It's that time of year, the season for glacial vistas, shimmering atmosphere and wistful moods—and, no we're not talking about the onset of winter. Instead, we're referring to the release of Kompakt's annual compilation of beat-free beauties, Pop Ambient, with this year's installment once again boasting a lineup of soaring and swooping tunes that are uniformly gorgeous, emotive and, at times, downright spine-tingling, from a murderers' row of electronic-music artists.
The album leads off with a trio of tracks that hint at the natural world, and the slow changes that unfold within it as our globe spins and wends its way around the sun. "April im Oktober," from electro-acoustic artist Stephan Mathieu, is constructed from a gradually unfolding series of tones; the song is massive in scope but intimate in feel, much as seasonal transformations are beyond our control, yet felt in deeply personal ways. The ambient-techno pioneers of the Orb, fresh off theri recent Moonbuilding 2703 AD, come back to earth with "Alpine Dawn"—you can practically see the springtime sun peaking through craggy peaks, ice receding as the mountains slowly spring to life. Warm awakenings also define "April" from SCSI-9's Anton Kubikov, as a buoyant aura of rebirth floats above the cut's swirling sounds, deep piano tones and chiming melody.
The German word feinherb doesn't have a precise English translation, but roughly speaking, it refers to "balance"—and Max Würden and Thore Pfeiffer's collaborative production of the same name carefully calibrates bursts of organs with what sounds like heavily processed vocals with an skewed, oddly appealing syncopation. Leandro Fresco's mix of Dave DK's "Veira" (off of this past spring's fab Val Maira), turns down the heat of the original's glowing embers by a few degrees, slowing the pace and retaining just a hint of kick drum, while simultaneously building the song's exhilarative quality via a chorus of harmonizing synths. Pfeiffer's aptly named "Idyll" is all trumpeted arcs and spiraling ornamentation—its a track that's both pastoral and triumphant. And so it goes, with numbers coming courtesy of Kompakt cofounder Wolfgang Voigt (who again serves as Pop Ambient''s curator), Mikkel Metal and other—richness and elegance run throughout.
There's very little in the way of sharp edges here; the crackling windswept rustle that marks the first third of Fresco's "Configuración De Ataque" is about as edgy as this set gets. (And even that song, with its plucked-guitar line and reflective melody, evolves into something that's seductively lush, almost sunset-Balearic in vibe.) The album will likely be a bit too "new-agey" for some, best avoided by those new simply need a tough kick drum to keep them happy. But as Bob Marley said, "One good thing about music is that when it hits you, you feel no pain"—and while he probably wasn't talking about the kind of blissful sonics found on Pop Ambient 2016, that statement is as true of this release as it is of any long-player we've heard this year.