The trouble with too much trance music is that it sounds like somebody stole Erasure’s sequencers and just turned the tempo settings way up. In fact, people who get into electronica’s more cerebral elements like trip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass tend to dismiss trance as “cheap” and “disposable”, just like the best Abba-inspired synth pop. Does Dutch superstar DJ Armin Van Buuren’s latest mix CD explode those stereotypes? Well, yes and no.
Or, to be more in line with the two discs featured here, no and yes. Let’s get one thing straight: Van Buuren knows his trance. He knows that it’s supposed to keep a shed-full of kids bouncing and contorting into the wee hours of the morning. He knows it’s supposed to give the People a little emotion to go along with their THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. He knows it’s all about dynamics. In short, he knows that if trance were a rock group, it would be U2 circa The Joshua Tree. So, from the beginning of the first disc, the beats keep coming. The breakdowns and blowups modulate the music like a crashing tide. But there isn’t anything here that’s so transcendent that it would sound particularly interesting off the dancefloor (or, in this case, the home workout equipment—ah, to be young again…).
The first disc is most successful when Van Buuren’s selections take the “Moby approach”: two chords, usually at least one of them minor, a pretty synth tone that slowly builds in volume and intensity, a pulsating bass line. Solid Globe’s “Sahara” and Perpetuous Dreamer’s “Future Funland” are two of the better examples. The best track on the first disc (and maybe the entire album), though, is Van Buuren’s own “Burned with Desire”. Even though Van Buuren claims that he doesn’t like “the euphoric cheese with vocals”, his is one of the only tracks here with vocals. Hmm. To be fair, though, it’s not exactly euphoric, thanks to some warm, melancholy vocals from Justine Suissa. Not surprisingly, the words “skin”, “desire”, and “rain” are featured. Most of the songs simply go through the 120bpm motions, though. They’re swathed in that same shimmering metallic sheen that’s great for the clubs but not much else.
The first disc also begs the question: is there an unwritten law that all trance anthems must feature that one lead synth noise that sounds like the air horns you hear at sporting events? Thankfully, the second disc answers, “no”, and proves the point by stripping everything down and letting some layers settle. It’s prettier, more interesting, and no less danceable. Michael Burns’s “The Ambience” and Peter Martin’s “Perfect Wave” even convey some palpable tension; suddenly, the percolating basslines are not so much motivating as menacing. The dancefloor walls are closing in, and Van Buuren’s mix is a better thing for it.
Van Buuren clearly has a vision for what he wants “trance” to be, and he does a pretty good job of balancing it with what most people who buy this album are going to be expecting. In time, he just might convince his colleagues to give Erasure their sequencers back and start from scratch.