Kompakt's annual collection of pop-tinged soundscapes enters its twelfth year with label mainstays Wolfgang Voigt, Superpitcher, and The Field's Axel Willner (operating here as Loops of Your Heart) joined by a cast of names old and new. The resulting ten tracks are aligned in their gradual approaches to ambient composition with a handful of highlights and a few low points found along the way.
When Pop Ambient 2012 is at its most tender, it is at its best. Throughout the course of the LP, this can take shape as Kraut-indebted explorations, space-age sonic landscapes, or reverb-washed, sample-based concoctions. But no matter where the pieces here end up aesthetically, the few that find a way to beam an emotional relevancy through the layers of slow movement are the productions worth listening to. Early on, Superpitcher, a producer more known for crafting milky techno, delivers the LP's first standout with "Jackson." Beginning with a delicate loop of heavenly chords, his contribution becomes unexpectedly (and pleasantly) proggy, moving with patiently built momentum and adding arpeggiated piano and long, gliding melodies to the original loops. The production outfit/label Magazine touches on the essential qualities of a Pop Ambient contribution shortly thereafter, turning in an unbelievably clean reworking of its own track, "The Visitor's Bureau." Stripping the techno from the atmospheric original, the new edit opens up to reveal a canyon of hyper-detailed pads, which flow with a gentle ease while Magazine continues to gradually pile on more and more layers of deep, blissful drones.
German producer Marsen Jules and Axel Williner's Loops of Your Heart handle deliver Pop Ambient's two most stunning tracks, building their compositions around pieces of real instrumentation. Jules' "Swans Reflecting Elephants" folds washy, textural percussion in amongst rich chords, sparse piano and occasional woodwind notes, while "Riding the Bikes" closes the compilation with slowly morphing patterns of warm guitars, expertly sequenced in a manner which only Willner would have the patience and foresight to string together. Each song is enhanced immensely by its use of noticeably realistic sound sources, and this allows the songs to stay with you after the record is through, helping them peak out above the clouds of synthesized ambiance.
Surprisingly, two of Kompakt's most reliable artists are responsible for the most jarring of stumbling blocks. Label co-owner and veteran producer Wolfgang Voigt presents one of the most confusing moments on the record, "Rückverzauberung 5," which makes for an unsettling break from the rather placid pieces which surround it. Jorg Burger, whose Triola handle has been a regular Pop Ambient contributor for some time, also disappoints with a bland (even by elongated ambient-music standards) production, "Richmodis."
These tracks and a few other similarly lackluster contributions unfortunately breach the flow needed to craft a cohesive ambient compilation, and Pop Ambient 2012 misses an opportunity to shine as a result of some questionable curation. Truthfully, no song on this album is put together poorly; in fact, all the productions here are unquestionably dense and precise. But asking listeners to stay enveloped by these vast, glistening soundscapes is just too much to ask, particularly when they have to continually jump between them. Perhaps the individual records from which most of these songs stem would prove more worthwhile listens.