Switched On – Various Artists: Total 20 (Kompakt)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Twenty years undefeated, Kompakt‘s annual round-up is a valuable line in the sand for lovers of their brand of quality electronic music and techno. It comes with a defiant message in what has been a difficult summer for dance music. ‘Music is our oxygen. We’ll dance together soon’.

What’s the music like?

Why change a winning formula? There are 23 tracks here from the Kompakt stable, bringing together established and new artists, adding a slew of exclusives and unreleased tracks, but still standing strong as a statement of what the Cologne label do best.

Style-wise there is something for everyone here, from the slower jam of Silicone‘s remix of Weval‘s Doesn’t Do Anything to the driving, sharp-edged textures of Marc Romboy‘s Stalker. Most of the cuts are instrumental but there are a couple of notable exceptions. Kiwi‘s Hello Echo is a nice disco-house cut in the spirit of The Juan MacLean, Bestley providing the excellent vocals, while Kölsch‘s urgent Remind You strikes a more paranoid tone.

Label head Michael Mayer contributes the nocturnal Agita, while Jonathan Kaspar‘s Licht is a really good combination of warm textures and bleeps. Jörg Burger‘s Surprise Yourself! is a classy affair, with rippling synth lines, while the rolling contours of Lose Control by David Douglas also impress. Best of all though is a rich piece of techno from Steve Moore, his soundtrack setting credentials coming to the fore in the superb Frame Dragging, a really good blend of urgency and warmth.

All this takes place alongside fine contributions from label staples Robag Wruhme, Jürgen Paape, Sascha Funke and Voigt & Voigt – not to mention strong stuff from Yotam Avni and the lively Blush from Christian Nielsen.

Does it all work?

Yes. This sort of compilation series might seem like a dying breed but Kompakt’s Total series works so well because of its variety, quality and new content, satisfying fans and newcomers alike.

Is it recommended?

Definitely. It is to be hoped the annual late summer appearance of the Total compilation will continue well beyond its twentieth year, for its regular slot in the calendar guarantees a new clutch of excellent electronic music. Listeners to the previous 19 will not be disappointed!

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Switched on – Yotam Avni: Was Here (Kompakt)

What’s the story?

For his debut album, Tel Aviv producer Yotam Avni is looking to combine two of his deep musical loves – Detroit techno and the sort of jazz you might hear on the ECM label. With that in mind, Kompakt is his ideal label home, and the Cologne label have been encouraging his solo output through a succession of well-received tracks and remixes. Avni is honing his sound, bringing it back to the elements – and Was Here, his first album after almost a decade of recording, is a clear statement of his musical identity.

What’s the music like?

The priority here is the rhythm, which Avni often sets out at the start of the track – but melody and texture come through as each piece develops to assume equal importance. There are some sultry atmospheres here, especially when the jazzier elements are introduced. The muted trumpet of It Was What It Was works very well, as does Free Darius Now.

A sparing use of vocals is also effective, meaning the guest appearances of Georg Levin (Island Hopper) and dOP (with trumpeter Greg Paulus on Just Another Day) really stand out. So too does Vortex, a really fine track that grows into its main feature, a hypnotic chant, creating a smoky atmosphere.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is classy deep techno but with a hot-weather twist, very atmospheric and with a few really nice elements worked in from other musical forms. Avni gets his rhythm tracks on the deep side and they provide a solid foundation on which he can always build.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Another good find for Kompakt! Highly recommended.

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Switched on – GAS: Oktember (Kompakt)

What’s the story?

This second EP from Wolfgang Voigt‘s GAS project actually dates from 1999, when it was released on Mille Plateaux, but now it has been ‘transferred’ to his home Kompakt label. There are only two tracks but half an hour of music, released in part to offer some comfort in isolation.

What’s the music like?

This is music for mindfulness. Tal 90, the first track, feels like it is played on vinyl, with the reassuring clicks and scratches serving as a background to Voigt’s fuzzy overall sound. His concept is orchestral, with serene violins high in the mix and a soft but majestic line for horn. There are no drums but the music floats in suspension, resulting in a comforting feeling for the listener.

The second track Oktember is much darker and denser, and has an immediately subtle menace to its sound. The steady tread of a four to the floor rhythm underpins thick, brooding chords, which are still strangely comforting despite their straight-faced approach.

Does it all work?

