Ah, the Dutch. The nation that brought us windmills and wooden shoes has also brought us more than its fair share of pounding, hyperkinetic, cheesy electronic dance music. Even back in the early days of rave and UK acid house they were known for it -- the Brits used to call the insanely manic tracks coming in from Holland "hoover music", because the wooshing sound effects featured in nearly all of them sounded like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking the lint from your brain. Then trance came along and the rest is history. The Dutch now crank this stuff out like . . . like something cranked out by Dutch people.
To understand why trance is so popular in the Netherlands, you need to go to Amsterdam and take lots of drugs. Barring that, you can read this review of the new Ferry Corsten CD and hope to glean some insights.
DJ Ferry Corsten is often compared to his fellow countryman Tiesto, in much the same way that, say, O Town is often compared to the Backstreet Boys. They're both pretty shlocky, but whereas Tiesto at least has a certain unmistakable style and moments of genuine beauty amidst the cheese, Corsten's work is pretty by-the-numbers. If there's a big thick melody, you can bet it's going to follow an ascending scale climaxed with a big drum roll and/or reverberating kick drum. Then the beat drops out, and you can bet some ecstatic female vocal is going to drift in over a wash of warm, gooey synths. This is what people who hate trance think all trance sounds like. And I can't really blame them. It can be pretty awful.
If you want to get technical, what Corsten spins is actually a subgenre known as "epic trance", so-called because its sappy emotionalism resembles that of the musical scores to big Hollywood epics. What it's really designed to do is enhance peak ecstasy experiences (the Netherlands is the world's leading exporting of E tabs, by the way -- coincidence? I think not), and believe me, when you're high on E, this stuff sounds great. When you're not, it kinda sounds like Vangelis on a crystal meth bender.
To be fair, if you really do like epic trance, Corsten's set here is pretty good. He starts off strong with a Yahel track called "Sugar 1", a more-or-less straight trance track that keeps those silly builds and breakdowns to a minimum, then goes into more melodic territory with Alibi's "Eternity", which at least has a cool, Paul Van Dyk-ish riff propelling it along. Things don't really get bad -- or good, if you're into music that makes you feel like the star of your own Japanese anime -- until track three, Corsten's own remix of Oceanlab's "Clear Blue Water". This masterpiece of cheese pulls every tired trick out of the epic trance bag all at once -- drum rolls, showers of pretty synths, and a melodramatic breakdown featuring the childlike vocals of Justine Suissa: "Leave behind your fear/Please believe, you will not falter", and so on. From here on out it's pretty much a journey to the darkest depths of epic trance, where no beat can last longer than three minutes before dramatically dropping out so all the e-tards can do their little sensual-arm-wave interpretive dance because it just feels so darn gooooood.
Things get really cheesy with Sunscreem vs. Push's "Please Save Me", which has kind of hyperactive synth string melody you can't really dance to, but is great for high-impact areobics and a dance known around Los Angeles as the "Asian nordic track" because it's what all the Asian ravers who never seem to get tired of this stuff burst into when an especially hyper riff kicks in. "In the forest, there's a monster," wails the obligatory female vocalist, "and it kinda looks like me." Deep, huh?
New age trancers Delerium turn up later with a fair-to-middling epic remix of "Underwater", which at least features a stronger vocal, courtesy of Rani, than the more disposable epic tracks in Corsten's mix. Following this is Corsten's own "Lost in Motion", released under his alias System F, and ironically, considering the formulaic nature of the rest of his set, it's the album's most interesting track, managing the neat trick of being both bouncy and jagged at once as it playfully skips across an abstract soundscape of pulsating bass tones and buzzing synths that recall those great "hoover" days of yore. Maybe Corsten ought to be spending more time in the studio and less time behind the decks.
Corsten does at least end things on an up note with two tracks that might give non-believers some insight into why epic trance continues to maintain a large and very loyal fan base all over the world. First he drops Ransom's "My Dance", one of those rare epic tracks that gets everything right, building multiple catchy synth hooks one atop the other into a swirling climax of carnivalesque rave music that's just such giddy fun that, like a really good pop song, it's almost impossible to turn your nose up at it, no matter how much you want to. Then he finishes up with his own remix of Roger Goode's "In the Beginning Again", which features more of Corsten's Hooveresque old school synth effects and a female vocal that, unlike most epic little-girl cooing, actually has some energy and sex appeal. It still has a cheesy hands-in-the-air breakdown, but hey, epic trance fans wouldn't expect anything less. And they're pretty much the only ones who are going to buy this CD, so what difference does it make?
I guess I never did explain why the Dutch crank out so much hyper, screaming dance music, did I? Oh well. Maybe some things, like those funny wooden shoes, just defy explanation.