Trance has been through a lot since it's emergence in the 90s. The genre is probably my “first love” as far as dance music goes (though, not electronic music in general). Over the years, I've let trance fall off my radar to a large extent… having moved on to more house, techno, disco, garage, and lounge-type sounds.
I had the idea to start a series of “The Last 5 Years” posts, and it only seemed appropriate to start with trance. Mainly, because I'm curious to what I'd dig up during my research. Though I do occasionally indulge, I don't know much about the current goings-on, and what's been happening for the past few years.
So, let's see what trance music has brought to the table since 2009.
The Modern Trance Sound
What constitutes trance music? It's been something hard to pin down for ages. People have been arguing about that since the so-called “golden era” of 1999 to 2002 (at least, that's what people called it in the mid-2000s).
Armin van Buuren is still the figurehead of the trance scene (as supported by his constant #1 spot on the TranceAddict Top 250 poll, and his only-recent ousting by dutch electro-house frontman Hardwell on the DJ Mag Top 100). Trance staples still seen in these top lists are in the vein of Above and Beyond, Markus Schulz, Dash Berlin, and Ferry Corsten.
It's worth mentioning that I put very little stock in popularity polls like this. However, I do find it fascinating to see how many trance names still dominate them… even though the genre is allegedly not as popular as it once was.
It does make sense upon further reflection, however. As I write this, I'm listening to Armin's 2013 Top 20. The first track is the W&W remix of Armin's own “This Is What It Feels Like”. And, other than the guitar-infused backdrop to the male vocals, the song is basically indistinguishable from the rowdy “big drop” Beatport EDM/electro sounds that have dominated for the past year or two.
As I listen, I find myself quite uninterested in this track. Of course, it's all a matter of taste… but this isn't what I remember trance being about. This just seems like Coldplay soft-pop remixed for an EDM audience… the kind of stuff that made me stray from the genre in the first place.
However, as I listen (not realizing that my player was on “shuffle”), the next track that plays is Ian Standewick's remix of “First Coming” by Ciro Visone. While the above track seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, this song is unmistakably trance… at least, as far as the big saw-wave, hands-in-the-air, uplifting sounds of 99 – 02 goes.
Though this track isn't the sort of thing I seek out to dance to in a night club anymore (I'm more of a 110 – 126 BPM groover than a 140 BPM panic-attack dancer), I recognize this. I get it. I can see myself listening to this while driving at night, even if it's only the feeling of nostalgia I get from this type of sound.
The track (Six Zero Zero) is similar in sound to the above track, and I start to realize that Armin's brand of trance and modern “Beatport house” are basically the same thing. The main difference would seem to be that the trance producers still filter their synths, the leads are still supported by “plucks”, and the chord progression lasts over a few more bars.
In my overall research of the current sounds in mainstream (?) trance, I found various takes on sounds that I remember from yesteryear: the buzzy electric basslines popularized by Ferry Corsten, overdriven “beep” leads that Tiesto introduced many years back, chopped vocals in the style of Above and Beyond/Andy Moor, and distorted arpeggios that I remember from the likes of Cosmic Gate and Breakfast. And, of course, the almighty supersaw hasn't gone anywhere.
Trance's Dark Underground
To this day, I am a big fan of the dark, brooding, sometimes tribal prog house/trance infusion that was originally popularized by labels like Bedrock and Platipus.
Fortunately, this sound is being kept alive by labels like Mistique Music. Some of it is the higher-BPM trance we're used to, and much of it is low-to-mid 120s stuff… but it all has a very engulfing and enticing sound that I find myself still enjoying.
This is the kind of stuff that makes me say, “here's what trance would sound like if James Holden and John Digweed still made it”.
In 2011, Simon Berry resurrected the Platipus name (after a brief rename as “Porcupine Records”). Since then, the label has continued releasing new music (as well as modern takes on old classics) by names like Art of Trance, POB, Chab, and Nikola Gala.
And then there's the camp that likes to ride the lines between psytrance, progressive, and the good old sounds of yesteryear. John Fleming and the JOOF camp immediately spring to mind.
