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Control Voltage’s Friday Five: Remembering Pete Namlook

Pete Namlook

It’s been a sad week in electronic music. On Monday, London’s Martin Dawson died, 10 days after suffering an aneurysm in his studio. And yesterday, the ambient pioneer Pete Namlook (Peter Kuhlmann) was reported to have died “peacefully from as-yet-unspecified causes on 8th November,” according to a statement his daughter Fabia made to Resident Advisor.

It would be hard to overstate Namlook’s impact on the last 20 years of electronic music. While, in many ways, he existed apart — as Allmusic‘s Sean Cooper wrote, “If most artists in contemporary electronica are like islands unto themselves…Pete ‘Namlook’ Kuhlmann is a whole continent” — his influence continually fed back into the techno, trance, and ambient scenes. Namlook’s career predates the techno revolution of 1989; after studying composition, the Frankfurt musician began playing new-agey synth pop in the trio Romantic Warrior in the mid 1980s. By the early 1990s, he was making rippling trance under a variety of aliases — Syn, Escape, Deltraxx — both solo and in collaboration with colleagues like Dr. Atmo and Atom Heart. But Namlook became best known as a tireless proponent of ambient music, setting aside trance’s pile-driving beats and taking up a semi-permanent residence in the chillout rooms of the rave world (back when such things still existed). His label, Fax +49-69/450464 (generally shortened to simply Fax — the full name was identical with his actual fax number) kept up a ridiculously prolific release schedule, racking up more than 400 releases between 1993 and 2012, and it bridged styles and generations. Bill Laswell, Klaus Schulze, Tetsu Inoue, Uwe Schmidt (a.k.a. Atom Heart), Charles Uzzell-Edwards, David Moufang (a.k.a., Move D), Richie Hawtin, Geir Jenssen (a.k.a. Biosphere), Dandy Jack, Pascal F.E.O.S., Jonah Sharp (a.k.a., Spacetime Continuum), Mixmaster Morris, Steve Stoll, Jochem Paap (a.k.a., Speedy J), and Anthony Rother all recorded for the label, often in collaboration with Namlook himself.

I’m not deeply versed in the Fax catalog — the label’s hyper-prolific output always slightly intimidated me, to be honest — but several of the label’s releases have made a strong impact on me over the years. Thus, as a small tribute to Namlook, here’s a selection of my favorites.

Pete Namlook & Tetsu Inoue Shades of Orion 2 (Fax, 1995)
Somewhere between Brian Eno at his most ethereal and new age at its most abstracted, this 71-minute recording feels like a snapshot of infinity. Pipe organs, cathedral reverb, water sounds, and occasional electronic squiggles envelop drifting tones that sound like pitched-down whale song; spelled out, the list of elements may look hackneyed, but the effect is sublime. Music for an isolation tank.

The Fires of Ork “Gebirge” (Fax, 1993)
Namlook and Geir Jenssen (a.k.a., Biosphere) got together in 1993 to record The Fires of Ork, titled in reference to Blade Runner. The album’s heavier cuts recall a time when dance music and ambient weren’t mutually exclusive: “Talk to the Stars” begins with plangent pads and slowly gathers strength with a nervous acid burble before unfurling 4/4 kicks and trance arpeggios; both versions of “The Fires of Ork” play bleepy, atonal synths off reverb-soaked breakbeats, anticipating Biosphere’s classic 1995 track “Novelty Waves.” But the highlight here is “Gebirge” (“Mountains”), a 21-minute expanse of heavy pedal tones, measured pulses, and soft, eerie electronic chirps that peel off like birds darting through your peripheral vision.

Move D & Namlook “Drop Kick” (Fax, 1996)
Dave Moufang (a.k.a., Move D) and Namlook recorded more than 20 albums together; theirs was a particularly fruitful meeting of minds and styles, with Moufang’s sinewy, house-inspired drum programming rippling through Namlook’s aquatic sound-worlds. “Drop Kick,” from 1996’s Exploring the Psychedelic Landscape, is among their more rhythmically-oriented collaborations; its slinky, morphing beats and rubbery incidentals sound uncannily like the kind of music Ricardo Villalobos would begin making a few years later. A stunning example of truly psychedelic dance music.

Move D & Namlook “The Art of Love”
The title cut from 2005’s Move D / Namlook VIII – The Art of Love sounds like a response to Pole’s crackling ambient dub. But their synths are fuller and more tuneful; a horn line that sounds like Jon Hassell slinks through the upper reaches of the track while languid guitar tremolo nods to David Lynch.

Jochem Paap “Un-Klkkn” (Fax, 1999)
This isn’t a Namlook production, but I have to include it if only because Jochem Paap’s albums Vrs-Mbnt-Pcs 9598 I and Vrs-Mbnt-Pcs 9598 II, from 1999, served as one of my first introductions to the Fax label. I was a fan of the blistering techno Paap had recorded as Speedy J for Warp and Mute, but nothing prepared me for the beatless bliss and psychedelic drones of these two albums, which are right up there with Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II. (The similarity is probably no coincidence — just read Paap’s titles aloud, and you’ll see the implicit homage there.) For years, the last thing I did before bed was to cue up both discs in the CD changer. Whatever fantastic dreams I experienced in that period, I owe them to Namlook.