A pioneer shows a genre's formula.
Paul Van Dyk, the trance pioneer and oft-revered figurehead of electronic dance music, has been making and releasing music since his days as a radio broadcaster in the early ‘90s after fleeing the oppression of East Germany. Over time, he’s built up a devoted fan-base and an impressive amount of serious accolades, including being the only person to hold a spot as one of the top 10 DJ’s in the world since 1998. He was also part of the very first group of nominees for the Grammy’s Best Dance/Electronic Album award. All of this can be traced back to his first step towards major popularity with a 1993 remix of Humate’s “Love Stimulation”. He’s come a long way since then, gained a lot of production budget and value, and achieved notoriety in his genre making it easy to find collaborators—all of this is evident on his latest offer, the sarcastically-titled Evolution.
However, even with all the changes since he began making music, the genre he confines himself to is so overwhelmingly limited in what succeeds that he falls into an understandable trap: repetition. When these songs are deconstructed and picked apart piece by piece, they don’t stand alone and show just how formulaic EDM (Electronic Dance Music) can tend to be. While it may work for a marathon dance or workout section and prove to be a pretty killer mix for such affairs, as something to sit down and listen to, it doesn’t work. It’s too disjointed, too repetitive, too formulaic, and ultimately too boring. There are strong moments, to be sure, most notably when he strays from the standard pulsating EDM 4/4 beat and deviates from the tempo. That doesn’t happen nearly enough though and Van Dyk instead chooses to spend most of the album featuring people like Owl City’s Adam Young, who’s quite possibly one of the worst artists operating under the blanketed guise of EDM.
The real problems don’t just stop at formula and repetition, though. Evolution suffers greatly due to its insistence on sticking to what Van Dyk probably perceives as a gold standard. Unfortunately for him what this means for the listener is being forced into tired retreads that bring to mind a variety of other tracks, for instance “Verano” sounds like it could be something that backed a song by The Lonely Island at their most satirical, who often use production as a means to poke fun at the over-blown bombastic nature of this particular style of music. Nearly everything on Evolution comes off as a conscious retreat to EDM’s more popular days in the mid-to-late ‘90s.
Not all of Evolution is a burden, though. Some of the guest vocalists really help elevate some of the songs here, like Plumb’s really impressive vocal turn on “I Don’t Deserve You”, the albums halfway point or Sue McLaren & Arty showing up one track later on the album’s first genuine highlight, “The Sun After Heartbreak” and Michelle Leonard during the slow gorgeous break in “Lost in Berlin” that doesn’t last nearly as long as it should. For the most part, the album actually gains worth and causal listen-ability thanks to the vocalists, which unfortunately says more about them than Van Dyk. Although, it must be noted, the production quality on this is uniformly high and virtually everything is well put-together- it’s just not interesting.
Evolution‘s final fatal drawback is its length—at a punishing 92 minutes it begins to become insufferable at around the halfway point and makes it nearly impossible to not only reach, but appreciate, Evolution‘s absolute best track, “If You Want My Love”. Not only does it feature a different kind of pattern and structure than the others, it boasts the most intriguing set of lyrics and an understated vocal performance from Caligola. At times the track recalls Hot Chip who have been doing really interesting things with their EDM-tinged music since The Warning. It also really helps that “If You Want My Love” is short and doesn’t wear out its welcome like nearly every other track on Evolution. “If You Want My Love” comes off as one of the album’s most heartfelt and genuine moments and, somewhat unfortunately for the rest of the album, shows not only that Van Dyk is capable of innovative work but also underscores how generic the rest of Evolution is.
There’s no doubt that Van Dyk will maintain his relevance and (possibly misplaced) worship with Evolution as it adeptly combines accessibility with nostalgia but it will also serve as a reminder to skeptics of how tired old EDM has become. When a retreat is cause for celebration and curiousity, that should be an indicator that there’s something inherently wrong with the direction the genre has taken and how it has grown. While Evolution is certainly well-crafted it won’t be nearly enough to invigorate or re-invigorate anything or anyone. When a purported evolution is actually a surrender to retreat there are problems and this particular Evolution has them in spades.
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