I need to figure out some way to properly categorize Paul van Dyk. See, I actually like a lot of what he does. Most people would say that he produces trance, and yet I steadfastly do not like trance. Something here does not add up.
Last year’s solo artist album Reflections saw van Dyk branching out into surprisingly funky territory. It wasn’t exactly Fatboy Slim, but it was a diverse set that featured a number of tracks set apart from the normal trance template. Experimenting with more conventional house and breaks, in addition to his more austere style of trance, Reflections forced me to reappraise my previous low opinion of the man’s work.
Despite the return to a more orthodox trance sound, van Dyk’s second Politics of Dancing mix is also surprisingly enjoyable. I believe the reason why I find van Dyk’s work so much more tolerable than many of his peers in the trance world is that his music is consistently interesting, i.e. far more musically adept than most of his peers’ work. Trance is one of the most doggedly formulaic genres in all of music, and at its extreme it rivals black metal and pop country in terms of sheer predictability. If you’ve heard one rising synthesizer crescendo over a mid-tempo house beat, you’ve heard them all. Even the structures of the songs themselves are locked into ancient patterns, with introductions, peaks, valleys, breakdowns and outros designed with an eye towards replicating the exact same formula that has worked literally thousands of times before.
Most trance is, not to put to fine a point on it, boring as all hell. Paul van Dyk spins trance, but much of what he spins seems to be a cut above the normal grade of Dutch cheese. As a producer he pays far more attention to the nuts and bolts of musicality and this attention pays gratifying dividends. For example the one new van Dyk track on the collection, “The Other Side”, is simply a gorgeous sounding tune, despite the fact that it is structurally very much a typical trance number. But he’s also inserted an acoustic guitar movement and vocal line (provided by Wayne Jackson) that creates a far more intricate and emotionally ambiguous stylistic hybrid. It’s got depth and a sweep that can only come as the result of an accomplished production acumen. This is trance but the sound is classic, with deep bass kicks and subtle harmonies.
The first disc represents a more low-key, pseudo-progressive sound. It begins with Alex Gold’s “String Theory”, a comparatively mellow track that builds in intensity before transforming into something much more energetic. The mix reaches a mid-tempo plateau with Tranquility Base’s “Getting Away” before segueing into Calmec’s techno-influenced “Tangerine”. Tracks like Walsh and Coutre’s “Burn” and Purple Haze’s “Adrenelin” showcase a more concentrated and cerebral trance style. Filo and Peri featuring Fisher’s “Closer Now” could have been played at Renaissance at any point in the last decade, pointing to a more timeless trance sound separated from the more faddish elements of the popular sound. This is a recurring theme in van Dyk’s work, be it his own production or his mix discs.
The second disc, which begins with van Dyk’s “The Other Side”, takes a more aggressive tack than the first. After van Dyk’s track, it immediately kicks into Jose Amnesia vs. Serp’s pounding “Second Day”. While the synthesizer lines are more predictable than I would prefer, the rhythm is propulsive enough to overshadow a limp melody. Agnello & Ingrosso’s “Yeah” introduces a gratifying retro techno feel—again, this is a song that could easily have been a hit at any time in the last decade. The echoed piano riff, always a rave favorite, is especially appealing.
The disc keeps the intensity high, with tracks like Simon & Shaker featuring Alicia Hawkes’ “Make It” and Yellow Blackbird’s “Superfly” coming on like a less philosophical Underworld. The flow stays hard and even introduces vaguely tribal elements on tracks such as Mark Norman’s “T34”. The impact of the bass drum in the intro to CJ Stone’s “Shine” even brings to mind Speedy J—hardly epic trance territory. But sure enough, van Dyk knows enough to steer the mix in a more emotive pop direction as the end draws close, with Dallas Superstars’ “Higher” and Holden & Thompson’s “Nothing” making a feint towards the big-room epic style. But again, even a track like “Higher”, obviously designed as a crowd-pleaser, still contains enough interesting elements to bring to mind more Akufen and Kompakt than Paul Oakenfold.
I recently wrote a particularly negative review of a Ferry Corsten disc, for which I expected to get a pile of hate mail. Well, for some reason the hate mail never materialized—not that I’m complaining. It’s not that I don’t like trance, but that I don’t like the vast majority of trance. Sometimes, however, the universe has a way of evening the scales, and the modest pleasures of this well-compiled and expertly-mixed set almost make up for all the cheesy crap clogging the racks.