Sunday, June 1, 2008
Wolfgang Voigt is a gas gas gas
Imagine you are deep in a primeval forest, fir trees towering overhead. The little sunlight that filters through the thick canopy is already growing dim as dusk approaches. What had looked so beautiful mere moments before begins to take on a mysterious, almost sinister aspect. Twigs and fir needles snap beneath your feet as you turn, looking for a path. Somewhere nearby you can hear the burbling of a stream. And echoing through the trees, from somewhere far away, comes the sound of a muffled yet insistent beat – the rave at the heart of the forest. Welcome to the sound of GAS, Wolfgang Voigt’s ambient masterpiece.
Most people know Voigt as the godfather of Kompakt, the Cologne based distribution powerhouse and home of melodic minimalism. As a producer Voigt has been rather quiet, releasing little since 2000. For much of the 90s, however, Voigt was incredibly prolific, exploring different styles of electronic dance music under a plethora of aliases (Discogs lists 32 of them). As Mike Ink he explored acid, while his classic Studio 1 series is some of the tightest and most minimal techno ever pressed onto vinyl. Other pseudonyms saw Voigt exploring noisy sawtooth techno and inventing Schaffel. But for these ears Voigt’s most sublime productions saw release under the name GAS; four out of print albums released between 1996 and 2000 on Mille Plateaux that are on the eve of a well-deserved re-release by Kompakt, (accompanied by a book of Voigt’s related photography released by Raster-Noton).
GAS tracks are built around loops of orchestral string samples that have been slowed down (and sometimes reversed) and stretched out so far as to become unrecognizable drones. (Voigt has always been coy as to what composers he sampled, but Wagner, Alan Berg and Arnold Schoenberg are usually namechecked.) A muffled kick drum, beating out a pulse in 4/4 time, usually underscores these long gliding drones. Other sounds hiss, crackle, burble and pop as the drones loop over and over, sometimes graceful, sometimes mournful, but always hypnotic.
In this 1999 interview with De:Bug (translated into English), Voigt himself described GAS as, “Music without beginning and without end, cushioned contours that fall softly into the space, that seem to overrule temporal schemes. GASeous music, caught by a bass drum just marching by, that streams, streams out through the underwood across the forest soil.”
The sound is often described as ambient (I did so myself in the opening paragraph), but the word isn’t entirely accurate here, as for many people this means, “relaxing music to chill-out to.” While many of the tracks have a stately beauty to them, others are dark and eerie. Tracks four and five of Zauberberg (Voigt never named the tracks on his GAS albums) are downright sinister, and would clear a chill-out room in moments.
Special attention should be paid to the artwork of GAS, as it reflects something about the nature of each album. The fact that Raster-Noton is releasing a book of Voigt’s photography emphasizes the importance of the artwork. GAS, released in 1996, features an abstract, splotchy yellow cover that on closer inspection reveals … well, nothing but more yellow splotches (and a few red ones). At this point the project still seems to be taking shape for Voigt, and the vague nature of the cover reflects this.
Everything suddenly snaps into focus, however, on 1997’s Zauberberg, graced with a photograph of a forest taken with a blood red filter. This is the forest at its deepest and darkest, and the album sees some of the most sinister GAS tracks.
The trek through the forest continues on 1999’s Königsforst, but this time the forest is bathed in an amber light. There is a hint of darkness on track four, but the stately march of track five and the light, gentle, beatless loop of track six suggest dawn has arrived.
On Pop, the final GAS full-length released in 2000, the artwork reveals the forest finally bathed in clear sunlight; there are even glimpses of blue sky visible through the leaves on the back cover. The music is similarly light, and five of the seven tracks are entirely beatless. And when the familiar GAS kick drum comes in on the final track, it no longer feels heavy or oppressive – we’ve finally arrived at the rave in the heart of the forest, and it’s a beautiful, joyous thing.
For those who haven’t heard GAS before, the upcoming re-releases present the perfect opportunity to become familiar with what I truly believe is one of the most sublime chapters in the history of electronic dance music thus far. I know that sounds like I’m overstating things, but I’m really not. This is some of the most incredible music I’ve ever heard. I was absolutely stunned the first time I heard GAS, and every time I hear it I fall in love all over again. See you in the forest …
Postscript: Some overly detailed info about the re-releases, which kinda reveals how obsessive I am about GAS …
Details about the re-releases are a little confusing, with new information found here changing things since the first news reports came out. It seems Kompakt has pushed back the release of the four-CD boxset and the double-vinyl to June 10.
We also know more now about the double-vinyl release. It is strictly limited and, “The vinyl features one extended-edit track from each of the albums per side.”
Meanwhile, checking the May 22 news at the Raster-Noton website reveals that the 128-page book of Voigt’s GAS related photography is “coming soon.” Additionally, the Raster-Noton site reveals that the CD accompanying the book does not include Voigt’s 20 Minuten Gas Im November (recorded for Raster-Noton’s 20' To 2000 series), but instead features five tracks taken from Voigt’s “treasure chest” recorded between 1989 and 1998. Confusingly, the site says that, “4 of the 5 tracks have never been released or played before” but then goes on to say that, “all tracks [are] previously unreleased.”
Finally, there’s an excellent feature on Wolfgang Voigt that talks quite a bit about GAS in the May issue of The Wire.