Pete Namlook

The extremely prolific Pete Namlook (1960-2012) was one of the high priests of new-school ambient, ie. ambient techno, trance, lounge and other related dance-music spinoffs. In its 20 year history his record label Fax Records released some of the definitive albums in these sub-genres.

artist:
Pete Namlook

country of origin:
Netherlands/Germany

style(s):
Chillout, ambient techno/trance/dub, ethno ambient, world beat, orchestral, jazz

decades active:
80's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Silence I & II [with Dr Atmo] (1992/1993, Fax)
  • Silence III (1998, Fax)
  • Silence IV (2000, Fax)
  • Silence V (2001, Fax)
  • Air I & II (1993/1994, Fax)
  • Air III (1996, Fax)
  • Dreamfish [with Mixmaster Morris] (1993, Fax)
  • The Fires Of Ork [with Gier Jenssen] (1993, Fax/Apollo)
  • From Within [with Richie Hawtin] (1994, Fax/Minus)
  • From Within 3 [with Richie Hawtin] (1997, Fax/Minus)
  • Die Welt ist Klang: A Tribute To Pete Namlook (2013, Carpe Sonum)

Reviewed by Mike G

Dutch-born but based for most of his working life in Germany, the extremely prolific Pete Namlook (1960-2012) was one of the high priests of new-school ambient, ie. ambient techno, trance, lounge and other related dance-music spinoffs. In its 20 year history his record label Fax Records released some of the definitive albums in these sub-genres and Namlook stands alongside a handful of other names such as The Orb, Biosphere and Mixmaster Morris as one of the originators of ambient's resurgence and reinvention via dance music in the late 80's and early 90's.

Intriguingly, he often favoured the sounds of analogue synthesisers over digital and - alongside fellow German e-musician Oliver Lieb - was reputed to have one of the most extensive collections of classic analogue equipment in Europe. And although he downplayed the linage, like many of his new-school peers his music has some of its roots in old-school electronica as varied as Brian Eno, psy rockers Pink Floyd, and Krautrock icons like Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream.

But Namlook was no imitator. He deepened and refined the sound of his predecessors with an injection of fresh ideas from the dance world, coupled with fine musicianship honed from many years of playing rock and jazz. In a 2007 interview with e-music magazine Slices he actually made a point of distancing his music from the conceptual influence of Eno particularly:

"You have to differentiate quite clearly between ambient in a techno sense, and on the other hand Brian Eno, a purely conceptual thing. I only knew of a collaboration between Brian Eno and Cluster [the German band], and him with Roxy Music. I only bought his ambient stuff later. Ambient as Eno defines it...is more or less musical wallpaper. It stays in the background and serves the environment rather than saying something about itself. In my definition of ambient, which has nothing in common with Eno's definition, it's about a journey, intense emotions that need to be transported - environmental music, jazz, ethno - depending on what project I'm working on".

The genesis of Fax Records

Although he had long dreamed of making a career from ambient electronica, in Fax Records' early days he was mainly pursuing a dance floor-oriented direction and releasing 12-inch vinyl singles to a warm reception from sectors of Europe's club scene.

But Namlook soon became dismayed at other artists' appropriation of the Frankfurt "hard trance" sound (developed through his genre-defining 4 Voice project). Thankfully his ambient B-sides to these singles - in hindsight a brilliant strategy - were also creating plenty of interest. Within a few years of the label's inception he had set about focusing Fax almost entirely on ambient and downtempo styles.

Up to his death in 2012 Namlook released an enormous number of solo and collaborative albums of widely varying quality both under his own name and various other project monikers. Collectors should be aware that many CD's were very limited pressings and some will be difficult to find, even more so now that Namlook has gone and the label is no more. Certain key titles were re-issued on CD and download from time to time, however, and much of the Fax catalogue is now spread widely online.

While some Fax compilations are also recommended starting points, the Namlook solo albums listed above equally good introductions to the label. If you enjoy them, then there are 100's more Fax releases to explore.

The Silence series

Silence (1992) is the one that started it all, Fax's first album release and one which caught the ear of both seasoned electronic boffins and dance fans looking for a chilled-out tonic after a night among the thumping beats of clubland.

Both this album and Silence II (1993) are collaborations with close associate Dr Atmo and despite being at times almost new age in their choice of themes (a voice whispers sweet cosmic nothings like "we are all part of the universe") the music is outstanding. These beguiling, shimmering, reverberant landscapes are sometimes beatless and sometimes gently beaty with subdued live pads and cymbals. The 20 minute "Garden Of Dreams" is a particular mesmerising blend of slow Mid-Eastern rhythms with sighing and crying electronic chords.

Continuing the series is the the Persian-tinged Silence III (1998) which features Namlook on his own. Titles like "Mirage" "Into The Desert" and “A Ship On A Sea Of Sand” are just perfect; his sense of place is quite stunning and he understands the visual qualities of ambient sound exceptionally well. His creative range across entire series is impressive: from stately progressions of warm, organic-sounding orchestral synthscapes to atonal, purely atmospheric pieces of pure texture. When it comes to sound design Namlook’s attention to detail is faultless, which makes hearing his music on good hi-fi equipment especially rewarding. Silence III is followed by two more superb albums in the series (see below ).

Dreamfish

The surreal, innovative first volume of Dreamfish (1993) with collaborator Mixmaster Morris is another genre-defining release, still cited today as a favourite by fans of early post-rave ambient. The environmental sound effects are deployed in a quirky way amongst the textured, gently rhythmic landscapes and the music brims with surprises and quiet invention. The jazzy bass notes on "Fishology", for example, move along at a good clip yet are so subtle that the track's calming qualities are never disturbed.

