- When Arnold Schoenberg devised twelve-tone serialism in the 1920s, he claimed it would “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years". Similarly, Kompakt founder Wolfgang Voigt has always been about creating a distinctly German form of music, although this time not in opposition to atonal composition but to Anglo-American pop. The result has been twenty years of techno records defined by what Voigt has humorously described in the Wire as “boofta-boofta-boofta”, a sound which he claims represents the "deep soul of German techno".
Following an epiphany with UK acid house in the eighties, Voigt pursued this project obsessively, producing literally hundreds of tracks under almost as many monikers. Plenty of these records were released in series form, each with its own conceptual agenda, although all are united by that omnipresent 4/4 thud. Distinct from the dance tracks is Voigt’s Gas project, which had a more ambitious agenda: the aim was to produce ambient/experimental tracks by running German cultural history – from Schlager to Wagner – through a sampler. This same process defines the sound of all Gas releases: Voigt creates loops of crackly brass and woodwind phrases, and then obscures this source material with dense layers of processing, smearing the sound into a hazy, bloated wash that shimmers like the blurred contours of a Rothko painting. Underneath all of this is often an unwavering bass drum, the pulse which gives the clouds focus.
Nah un Fern is a collection of the four Gas albums Voigt produced for Mille Plateaux in the late nineties, now subtly remastered and lavishly repackaged for Voigt’s own label Kompakt. For all its coherence, a clear sense of development can be discerned through the series. The first moment of Gas is archetypal, a thick symphonic chord, but the rest of the album is more tentative: track 2 (all pieces on all albums are untitled) has the same aquatic chug as Wassermann, here lost at sea; while track 4 is equally jarring, pairing Stockhausen’s loom from Trans with the spit and crackle of fire.
By Zauberberg, Voigt’s methods have become more focused, closely evoking the dark, blood-red forest found on the cover. Track 1 is again beatless, with the crunch of leaves underfoot accompanying a rich drone which, like Angelo Badalementi, wavers between hope and dread. On track 3, large groupings of what once might-have-been strings swoop down into a vast orchestral mass, knocked further astray by a skewed waltz reference. Track 5 starts out in Sähkö mode, with nothing but a kick and a spectral pulse panning the field; while Track 6 rolls turbulent, thunderous waves over planes of strings and possible snatches of chorus. Zauberberg ends as it begins, beatless, but here the air of calm signals the release of death.
With its golden cover, Konigsforst evokes a sunnier hue, but again the mood is ambiguous. Tracks 2 and 4 both contain brief melodic fragments, whispered chiming notes which float up the scale, but these are weighed down by a dense low-end undertow. Track 4 is even heavier, a long, low growl akin to the industrial drones of Thomas Koner or Deathprod. With its strident horn overture riding triumphantly over white noise, Track 5 is one of Gas's more dynamic moments, smearing Wagner's Das Rheingold onto the muddied walls of an abandoned discotheque.
2000’s Pop was Voigt’s final and most assured statement as Gas, but it's also his most perplexing. The grey static is gone, replaced by viscous streams of flickering colour, but these are so rich as to be blinding. The opening two pieces are almost indistinguishable, a restive downpour battered by warped synth phrases and reverse cymbal crashes—some of the most beautiful music I've heard. Beats appear on only two tracks, including the finale, an epic march whose dusty, shifting forms Axel Willner would study to form The Field.
Coinciding with reissue of a number of seminal early Detroit albums, this welcome release hopefully represents a growing interest from younger listeners in exploring techno's more exciting peripheries. Gas is a towering work, a profound meditation on music and history—it’s what Schoenberg would produce if he'd lived into the sampling age.