Nostalgia can be a dangerous indulgence. While the past may be a nice place to visit, or so the saying goes, I really wouldn’t want to live there. Problem arise when the impulse for nostalgic rediscovery crosses over from an inclination into an aesthetic—it becomes hollow and ugly, a regressive attempt at escaping the pressures of the now by entering the idealized conception of a past that can only really exist in the mind.
The tendency to shortchange the present in favor of a utopian past is sometimes an overpowering urge in the reams of electronic dance music. The same club culture that exerts a powerful hold on the hearts and minds of millions of clubgoers worldwide also creates an inflated currency out of the memories of famous clubs past. A club has an inevitably short life—the business of running a nightclub is so inextricably wound with the business of fashion that even the most popular clubs eventually close their doors. Everything in fashion is cyclical, but while you’re waiting for your particular style to come back into vogue it’s worth it to know that the only things that stay popular forever are little black dresses and bluejeans. Everything else is ephemera.
So don’t pay too much attention to the packaging for this set. There’s a lot of people in the liner notes talking about what the wore on the first Renaissance night back in 1992, how cranky the doorman was and how trippy the high Italian Renaissance artwork projected on the walls was. Ignore their reminiscences, pay no heed to their nostalgia. Renaissance could have been the greatest dance club in the history of mankind, but even Studio 54 closed its doors. There will always be more clubs.
The Renaissance label has never struck me as particularly modest, and this set is no exception to that rule. It has always seemed that the daft pretense of their mix-CD packaging, featuring excerpts from classical Renaissance art to match the art displayed in the clubs, was perfectly matched by the prevailing ponderousness of the bloated prog-house and trance mixes which have composed the bulk of their output. But please, in this instance don’t let the self-serving nostalgia and portentous imagery of this deluxe package divert you from the real attraction: the beautiful, beautiful music herein.
1994 was a good year for dance music. Some have called it the end of a “Golden Age”—and while I may be loathe to subscribe to such a heedlessly utopian label (this is the same era that gave us Rednex’s “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, after all), there is definitely no doubt that it was a high-water mark in the music’s continuing evolution. The acid house explosion of the late 80s was still petering out, and house was being cross-bred and mutated into dozens of new and different strains, the entirety of the British Isles serving as a kind of radical petri dish for new and exciting forms of electronic noise. It would be difficult to graph the evolution of the form through a direct familial lineage, but there was definitely an order of descendence, and this set is a perfect snapshot of perhaps the last possible moment in time before the genus split from a common ancestor into a dazzling variety of diverse species. You can almost feel the tension in the music, as the differing attributes that would come to dominate later strains such as trance, progressive house, hard house and breakbeat jostle for prominence. The mix’s three CDs offer a rich and varied sound, full to the brim with the electric synergy that only comes with free cross-pollination.
Of course, the dance music scene would soon fracture. The decade since this collection was originally published has seen the ascendance of countless genres, reflecting the disparate nature of the dance music community itself. Like fashion, the music became needlessly organized around cliques, and this eventually led us to where we are now, with hard-house and progressive trance and progressive breaks and funky breaks and who know how many strange permutations, and none of them on speaking terms with the other. So there’s certainly a part of me that pines wistfully for the halcyon days when variety was considered a virtue and not a vice in dance music—but, again, lets not get caught up in nostalgia!
The music sounds as good as it ever has, thanks to some excellent remastering. There have been a few track changes and substitutions, however, and while it hardly effects the listening experience, these changes (precipitated, I would guess, by licensing difficulties) do hinder the set’s efficacy as a historical document. Regardless, it’s still a wonderful package.
The first disc begins with a virtuoso performance, blending three distinct mixes of Leftfield’s classic “Song of Life” (the Lemon Interrupt [AKA Underworld] mix, the Dub for Life mix, and the Steppin’ Razor mix) into a seamless and majestic whole. It begins with a deep dubby burbling, a cavernous echo that rises from the floorboards until it gradually transforms into a monstrous, massive, almost elementally powerful engine, and then swinging smoothly into “For What You Dream Of”, an early Bedrock production.
As a rule I avoid trance. It has always been the most hopelessly obvious genre in dance music, built around the most gratingly derivative melodic structures and cursed with relentlessly unimaginative production. But as of this recording, the driving hard beats of acid house hadn’t yet been fully emaciated in the evolution to the more melodic trance sound, and the result is quite unmistakably good. There are even some old-school American-style house vocals, in particular an a capella plate of Inner City’s “‘Til We Meet Again” set over the thumping danger of Bladerunner’s “Remake” that achieves a truly profound synthesis.
After an aggressive first disc, the second and third discs reveal more of the shape of an actual clubbing night: there are peaks and troughs, quiet interludes and momentous climaxes. The driving beat that began the set never quite disappears, advancing like a heartbeat through the perpetual night.
The third disc begins and ends with a pair of historical highlights, the Nightmare Mix of Moby’s “Go” and Lemon Interrupt’s “Dirty”. I must commend the DJs for including “Go”, considering the fact that by 1994 this song must have been absolutely dead, having been flogged to death in every club across the planet and having even cracked Top 40 radio—they showed some telling foresight in realizing that it would eventually surpass its novelty status to become a recognized classic. Lemon Interrupt was an early incarnation of Underworld, and “Dirty” would later become “Dirty Epic”, an integral track off their breathtaking debut, 1994’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman. Listening to these discs offer a fascinating glimpse of the climate in which Underworld incubated their still-distinctive sound, a holdover from earlier days when it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for acid house and trance to meet and mingle in the mezzanine.
This set is an essential education for anyone with even a slight interest in the history of electronic dance music. As a historical document it is an unparalleled look at a crucial period in the development of the diverse and far-ranging genres which compose our modern musical scene. However, regardless of the set’s massive influence, it is above all an incredibly enjoyable thrill-ride, an irrepressibly euphoric experience that comes scarily close to replicating the experience of peak-time clubbing at its best. So forget the blather about how great a club Renaissance was, and ignore the silly trance and prog-house that Sasha & Digweed would later become fatally associated. Just enjoy this music for what it is in the here and now, and that should be good enough for anyone.