It does. GAS is an incredibly well-revered project and in all recent ambient music it remains one of the most recognisable styles. Time really does stand still when Voigt finds the right level of musical hypnosis, and Oktember finds him towards top form.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and if fans don’t already have it they will want to snap up these two recordings. They work particularly well as early morning or late night balm.

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Switched On – Various Artists: Velvet Desert Music Vol.2 (Kompakt)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The idea behind Velvet Desert Music is to present a modern alternative to those wide-open vistas created in the 1960s and 1970s by so-called ‘Acid Western’ films. Jörg Burger is the man Kompakt have tasked with this musical vision, and after a successful first instalment he broadens horizons further with this follow-up.

What’s the music like?

Just as Burger would have wanted, the music for Velvet Desert Music is wide open and easy on the ear, but it is also refreshingly off beat and unpredictable at times. He operates with a freedom that allows him to introduce grooves like Paulor’s WE two thirds of the way through, bringing a chunky ’80s beat to the bottom of the big horizons.

Occasionally the percussion does get quite congested, but not in a bad way, as Michael Mayer’s opening track Not So Far Away confirms. After that the musical camera pans out, establishing an easier, four to the floor beat with The Velvet Circle’s Vertigo, before the soothing vocal of Charlotte Jestaedt wraps around Mount Obsidian’s Ride.

Elsewhere the offbeat grooves of Fantastic TwinsBetween The Dog And The Wolf and Sascha Funke’s In Der Tat have a glint in the eye, while a second appearance from Mount Obsidian brings maximum bliss with the Cubenx edit of Casa Delfines, before some attractive Krautrock-style noodling from Lake Turner/WEM/Hand and East County Lines. Burger weighs in with his own Velvet 77 mix of Pluramon’s Dragon Slayer, showing a metallic edge to the steel guitar and flecks of piano, before The Novotones close with the starry-eyed Angel of Doomsday, and its sotto voce vocals.

Does it all work?

Pretty much. Burger keeps things ticking over nicely, and there are several moments where the inner ear loosens up very nicely. The track choices are good, and the blend of contrasting grooves keeps things interesting.

Is it recommended?

Yes, especially if you found the first volume to your taste. The second Velvet Desert Music works equally well on headphones or on surround sound, positioned ideally as a collection to offer easy going respite. And that, after all, is what we all need right now.

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Switched On – Kompakt: Total 19

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Cologne label Kompakt is one of the cornerstones of electronic music and techno. Around this time every year they dip in to the catalogue for a Total collection of exclusives, an annual occurrence for nearly two decades now – and as important as it ever has been for main man Michael Mayer, who oversees this selection.

He goes for a mixture of old and new, established and just setting out – all offering a rich variety of nearly three hours’ music. The aim, as Mayer says, it to ‘reinforce the bond between artists and listeners. They’re like your favourite restaurant round the corner’.

What’s the music like?

Mayer serves up plenty on the Kompakt menu. The first act of the double concentrates on the label’s staple acts, the likes of Jürgen Paape, Jörg Burger and Voigt & Voigt, the brothers delivering reliably strong techno.

Perhaps the two best tracks of the first part are Tom Demac’s Serenade, a really broad and lovely piece of piano-led, richly textured electronica – and the Albert Luxus track In Den Arm Bitte!, remixed with warm colours by Julian Stetter. DJ Balduin’s expansive E.W.B.A. is a fine piece of work, broken beats and big textures. Rex The Dog’s Vortex makes a strong impression too, as does Jonathan Kaspar’s fluid effort Renard.

Arguably it is the second part of newer material that makes the stronger impression, though it does get a bit more samey with its monotone minimal tracks towards the end. Fahrland makes an especially good contribution with Yesterday, darkly dramatic and with elements of Chicago house from Mz Sunday Luv, while the growling lower end bass of Extrawelt’s Pink Panzer gets the complement of some extra acidic tweaking up top. Patrice Baumel gives attitude with Grace, ANNA lets loose at the sharp end of techno with Remembrance, while Raxon proves a driving force with Dark Light.

Does it all work?

In the majority, yes. From the warmth and vulnerability of Weval’s opening track Are You Even Real to the final flourish of Gui Boratto’s 618, via the Kölsch mixing desk, this is a set of tracks that Mayer has clearly spent some time over. The high level watermark remains.

Is it recommended?

Yes – Kompakt are still on their game on this release, and the appearance of Total in the calendar is a reassuring reminder that their high quality thresholds are unlikely to dip any time soon.

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