Home Music Various Artists: Pop Ambient 2021

Various Artists: Pop Ambient 2021

Every year since 2001 has seen Kompakt, the Cologne-based electronic music label, release a new Pop Ambient collection. The 2021 edition, actually released towards the end of 2020, is an attractive assortment of meticulously constructed, (mostly) beatless soundscapes. Its 13 tracks burble and enchant like a sedimented brook, tactile, inviting and—at times—unnervingly visceral.

The clearest example of its shimmering appeal is Morgen Wurde’s “Mittsommer,” the album’s longest track at nearly eleven minutes in length. The song (as well as Blank Gloss’s opener “Of a Vessel”) includes the sound of bubbling, either recorded from an actual brook or constructed so carefully as to convincingly replicate the micromovements of water molecules along the surface of stone and seagrass. Either way, its swells of sound lap to the foreground and then back, softly intertwining with a plaintive, looping synth melody that grounds the song’s ornamental features.

Where “Mittsommer” and “Of a Vessel” gently drift and swirl, tracks towards the compilation’s center offer, by comparison, dramatically shifting currents. Neozaïre’s “In Verschwenderischer Fülle” (which translates from a mouthful of German to “In Lavish Abundance”) builds up with otherworldly orchestral grandeur, commencing in a delicate patter of static and collecting a choir of almost-voices and gargantuan strings that could soundtrack a minimalist epic’s tragic final scene. Pop Ambient regular Max Würden’s magisterial “Center,” also heavy on the strings, appears just two songs later. Here, slippery violin arpeggios dance around solitary piano notes and a menacing synthesized background, all of which work their way towards a truly shocking (well, shocking in this context) burst of horn, which fades and then briefly returns as the song nears its end.

As they consider the difference between the bold numbers and the subtle ones, listeners will find themselves wondering about that “pop” in Pop Ambient. What really counts as pop ambient, and what’s ambient plain and simple? Does ‘pop ambient” mean “catchy ambient”? Or can the term equally apply to songs that discover and remain in a droning sort of comfort zone? There are traces of numerous genres invoked on the album: blues (Reich & Würden’s “Lens”), jazz (Leandro Fresco & Thore Pfeiffer’s “Abejorro”), house (“Center”), as well as field recording (“Mittsommer,” “Of a Vessel”) and trance (Seventh World’s “Light the Waves Before Dawn”) so perhaps we should take “pop” in the Agnès Gayraud sense: recorded music devoted to the artistry of recording and the brilliant sounds that result.

Still, it’s worth considering how the world of instrumental music has evolved and massively expanded since 2001, and Pop Ambient 2021 raises questions as to whether Kompakt has kept pace with these changes in a way that continues to merit the “pop ambient” title. It would, for instance, be a wonderful thing for Kompakt to make this an inter-label annual showcase instead of a reflection of their own roster and regular lineup. Labels like Ghostly, FoF and Posh Isolation are prime collaborative candidates that could also help move the series away from its boys’ club tendencies (nary a woman appears on the 2021 iteration).

Kompakt’s pop ambient concept has been around since before the iPod, but, obviously, this is the first time they’ve released the label’s keystone ambient compilation into the middle of a pandemic. Could there be a better time to double down on spending time with music that, as Brian Eno once described it, “provides calm, and a place to think”? While Pop Ambient 2021 does offer a sonically pleasing, transportive chance to do just that, it misses a great opportunity to reassess and broaden the scope of Kompakt’s project for the changing times.

Summary
While Pop Ambient 2021 does offer a sonically pleasing, transportive chance to do just that, it misses a great opportunity to reassess and broaden the scope of Kompakt’s project for the changing times.
67 %
Shimmering but Incomplete
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