There are plenty of musicians out there with whom you more or less know what you’re getting. Foo Fighters, Chemical Brothers, Celine Dion—a pigeonhole becomes a cozy nest, a status quo becomes a celebrated subgenre unto itself. We’re not supposed to have any qualms about this: Artists create, money is made, fans are pleased, critics are sated. So it goes with Gas, the ambient project of Kompakt Records co-owner Wolfgang Voigt that’s something of a household name in electronic music fandom.
This most spaced-out of his many stage names first came to light in 1995, inspired by hallucinogenic experiences near his childhood home in Koln. Peaking with 1999’s Königsforst (named for the forest where he took these trips), most of Voigt’s compositions as Gas follow a simple A+B formula: epic and sweeping sonic atmospheres with far-off yet persistent 4/4 techno beats. But after averaging a release per year to close out the 20th century Voigt effectively put Gas on the shelf, content to affix the name to just reissues and a scant few remixes.
Narkopop is the first completely new Gas music in 17 years. Like remembering how to ride a bike, it returns immediately to the stethoscope rhythms and seashell melodies that fill this particular back-catalog. True to its name, Narkopop is fuzzy like an opium haze, constantly undulating like tree branches laden with wind and talking insects. It fits almost perfectly into the oeuvre Voigt has created. But that’s a very important “almost,” especially for an artist and sound where familiarity breeds not contempt, but comfort.
The frontmost instrumental voices of the untitled tracks seem more staticky, and their melodies less clear, than prior Gas music. Voigt stretches out long passages suggesting horns, strings and massive guitar chords with the same certainty as before. Yet where he might alternate safe and discomfiting tracks on an album like Pop he seems to focus a bit more on minor keys and dissonance here. And he’s always only included mere hints of rhythm, yet there seem to be fewer kickdrums on Narkopop than usual, at an even greater aural distance.
This album also features more tracks (10) than any other Gas album, at some of the shortest lengths committed to tape. When you’re used to 12-minute ambient statements, manageable three-minute cuts feel like interludes. This might leave longtime fans grasping for a handhold. Narkopop isn’t entirely “narko” (music for sleeping or dreaming), nor is it “pop” (consistently head-nodding), but it’s much farther away from each than other Gas albums. For music long tied to consistency and subtlety, here’s proof that moving from microscopic changes to merely small ones can be a big deal. I understand Narkopop, but I enjoy it a lot less than its predecessors.