As Pop Ambient 2018 hits the shops, a small, nagging question can’t help but arise: Do we really need another installment of the Kompakt label’s annual collection of soothing mood pieces? After nearly 20 editions, hasn’t the series said everything there is to say about its meditative brand of tunes? It would be hard to argue that this latest edition, once again compiled by Kompakt co-leader Wolfgang Voigt, brings anything truly new to the series, or that it provides any major twist — which is another way to say that the compilation, as always, is brimming with atmospheric, hugely evocative music.
There’s a hushed intimacy to much of Pop Ambient 2018 — each shudder and swoon can induce a wealth of feelings — but that intimacy is often molded into something approaching grandeur. On both “Prism” and “Nine Chains to The Moon,” both from Yui Onodera, slowly unfolding orchestral melodies elicit imagery of a grand vista, just coming into view as the mist lifts. Chuck Johnson’s “Brahmi” delivers a similar effect via its spectral shimmers and gliding steel-pedal accents, while on Würden & Pfeiffer’s aptly named “Panorama,” fluttering washes of sound and a wistful horn conjure up a sunrise over a spring meadow.
Occasionally, an ever-so-slight hint of rhythmic propulsion comes along to sharpen the soft-focus feel of these songs, as on Kaito’s “Travelled Between Souls,” where sweeping pads are punctuated by gentle percussive flourishes. “Disinclined to Vacate,” from electronic-music polymath Kenneth James Gibson, plays like a dreamland lullaby, its gently spiraling synth line rising through the clouds before reaching its bittersweet, all-too-brief coda. The Orb provides the album’s most propulsive track (granted, that’s not saying much in this company) via “Sky Falling,” with desert-moon drumming underpinning a stream of scraping textures, gracefully chiming keys, and what sounds like a particularly languid sax.
The term glacial is often employed to describe the kind of music that Pop Ambient focuses on, but that’s only half right. It’s an apt description of the pacing of these tracks — it’s the kind of music that derives its allure through placid ebb and flow, rather than angular shifts. But temperature-wise, it’s anything but icy — there’s a resonating warmth to these tunes that’s almost reflexively appealing. We may not need another installment of Pop Ambient — but as always, it comes as a welcome respite, as a soothing sanctuary from life’s turmoil.