We have just waited three years for the release of Paul van Dyk‘s latest album, Reflections. I feel strongly about using this statement as my opening for this review. Three years is a long time for any artist and, for the ones who are known to be groundbreakers, three years can equate to a lifetime’s worth of work to others. I have heard people say that they don’t like what van Dyk has done on this album because “it doesn’t sound like van Dyk” (now there’s an argument if ever I heard one), but to that my answer would be that I would be disappointed if it did. After all, isn’t he is revered for his forward-thinking attitude? Ah, the irony. That said, let’s take a look at what he’s done.
This new album is different and there’s no denying it. There are but remnants left from the early techno days and paradigmatic club sets. There are noticeably fewer club mixes and, where you would potentially expect one, instead there is a more contemplative and chilled version. Probably the biggest change worth pointing out is that this album mirrors, more than any of the previous three, the inner voice of van Dyk. From “Like a Friend”, derived from the poverty he witnessed whilst on a tour of India, to “Time of Our Lives”, about living together in harmony, these personal statements are reflected in music that is introspective with more of an edge to it.
The opening track, “Crush”, opens a lot like Underworld’s “Born Slippy” with its slow and eerie, watery ambient sound created by synthesizers. The structure of the track is a tried and tested one: an epic build up that develops as the opening beats suck you into a trance while the foreplay melody holds back and sits on the explosive power kick for a good five minutes into the track. The tension swells and just when van Dyk knows you can’t take it anymore, the lyrics “I know you want me” unleash like water bursting through a dam and the track shifts into high gear. Formulaic, yes, but who doesn’t fall for it every time?
“Time of Our Lives” is a joint collaboration between van Dyk and British rock band Vega-4. It’s heavy on the vocals, but even with the tasteful remix in the background, it’s more than a stone’s throw from what you’d expect. The result is altogether more like pop music trying to sound chilled. Johnny McDaid’s (from Vega-4) voice bears a striking resemblance to Robbie Williams, and this track actually sounds more like something Williams would come up with on an inspired day. The lyrics seem to be implying that, in light of recent events, we must seize the moment (“Oh this is the time / Of our lives”) and try to change the world to make it a better place. Deep stuff; it’s a shame about the lightweight music. “Like a Friend” spins out in the opposite direction. Taking female vocals as the central focus this time, the ambience is meditative with pulsing, muted beats. It’s the perfect setting for Jan Johnston’s earthy vocals, matching the lyrics, “Be aware of the world and be true to your conscience / Be aware of its need like a friend you can hold”, that message van Dyk’s reaction to poverty in India.
The middle section of the album contains a mix of tracks of varying styles and standards. “Nothing But You” is vintage van Dyk, consisting of superior remix quality music with heavy beats and stirring Norwegian lyrics. “Buenaventura”, taken from his original score for the movie Zurdo and again featuring vocals from Jan Johnston, though energetic enough, consists of pulsating house music that lacks substance, with equally thin lyrics: “There’s only you I could love / Forever / That’s why I’m so lonely in a crowd / And all I think about / Is coming home to you”.
The album winds up to a crescendo of a finish. “Knowledge” is easily the most experimental of all the tracks, a collaborative effort with hip-hop artist DJ Tomekk that’s impressive in its efforts and results. The rhythmic rapping is intricately woven into a heavy bass line and topped with short, synthesized melodic statements. The track segues into “That’s Life”, a bottom-heavy track that fares less well in the remix treatment. The unimaginative melody is no match for the thumping bass line and overall there is a lack of direction. Fast-paced, energetic, cohesive, and with vocals by Johnston, the remaining two tracks, “Spellbound” and “Kaleidoscope”, are amongst the best to round out the album.
There has been some heavy-duty Moby-style marketing surrounding the release of this album. This will undoubtedly become known to the masses as the one with the track (that would be “Connected”) from the cell phone (that would be Motorola) commercial. For those unfamiliar with his work, Reflections is an accessible starting point housing some of his best and most progressive work to date. Across the album the quality of the music is not overly consistent, but none of it is comes close to being bad. Where it’s good, it’s fantastic.