In 2000, the final album from German producer Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project, Pop, finished in the #12 position in Pitchfork’s Top 20 albums of the year. Suffice to say that this website was a much smaller operation then, and there were far fewer writers; collectively, we also only had time for so much experimental electronic music. “IDM” as an idea still had plenty of currency, but many of the records falling under that banner were specialty items, something one would put on in a very specific time and place. And there were lots of them. In this landscape, when experimental electronic music was going in a hundred different directions at once– considering only Gas’ label, the Frankfurt imprint Mille Plateaux, you had the jagged sound of disrupted technology in Oval, the boldly politicized field recordings of Ultra Red, the filmic breakcore of Alec Empire, along with a smattering of post-rock and industrial– Gas was something we could all agree on.
Wide appeal– even amongst upstart music critics– isn’t something one would expect from this project. When working as Gas in the second half of the 1990s, Voigt’s tracks usually featured an unflinching kick-drum pulsing at a mid-tempo BPM– sometimes ping-ponging across the soundfield or encrusted with burrs of syncopation– and they typically featured samples of stern and ominous Western classical music. The string and horn drones were sourced from vinyl and proud of it, with the corresponding pops and crackles figuring prominently in the mix. The Gas sound, so distinctive as to be instantly recognizable, seemed somewhat monochrome and tightly focused at the time. It was easy to come away with the idea that the project was an exercise in Fall-like consistency– “Always different, always the same,” as John Peel said about the latter. But it’s clear now that each record was its own discrete chamber in Voigt’s overall construction. The evidence is here, on this 4xCD box set, which collects the albums proper– 1996’s self-titled record, 1997’s Zauberberg, 1999’s Königsforst, and 2000’s Pop (missing is the 1995 Modern EP as well as a couple of stray tracks)– into a single set. These records have been out of print for years– I saw a copy of Zauberberg going for $270 on Amazon not long ago– but those refusing to pay outlandish prices have been handsomely rewarded. Gas in many ways sounds even more wondrous now, and certainly more wide-ranging.
The self-titled debut, originally released in 1996, is perhaps the most beautiful entry in the catalog. The rich, shimmery drones seem less earth-bound and heavy relative to what would come later; rather than evoking a dense, mossy arboreal feel– Voigt has frequently acknowledged the sights and sounds of Germany’s Black Forest as an inspiration– Gas brings to mind images of a clear night sky, as pin-pricks of twinkling guitar samples, trails of distortion that swirl like a starry cloud dispersing into the void, and the bassy string tones all meet in a vast open space designed for contemplation. Though Gas is in some ways the most conventional of the project’s records, with moments easily relatable to trends in post-acid house ambient, it also marks Voigt as a producer with a rare ear for texture.
The following year’s Zauberberg was the solidification of quintessential Gas aesthetic. While overall the darkest and bleakest of these offerings, Zauberberg opens and closes with the deeply spiritual and uplifting organ drones one can imagine leaking from the cracked stained glass windows of a massive cathedral somewhere in the Bavarian Alps. Sandwiched between these drifting moments of blissful surrender are grim meditations on the physicality of tension. The bass drum throbs between the speakers, less a heartbeat than the icy, unremitting march of time, while Voigt’s most dissonant string samples tug everything down into the black soil. It’s a shopworn observation among Gas observers to say that the music on the individual albums closely mirrors the images record covers, but Zauberberg is as dark and menacing as the noir picture of red branches in darkness featured on its front.
Beginning precisely where Zauberberg leaves off, with rumbling strings and an unblinking kick, Königsforst eventually takes things to a far more complicated place. Where Gas had previously been defined by the sense of endlessness– insistent repetition, lengthy tracks that could conceivably go on forever, a consistent mood– Königsforst experiments with development, moving through timbres and emotional sensations with a definable dramatic arc. The album looks back and forward simultaneously as Voigt seems to be probing the limits of what the project could be. The same starry backward guitar bit that first appeared on the third track of the debut returns on the fourth track here, now yoked to a subtle double-time kick-drum that gives a sense of blood-rushing excitement. Then the album culminates in the 15-minute fifth track, an Escher-like climb through samples of orchestral horns that change almost imperceptibly with each passing bar, moving from a firm, almost militaristic growl to welcoming, optimistic swoon by the track’s end. The beatless drone that closes is another masterpiece, one that hints at massive left-turn to come on 2000’s Pop; Königsforst on its own is essentially perfect.
Pop is the best known and most admired of these discs, and it provides an obvious entry point. Which is somewhat ironic, since it’s also the most divergent by a huge margin. Had it come out under another name, it would have been difficult to know that this was a Gas record at all. The first three tracks offer three subtly different views of the same sound-field, a warm, wet place populated with bubbles, fizz, and hisses, along with keyboard drones and the sort of basslines Angelo Badalamenti used in “Twin Peaks” to suggest a rural idyll whose dark secrets were yet to be revealed. Had the record continued to explore this one direction, it might have been understood as a contemporary variation on the new age meditation record, something listeners would return to in order to chill out and “center” and so on. But Voigt had something else in mind. By the fourth track he’s returned the steady kick to the mix, and braided the percussion with a clanging repetitive bell that one imagines the Field’s Axel Willner found inspiring. As the beats disappear for two tracks the album inflates with anxiety and dread until, with the return for the 15-minute closer, we’re immersed in one of the most nervous– bordering on malicious– Gas tracks of all.
By this point, it seems, Voigt had said what he wanted to say with Gas and was ready to move onto something else, like helping to turn the Kompakt label he runs with Michael Mayer and Jürgen Paape into one of electronic music’s premier imprints. Four Gas albums in five years turned out to be quite a lot to chew on; this phase of his career is comparable to Brian Eno’s instrumental music between, say, his 1973 collaboration with Robert Fripp, No Pussyfooting, and 1978’s Music for Airports. More than anyone since Eno with the exception of Aphex Twin, Wolfgang Voigt was able to reimagine how ambient music could transform space. But he did so in a grounded, accessible manner. There’s something primal and intuitive about this stuff; as heady electronic music goes, it’s like a loaf of hearty dark bread, an easy-to-grasp but deceptively intricate musical world with a strong sense of– to stretch the metaphor– nourishment. Wolfgang Voigt’s musical interests have led him to create stark dancefloor minimalism, playful house, and trance-inducing dub-techno; but Gas was the name he gave to music that was foremost about immersive space. This is music you can lose yourself in; see you in four or five hours.
-Mark Richardson, June 05, 2008, pitchforkmedia.com
Gas-NAH UND FERN (2008 compilation)