a closed system that surrounds us, and each track displays its core elements within seconds. The Gas project is enamored with the German forest, and the covers of all but the first record are adorned with psychedelically blurred trees and shrubs that mirror Voigt’s youthful acid trips in Cologne’s Königsforst. The leaves seem closer on the cover of Pop. This album is all mental, all interior. Its intent is not to evoke a place but to create one from scratch. When the kick finally appears on the astonishing “Pop 4,” accompanied by the clangor of a distant bell, it’s to guide us through what sounds like a thick cloud of steam. It only resumes as “Pop 7” pumps its way madly to its conclusion.
The mix thickens as the record goes on, and though there’s a clarity and spaciousness to the first four tracks, the final three embrace rich emotional shading. The progression of “Pop 5” is similar to the one that would girder William Basinski’s first and most famous Disintegration Loop—almost a rock progression, I to IV. “Pop 6” feels prickly and tense, as if recoiling from your touch rather than enveloping you in it, and the album rides out for a long, long time on “Pop 7,” which is otherwise more or less identical to the preceding track. Pop might transmogrify into something very dark before you even know it. But there’s nothing here as frightening as the abysses of Zauberberg, or 2016’s Narkopop. Pop is more a physical experience than anything else, and its best moments come from the sensations of the sounds themselves.
If there’s a problem with Pop, it’s that it doesn’t have a lot of meat on its bones. The first and last pairs of tracks are basically alternate versions of each other, and between them is less than half an hour of music. Because the middle goes by so quickly and the ending stretch is so long, the album ends up feeling like it’s about to end for a disconcerting portion of its runtime—from track five, which is basically the penultimate track. Maybe that’s intentional on Voigt’s part; even the best trips tend to sour into introspection and anxiety. But it’s not the most pleasant feeling. Pop would be more enjoyable if the tracks in the middle were stretched out a few more minutes each. The Box version of Zauberberg distributed an extra 12 minutes among its seven tracks, and the improvement was substantial. It’d reward buyers of the vinyl, too; a triple-LP set can hold way more music than this. Who knows if Voigt created more music for Pop than what we hear here, but all Gas tracks seem to imply they could go on forever, fading in and out at seemingly arbitrary timestamps.
Pop was the shortest Gas album until last year’s excellent Rausch, an record that would probably not exist without Pop—not because it borrows particularly from its sound, but because it’s mostly the success of Pop that sustained the Gas project’s cult during its 16-year hiatus and is probably the reason Voigt felt the urge to revive the name. The title is probably an onomatopoeia, but it’s not hard to read it as a nod to its accessibility, and indeed Pop’s virtues are so plainly apparent that it’s one of the few ambient albums someone who doesn’t listen to much of the genre will have heard. Those who haven’t heard it should at least behold it as one of ambient’s supreme achievements in sound design. But if you don’t have an overwhelming urge to own it on vinyl, skip this reissue and listen to it on headphones—just don’t be surprised if it seems to leave them and take root right in your brain.