Naysayers like to say "nay" about the fate of the album in the age of the single-serving download and the ever-shuffling iPod. But when it comes to Nah und Fern, the new four-disc retrospective set from Cologne techno guru Wolfgang Voigt's nom de knob Gas, the endless, seamless long-play a 'Pod playlist offers might be the best way to hear and fully come to terms with this magnum opus. Released as single CDs between 1996 and 2000, Gas, Zauberberg, Königsforst, and Pop each dazzled and perplexed electronic-music fans with their subtly varied washes of frosty sound, leavened with the occasional 4/4 thump. Contemporary reviews of the individual discs tended to wrestle with locating the aim behind each, the difference between them. Listened to as one extended flow, though, such angel-pinhead-dancing is subsumed to a larger view.
In a rare interview in a recent issue of The Wire, Voigt linked his Gas project to his long-abiding interest in tying the German music and culture of the past to the music of its present, most directly by using samples of music from composers such as Wagner, Schoenberg, and Berg for his building blocks. (Schoenberg and Berg were Austrian, but who's counting?) Nah und Fern frames the four discrete discs as a document of one long composition itself.
The luxurious swell and ebb of massed orchestral strings is right there in the first untitled track of the first disc, though in the context of music made by the man behind the revered Kompakt techno label it could easily be mistaken for mere "ambience." Indeed, Voigt seems to play with the tropes of late '90s techno throughout the disc, from the marching beat first deployed on track two, to the lowing ambient tones (strings again, sounds like) on track three, to the almost trance-ish melodies of track five. Zauberberg takes a less outgoing turn; when the 4/4 returns on the second track, it is subdued and mixed down compared to the slightly more clubby sound of the self-titled set. By track four, it's down to a hushed, foggy cardiac lub-dub, setting an energy level that continues through the penultimate track. On track seven, the sound of strings sighing a see-sawing melody breaks through, creating a benedictory glow.
Third disc Königsforst picks right up where the last track of Zauberberg left off, underpinning more heavily filtered, piercingly melancholy string fragments with that lub-dub beat. The music's orchestral DNA is never more present than it is here, and during the overtly Wagnerian horn bellows that define track six, neither is its overt German-ness. Yet as track six ends the disc, Voigt turns back toward the purely electronic, filtering and looping his source sounds into tintinabulant abstraction, a direction that continues on the culminating Pop. The fourth disc of Nah und Fern isn't pop music, exactly, though a turn toward sunnier sounds and a less-fraught vibe keeps the title from being completely ironic, at least up until the final two tracks of vaguely string-driven brood. Regardless, it represents Voigt's return to the world of electronic music as more typically practiced at the turn of the millennium, though listening to Nah und Fern as a complete whole makes the "world of electronic music" seem a little too confining to hold what Voigt created here, by design or happenstance. It certainly makes it difficult to ever consider the individual discs as anything but incomplete ever again.