Upon its release, Pop marked a surprising one-eighty for GAS, the most widely-recognised alias of German electronic composer, Wolfgang Voigt. Now, with the benefit of 17 years’ worth of retrospect, Voigt’s fourth album under his GAS moniker was a courageous change of pace, with the musician substituting his usual brand of brooding, nocturnal ambient music and muddy production value for a more accessible attitude towards the genre, making use of glistening synth drones, crisp kick drums, serene field recordings and a generally fresh production style. With Pop now being widely considered one of the greatest ambient records of all time, it’s easy to understand why. By the time of the record’s unveiling, Voigt’s GAS project had long since established a definitive marriage of ambient music and techno, with the techno influence being incredibly minimal, playing more of a supportive role in its formulation of basic 4/4 rhythms, atop which Voigt would craft his detailed soundscapes. Pop, however, took this approach that had, up until this point, largely been applied to the looming blackness of the dark ambient stylings of albums like Zauberberg, and employed it in the context of a set of uplifting and rejuvenating compositions. Indeed, whereas the forest imagery associated with the GAS label had previously alluded to a feeling similar to the natural aesthetic of much black metal music, Pop breathed new life into this presentation, evoking the sylvan enchantment of pastoral vistas. Now, following 17 years of studio silence from GAS, with Voigt being focussed on his numerous other projects, Pop is receiving a follow-up in the form of Narkopop. As the name suggests, Narkopop is the nocturnal sister album to its precursor, sharing many of the dark stylistic themes of a record such as Zauberberg, whilst nevertheless reiterating some of the richer and more indulgent textures of Pop. In this sense, Narkopop seems to bridge the gap somewhat between Pop and the gloomy, gritty GAS albums to have come before it, subtly layering deep textures on top of one another in a similar fashion to its daytime counterpart, whilst still retaining the lo-fi, underwater techno sound of records like Zauberberg and Königsforst. The end product is an album that is surprisingly comforting, despite enveloping the listener in a claustrophobic, rustic blackness that is, at the best of times, as immersive as the idyllic soundscapes of Pop.
Like many of the darker releases from across the GAS back-catalogue, the meditative soundscapes of Narkopop are typically founded on either a gentle hum of static or a muffled techno kick that just barely penetrates the layers of electronic texture. The other side to this new album, however, sees a similar sense of melody, harmony and balance between the backdrop of fuzzing static and the faint, languid synth melodies that softly rise above the bubbling drones below to that of Pop. The meeting of these two worlds of the GAS project is evident from the very beginning of the album, with the opening track, Narkopop 1, being founded on an oppressive murmur of ambience, whilst cracks of thunder can be heard off in the distance. This ghostly atmosphere, although as illusory as one would expect from an ambient piece, is rather overbearing, shrouding the whispers of soaring synths like fog around forest trees during the dead of night. These varying layers of ascending breaths of electronics ebb and flow subtly but ceaselessly, weaving in between one another as if navigating an arboreal landscape. In contrast, Narkopop 6 sees a much more heavenly integration of its gliding synth chords, whilst the harmonic frequencies of an aeolian harp surface atop the waves of philharmonic bliss. The inclusion of an aeolian harp is particularly fitting for the natural themes associated with the GAS label, in that this instrument produces sound by being left outside or near an open window and having wind blow across its strings, in keeping with the airy ambiance of Narkopop. Ultimately, the rich, ethereal ambiance of Narkopop is consistent throughout, as only those as proficient at their craft as Wolfgang Voigt could accomplish. This being said, certain pieces, particularly Narkopop 3 and Narkopop 4, whilst conforming to the overarching musical themes of the record and maintaining its flow perfectly well, signify somewhat of a lack of ideas. Across Narkopop, most of the pieces retain at least a few particularly definitive features that distinguish them from the surrounding cuts, whether it be the particularly ominous ambiance of Narkopop 1 or the dainty, rhythmic aeolian harp of Narkopop 6. The third and fourth tracks, however, stand out as adhering to a relatively archetypal ambient formula without progressing past the genre’s most commonplace tropes in an especially interesting fashion. Of course, the textures of pulsating synths on these cuts are just as luxurious as much of the material on Narkopop, and the rest of the album is admirably varied, in spite of how closely it conforms to the aesthetics of previous GAS releases. Bearing in mind the pivotal quote from the godfather of ambient music, Brian Eno, that the genre must be “as ignorable as it is interesting”, I would simply say that pieces like Narkopop 3 and Narkopop 4 lean a bit too much towards the ignorable side of the spectrum.
