[24 September 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
There’s still a large contingent of people who, upon hearing the phrase “techno” uttered in their immediate vicinity, think something along the lines of this XKCD webcomic.
The reason why it’s funny is because, for a lot of people, it’s true. There are those out there that only know the name Sascha because it’s followed by “Baron Cohen”, BT because he produced *NSYNC’s overstuffed 2001 single “Pop”, and Moby because he’s the bald guy who did all those pop songs that were featured in commercials at the turn of the millennium. Even though some of these artists are perceived this way in the public consciousness, true techno connoisseurs know better: amidst the cascading keyboards and echo-chamber vocal divas, there’s some real soul to be found in techno, and a well-done trance song is capable of moving crowds in a way that few other dance subgenres can. Big beat artists may grab all the hits and critical notices and house music may get all the club play, but trance is a truly epic art form, one that—in the wrong hands—can very easily fall into the realm of self-parody (and webcomic satire).
Paul Van Dyk has been plugging away at his art for nearly two decades now, crafting Ibiza-ready epics and chart-topping pop song remixes with equal fervor. The German-born DJ rose to fame with some well-done dance remixes that wound up helping establish the “trance template” that would be carried on for years to come (most notably with his 1993 “Love Mix” of Humate’s “Love Stimulation”). Soon thereafter, Van Dyk would was brought in to lend his propulsive touch to artists ranging from New Order to Justin Timberlake, U2 to Britney Spears, all while churning out his own original compositions as well. Now, 18 years after debuting in a small German club known as Tresor, Van Dyk has assembled all of his well-known hits and remixes to form this double-disc Volume retrospective ...
... and what a chore it is to listen to.
A well-done full-length dance album needs to be filled with forward motion, building to climaxes in interesting ways without sacrificing musicality. It’s a hard hat-trick to pull off, and as Volume easily proves, Van Dyk has done it before. The entire set opens with a 2009 remix of his own “For an Angel”, an extraordinary standalone dance number that plays with a simple keyboard melody line that just refuses to turn stale. Van Dyk ups the drums partway through, adds piano later on and even some faux-orchestral work shortly after that, crafting a strobelight masterpiece that has been imitated and copied too many times to count. It’s an immaculately well-paced number that shows Van Dyk at the peak of his powers, and it’s followed by nothing but stunners: his soaring new pop single “Home” (featuring former vocal collaborator Johnny McDaid), his orange-alert alarm synth classic “Let Go”, and his sensual collaboration with Pussycat Doll Jessica Sutta—“White Lies”—the lead single from his 2007 “comeback” album In Between.
All four are great songs, but their individual impacts are dulled when mixed together as they are here—something that’s furthered by what comes immediately after “White Lies”. “Another Way”, “Together We Will Conquer”, “New York City”—it is during this stretch of Volume‘s first disc where everything begins to sound same-y, repetitive, and just plain uninteresting. From a purely melodic standpoint, nothing during the rest of this mix matches the sheer melodic prowess of “For an Angel” (though the original version of his piano-based wonder “A Magical Moment” comes close). Even his earlier Johnny McDaid collaboration—“Time of Our Lives” with Vega 4—winds up, amazingly, sounding like a piss-poor remake of “Home”, which, of course, was made years after “Time of Our Lives” was released; the fact that it’s placed at the very end of Volume‘s first disc certainly doesn’t help things either.
Yet pointless recurring motifs are far from Volume‘s biggest problem. The second disc—made entirely of his remixes for other artists—is downright painful. Though it’s easier to sell a CD such as this with some big-name artists attached, this decision results in bringing in some of the flat-out worst remixes that Van Dyk has ever done. U2’s “Elevation” gets the worst do-over of them all, as Van Dyk—in essence—cuts out the choruses to the song, leading to a remix that is all buildup and no climax whatsoever, deadening the impact of the original and making for a remarkably dull dance revision. This problem plagues several other remixes too: Britney Spears’ “Gimme More”, Binary Finery’s “1998”, and even New Order’s “Spooky”. The only tracks that work in any sort of way whatsoever are his Humate revision (its impact, again, dulled due to its placement right in the dead center of the mix), his take on Timo Maas’ “Pictures” (amazing what a distinctive vocal and simple guitar line can do), and his well-done approximation of “Poor Choice of Words” from the Dark Knight score by Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard, wherein he supplements some of the orchestral cue for synths while still retaining the brass work from the original recording, making for a fairly dynamic club-ready do-over.
When all is said and done, Volume is a relatively disappointing overview of Van Dyk’s career, forgoing some of his more interesting collaborations (where’s David Byrne, pray tell?) for the “hits” and big-name remixes, some of which wind up showing Van Dyk at his most formulaic and clichéd. Both the listener—and Van Dyk himself—deserve much better.