The Air series

The first three volumes of the Air series are also high-water marks for Namlook. Like the Silence series they show some rich ethnic and neo-classical leanings, and they remain particularly effective examples of how he uses live acoustic instruments in an electronic setting. The delicate, tinkling cymbals and soft tom-tom beats on "Je suis seule et triste ici" from Air I (1993), for instance, are utterly refreshing because Namlook is able to maintain a deep electronic ambient feel while still expanding electronica's instrumental vocabulary.

Air II (1994) is deeply psychedelic. An eleven-part "trip" subtitled "Traveling Without Moving", it takes it's thematic cue from Frank Herbert's cult sci-fi novel and movie Dune. Herbert's story posited a strange universe dependant on a life-extending, mind-altering spice drug. On Air II Namlook subtly draws on the story's themes to create a beautiful, creepy, intoxicating universe of his own. Again he utilizes acoustic instruments: didgeridoo, sighing woodwinds, flamenco guitar, Mid-Eastern flutes, and swooping vocal textures that rise and fall to striking effect. They're all integrated seamlessly, proving that despite the club music influences he thrived by exploring outside the rigid structures of electronic beats and sequencing.

Other collaborations

Although as an artist Namlook's focus was far broader than just club-influenced sounds, when he did get into more squelchy or bleepy techy-trance territory the results could be just as stimulating.

On the brilliant two-part title track from The Fires Of Ork (1993) that thumping 4/4 kick drum is there alright, but somehow Namlook and cohort Gier Jenssen (aka Biosphere) have managed to mute it just enough to create a truly "ambient" dance music: thunderous yet shadowy and eerie, built around a voice sample of Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner.

Also beats-based is the the superb first volume of From Within (1994), one of the pinnacles of ambient techno that marries Namlook's warm keys and spiralling synth sounds with the sparse bleeps and beats of Canadian techno guru Richie Hawtin. Again, the rhythms don't drive you into the ground but rather lull you into a gentle if uneasy trance, particularly on "Million Miles To Earth" and "Sad Alliance". The third in this series, From Within III (1997) is also outstanding (see below).

Namlook after the mid 90's

While many aficionados would agree that the early to mid 1990's produced most of Fax's - and Namlook's - most enduring releases, it would be unfair to dismiss some of Namlook's work since then.

Highlights from 1995-2001 include the final volumes in what is probably Namlook's greatest series, the magnificent Silence IV (2000) and Silence V (2001). The luminous piano notes and warm orchestral synths of "The Night Before I Left" from Silence IV might just be the most emotional piece of music Namlook has ever made, an elegy that's at once incredibly sad and jaw-droppingly pretty. From the same album is the extraordinary "Bedouin Love", a dark, swirling epic with thunderous Moroccan drums, a strange spoken Arabic monologue and chilling yet beautiful synthesiser chords.

In the same sonic universe as the Silence albums is From Within 3 from 1997, again made with Richie Hawtin but this time quite different from earlier volumes due to its softer, warmer sound. There's feather-soft lead guitar lines, lush strings, jazzy improvising and warm analogue melodies, all held together by subtle, intelligent drum programming. It's a fantastic example of accessible, soulful electronica.

In the 2000's and beyond Namlook continued with a busy release schedule of solo albums and collaborations but rarely with the same impact his music made in the previous decade. Not that there's lack of variety; for hardcore Fax fans there's plenty to explore. Experimental releases like New Organic Life (2002) are scarily unfamiliar, experimental, arguably unlistenable at times. Some outstanding individual melodic tracks appear on otherwise less-then-great albums such as Resonate (2006) and Namlook Le Mar (2009). However, some of his other collaborative albums made after the mid 90's - not listed on this page - are highly recommended including recordings with Tetsu Inoue, Klaus Schulze and Wolfram Spyra.

Death and legacy

Aged just 51, Namlook (real name Peter Kuhlmann) died suddenly in his sleep of a heart attack on 8 November 2012. Maintaining his intense work rate right up to the night he passed away, some wondered whether Namlook simply drove himself into the ground, literally living and dying for his art. Yet his sister told UK music journalist Mark Prendergast that "he went to bed happy" that day. Who are we to judge?

Namlook left behind an extraordinary and enormous recorded legacy, as well as a generation of underground electronic producers and composers inspired by both his talents and his uncompromising independence. Fax Records is no more, though for the moment a good deal of his discography remains available. Hopefully a sensible licensing deal with the Kuhlmann estate will enable another publisher take on the best of his catalogue and keep it available in the coming decades. He deserves no less.

The tribute: Die Welt ist Klang

A superb Namlook tribute album appeared in 2013, almost as essential as any of the work released by the man himself. Die Welt ist Klang ("The World Is Sound") was put together in 2012-13 via a crowdfunding campaign by Dave Wade-Stein from EAR/Rational Music, the longtime North American distributor for Fax and related labels. The album is presented thus: four volumes of mostly new or unreleased music by former Fax artists, and four volumes of new material by mostly unknown musician-fans.

It's only fitting that one of the most prolific recording artists in the history of music - in all recorded music, not just a genre - should be honoured with a sprawling 8-volume tribute. It would take pages to review so much music in detail; suffice to say the standard of contributions overall is very high. Interestingly, most of the former Fax artists here don't seek to recapture peak moments from their past works. They just do what they do - from beatless ambient to bleepy dance grooves, from lounge to techno, from gentle dissonance to sweet, tender melodies. As for the the 40 or so musician-fan contributions, they were chosen from a large pool of submissions by a blind vote. Although there are some easy-to-spot pastiches among them, here too there is much freshness and surprise.

Die Welt ist Klang is a massive treasure chest of (mostly) new ambient and electronica. Some of it is the sound of now and some of it wistfully looks back. All of it acknowledges the contributions and example of one remarkable man.

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