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May 8, 2017

GAS returns with the stirring, often ominous ‘Narkopop’

(European Central Bank/Flickr)

Between William Basinski’s monumental “A Shadow in Time,” the brilliant, expansive tranquility of Brian Eno’s “Reflection” and the fearlessness of Pan Records’ “Mono No Aware” compilation, ambient has already had quite the year. With that in mind, Wolfgang Voigt’s return to his GAS project, 17 years after the ambient landmark “Pop,” seems almost unsurprising.

It does beg the question, though, of why Voigt—an artist whose staggeringly large and diverse discography can put even the Aphex Twins of the world to shame—would choose now of all times to reignite GAS as a studio entity, rather than merely a live one.

Only Voigt knows the answer to that of course, but these are anxious times, a reality that “Narkopop”—to both its benefit and occasionally its detriment—reflects. Though “Pop” certainly isn’t furniture music itself, “Narkopop” (released April 21) is considerably less approachable than its predecessor. Colored by intimidatingly large-scale, vivid and often ominous landscapes of sound, and clocking in at 78 minutes, “Narkopop” is a fascinating, constantly fluctuating work of art that defies easy judgment or characterization.

Unlike the lion’s share of ambient—an incredibly loose genre that’s often held together only by its status as a home for music without a consistent backbeat—“Narkopop” frequently relies on techno-style bass drum pulses to propel it forward. These pulses, though, aren’t designed to produce euphoria or a sense of anticipation. They simply churn away, stoic and unmoved by the growth and regressions occurring around them. Rather than letting you settle into the pieces they anchor, they keep you unsettled, always hanging on Voigt’s next synth swell or sudden decrescendo.

“Narkopop” itself on the other hand, never seems to want to settle down either. One of its brighter moments, “Narkopop 3,” (every track is simply the name of the album and its corresponding tracklist number) begins like a sunrise, with soft, major-chord synths rising and alternating softly in the foreground of the picture. With a minute left though, another, far darker synth appears like a storm cloud. Though it never comes to dominate the picture, it exits slowly, clouding the listener’s perspective on its way out.

“Narkopop 2” almost takes the opposite trajectory, emerging from the darkness of its beginning to a more positive note at its conclusion. As the mood around “2”’s unwavering pulse changes, you almost feel that the beat is shifting with the changing mood, perhaps becoming less panicked. Voigt rarely adds many elements to a piece after revealing its basic ingredients. What’s special is just how much he can transform the picture he’s painting without altering those ingredients.

“Narkopop 5,” undoubtedly the album’s scariest track, sounds like an ambient take on Star Wars’ “Imperial March.” A thrumming kick drum moves in lockstep with what sounds like a heavily muted snare, as horns and synthetic strings circle mournfully around the picture.

As is its character though, “Narkopop” follows its most terrifying moment with its most blissful. The beginning of “Narkopop 6” is staggeringly beautiful; awash in effervescent acoustic guitars, quietly twinkling piano and rich-sounding synth textures.

The album closes with the steely grandeur of “Narkopop 10,” a 17-minute masterclass of minimalist techno. Its beat hammering quietly but incessantly away, “Narkopop 10” is the dance music of a grim, post-apocalyptic future. The industrial loop the piece relies on is equally as determined, but readily shares space with the mesmerizing drones that surface, then sink deeply into the background of the piece. For an album that enjoys veering almost playfully between intense elation and equally intense anxiety, “Narkopop 10” is a closer that offers few answers; a track determined to occupy a frustratingly neutral ground.

Though this jarring, closing shift would be off-putting on just about any other record, it makes a strange amount of sense on “Narkopop,” an album that ignores our world in favor of one it designs for itself. In its world—perhaps the dark forest of its cover—it makes perfect sense to inject euphoria into a terrifying environment, and vice versa. “Narkopop 10” in that way is a perfect reflection of this amazing musical atmosphere, one in which reactions and perception blend into an intangible blur.

While some ambient music seeks to blend seamlessly into the environment it’s explored in, “Narkopop” demands to be heard on its own. While not as enchanting as “Pop,” it’s an album that’s fascinating in its singularity. It may not have been exactly what we were expecting from Voigt, 17 years removed from his last GAS release. It’s hard to imagine, though, that anyone could have predicted a piece of music as independent and beguiling as “Narkopop.”

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at jlmaxwell@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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