No, this is not a compilation of neo-tribal chants and percussion jams. Pagan Records is a British house music label, and Pagan Dance Anthems is basically their greatest hits collection, an attempt to raise their profile in the U.S. market.
Thanks to Pagan Records’ eclectic catalog, Pagan Dance Anthems suffers from a bit of a split personality, shifting mid-stream from soulful vocal house into sparser, less melodic club track territory (the compilation is unmixed, so the transition is less jarring than you might expect). The one oddball track, and the label’s biggest hit to date, is a dance remix of the Police’s “When the World Is Running Down” by the DJ duo differentGear. The track was originally released as an illegal bootleg, but it’s a far cry from subversive—mostly it just layers a simple house backbeat in under Sting’s original bassline and leaves the song’s entire structure intact, even Andy Summers’ minimalist guitar solo bridge. As remix material it’s not very inspired, but then again, “When the World Is Running Down” has such a killer groove that it hardly needs much of a makeover to work on the dance floor, so maybe differentGear deserve credit for the restraint they’ve showed in not tinkering much with the original material. In any case, househeads raised on early ‘80s rock radio have eaten this track up, and will probably continue to do so.
The rest of Pagan Dance Anthems’ first half shines with the kind of catchy, uplifting house that is clearly the label’s strong suit. Dance music rarely gets more unabashedly feel-good than the gooey synth strings and gospel-tinged vocals on House of 909’s warm blanket of a track, “Beautiful Day”, here injected with even more sunshine thanks to a bouncy remix by ace American house DJ Cevin Fisher. There are two outstanding tracks from Charles Webster’s Presence, including the propulsive club hit “Sense of Danger” (featuring the radio-friendly vocals of Massive Attack’s Shara Nelson), and a deep, atmospheric Pete Heller remix of the less well-known but equally strong cut “Future Love”. Oil’s “The Future” rounds out the disc’s first half with a brilliant slice of jazzy R&B set to a mid-tempo house beat, with silky keyboards that build to a lush climax. All of the above-mentioned songs are almost shamelessly infused with pop and soul hooks, but produced with a strong sense of dance-floor groove that keeps them from lapsing into cheesiness.
Still, you’ll probably be ready for a break from all the diva vocals when you get to the album’s second half, which does indeed scrap the lyrics and melodies in favor of sparser, more repetitive tracks that are long on atmosphere, but short on personality. There are a few bright moments here—most notably Salt City Orchestra’s ultra-funky “That Pagan Thing”, with its endlessly mutating basslines, and tech house guru Terry Francis’ hypnotic “Smokey Rooms”—but overall most of the latter half of Pagan Dance Anthems pales in comparison to the infectious warmth of the opening tracks.
In the end, Pagan Dance Anthems is a mixed bag, showcasing both Pagan’s strengths and weaknesses as a record label. For my money, there are enough labels out there cranking out above-average instrumental DJ tracks (and by-the-numbers remixes of old-school pop tunes), but way too few producing quality house songs featuring strong vocals and melodies. It’d be nice to hear Pagan Records focus more on stuff like “Beautiful Day” and less on the forgettable, extended club riffs.