My personal favorite producer of trance music, Airwave, released a series of amazing albums over the past 5 years. “Dark Lines” is a personal favorite of mine… being culled from sounds all over the spectrum and orchestrated beautifully in one cohesive album.
So impressed was I at his ability to return my attention to the genre, that I brought him on to the podcast to talk about the state of the trance scene and the life of a traveling DJ. You can listen to my interview with Airwave here.
“Trance is Dead”
Like disco and hip-hop, the death of trance has been proclaimed so many times that the phrase has really lost all meaning.
I heard this proclamation over-and-over again, when I was still listening to the genre regularly in 2004. Funny how a genre can still be dead after ten years of people saying so. If it were dead, people wouldn't have to keep saying it.
Fans of mid-90s Sasha and Digweed-style trance said the same thing when the “uplifting trance bubble” blew up in the early 2000s.
But it is fair to say that many people abandoned the style when it seemed to get too full of itself. To many (myself included), trance was always supposed to be about long progressions, slow builds, and ebb-and-flow. Trance was my introduction to the “journey” everyone always speaks of.
It's hard to have a journey when every single track is a full-on smash banger. The same criticism we have with so-called “EDM” right now.
But, as long as there are proponents of the genre willing to work hard to develop and support the sounds that they and their fans crave, I don't see the style going anywhere. I talked to one such trance-pusher about the subject, my friend Kenneth Thomas. KT has an impressive resume, having had long working relationships with people like Paul Oakenfold and getting played by the likes of Armin and Tiesto.
When I asked Kenneth about trance, and where he wanted to go with his new label IAMPHOENIX, he had this to say:
“Trance specifically was always more about a real journey through a night, through a set. An emotional journey that when done right, really culminates in almost a healing type result.
Thats what has really set “trance” apart over the years. Its not about just getting a groove, or bobbing your head. Nothing wrong with that type of set, just not what “trance” was ever meant to be. Trance was meant to be experienced; it was never about 1 track. To be honest, in my opinion, trance isn't even a genre. Its a description of a full start-to-finish set.
Somewhere in the waterfalls of money that are pouring onto the industry at the moment with this EDM explosion, a lot of the real purpose of what trance is got lost.
A lot of trance has been pulled into the full blast, non-step epic festival sound of EDM. The soul has been lost in many ways, the substance, the integrity of what it used to mean to be called a “trance” set.
With my label, IAMPHOENIX, we are trying to recapture some of the magic that was lost over the last few years in a lot of the trance realm. Many of these kids these days don't even know what it means to really have a 2 hour+ journey through music that really imparts something to their soul.
Personally, I've also really gotten back to my roots in the past 18 months. I never really got away from them, but at the same time I had focused on some other sounds as well as my progressive trance stuff. I will always have range as an artist, and I enjoy a ton of different styles of dance music, but moving forward I have made a stern re-focus to where my heart has always been with dance music. My interpretation of chunky, big room, melodic, emotional, progressive trance.
I am bringing a different option to the table when it comes to big room festival stuff. I'm still all about hands-in-the-air moments, massive epic peaks, but there is still a different mentality when the peaks are specifically built into properly and then built out of during the course of a night. Myself and IAMPHOENIX is about finding those special records that fit into those magical nights. Its about creating those supernatural moments through music.”
The “EDM bubble” is something that long-time DJs and fans of electronic music have lamented since it started a few years ago.
But the nice thing about any scene that gets its 15 minutes in the spotlight is that it tends to infuse the underground with new life, especially once the dust settles. According to some, the renaissance has already started (see the JOOF quote to the right).
I think it's safe to say that the genre isn't going anywhere, and it is perhaps more diverse than people give it credit for. Whether you're into the pop-infused uplifting trance of Armin's brand, the driving psychedelic sounds of John Fleming, the string-backed epics of Airwave, the deep and dark grooves being pushed by Mistique, or the melodic big-room sounds of Kenneth Thomas… there's still plenty out there for the estranged trance fan to explore. And as far as I can tell, the genre never stopped getting infused with new blood.
What Do You Think?
Are you a long-time trance fan? A former fan that fell by the wayside over the years? Or are you brand new to the genre?
What style resonates with you? Who is doing big things in the realm of trance? What is lacking in the scene?
I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!