Indeed, for the most part, Narkopop stands as amongst the more stylistically diverse of any of Voigt’s endeavours under his GAS pseudonym, largely as a result of the fact that the album seems to inhabit a sonic dimension between Pop and earlier GAS records. On top of this, however, the composer makes use of ideas, both familiar and unfamiliar, as to decorate Narkopop with varied and dense soundscapes. In this regard, Narkopop 2 is undoubtedly a particularly remarkable moment in the tracklisting, continuing Voigt’s reputation of altering song samples to the point of imperceptibility. From the very beginning, this piece stands out as being heavily inspired by classical music, with the synths, strings and woodwinds being blurred together in an ambiguous array of sound reminiscent of an impressionist attitude towards composing. As the dynamics of the piece continuously throb, as is typical of GAS compositions, some of the less obtusely layered passages reveal that the mellow whispers of tenor woodwind that can be heard are those of a cor anglais, specifically that which is featured in Claude Debussy’s Nuages. This is amongst the more easily discernible samples to be heard on a GAS piece, but even still, the wistful strings and plaintive cor anglais are so fitting that it would be understandable to disregard the possibility that they were arranged for any composition other than Narkopop 2. After all, an impressionist piece entitled ‘Clouds’ is almost guaranteed to share stylistic and compositional similarities with the murky, airy ambiance of Narkopop, especially when considering that Nuages is the first movement of Debussy’s orchestral composition, Nocturnes. On the other side of the stylistic spectrum lies Narkopop 5, which, like Narkopop 2, boasts a reverb-drenched microhouse beat, but utilised in a very different fashion. The pounding, industrial, relentless rhythm of Narkopop 5 is an outlier amongst most minimalist beats featured on GAS pieces, in that, rather than being compressed and muted to the point of barely penetrating the sonic surface, this hammering march is the primary focus of the track. With the brooding synth textures like those of Narkopop 1 making a reappearance here, Narkopop 5 is perhaps the least natural composition of GAS’s discography, evoking imagery not of a blackened forest, but of a post-industrial, cyberpunk dystopia. Indeed, Narkopop is perhaps the greatest oddity Voigt has yet released under his GAS alias, despite it seemingly bridging the disparities between some of the project’s previous releases. Thankfully, in spite of the rather audacious excursions taken across the tracklisting, such risks are integrated into the aesthetic of Narkopop, and the GAS project in general, very effectively, with the entire album being firmly anchored in recurring themes and motifs that provide a sense of wholeness amidst the artistic diversity featured throughout the record’s runtime.
In marrying the haze of ominous ambiance of albums like Zauberberg with the fresh vitality and luscious soundscapes of Pop, Voigt may have cracked the code for an accessible ambient album that nonetheless doesn’t sacrifice the gritty edge associated with the GAS label. With the sonic force of an entire symphony, Narkopop weaves crisp textures of philharmonic subtleties and backdrops of looming dissonance to craft a dark beauty that only the best ambient musicians have accomplished with such dexterity. Although Narkopop shows that Voigt may not be able to match his compositional proficiency with consistently strong and individual ideas, the album’s best moments convey that the composer still has some quirks and tricks hidden away for a rainy day. Overall, for those who will allow it, Narkopop has the ability to guide the listener through a dark and foggy forest, wherein, in spite of its murky appearance from the outside, they are sure to find many semblances of beauty tucked away in its scenery.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10