The Best Ambient Techno

The Kompakt label deserves some kind of cultural service award for Box. Released in the fall of 2016, this highly welcomed package collects the bulk of Wolfgang Voigt’s output under his GAS alias: the Zauberberg, Königsforst, and Pop albums, plus the Oktember 12-inch. Roughly 20 years after their release, these sublime recordings sound as if they were produced only yesterday. At times throbbing, and at other times profoundly glacial, they hover over the abyss between spellbinding beauty and subconsciously relaxing wallpaper, an aesthetic originally articulated by Brian Eno in the late ’70s.

There’s very little ambient music created in the 21st century that doesn’t owe the GAS titles a deep debt of gratitude, and after a 17-year absence, he’s set to redefine the medium once again with his new album, NARKOPOP. Yet as influential as he is, it’s hard to frame Voigt’s output as definitive ambient techno. In fact, it’s hard to cite any album as definitive due to the genre’s ambiguous identity. Like its fuzzy textures and formless expanses, from its very birth, ambient techno exists in a state of nebulousness.

Rewind to the first half of the ’90s—when the genre emerged as something of a cerebral chill-out tonic to rave’s relentless pounding, and artists as diverse as Aphex Twin, Biosphere, The Orb, Higher Intelligence Agency, Orbital, and µ-Ziq were all creating vastly different iterations of ambient techno. While the Aphex Twin classic “Xtal” is minimal and ethereal in ways that were extremely modern (and still are), HIA’s “Spectral” already felt nostalgic for dusty Jean-Michel Jarre albums when released in 1993. And then there are dub techno heavies like Basic Channel and Monolake—do they count as ambient techno? On the one hand, their explicit debt to dub reggae’s bass culture seems to place them in a parallel universe with it, yet what could possibly be more ambient than the time-expanding crackle, squelch, and hiss soaked into Basic Channel’s “Quadrant Dub I”?

Rather than attempt to lock ambient techno into a rigid definition, our playlist embraces this nebulousness. Prepare yourself for a deep and expansive journey, or since this is ambient music we’re talking about, simply press play and forget about it. That’s what Brian Eno would do.