Dave Ralph is my kind of trance DJ. His name alone, in a genre dominated by guys who call themselves things like Sasha and Tiesto and D:Fuse, is glorious in its workmanlike anonymity; so is the blithely chatty autobiography on his website, which describes his inauspicious beginnings at a teenage mobile DJ in Liverpool way, way back in the late '70s, spinning mainstream crunk for weddings and birthday parties. But it's the quote in the press release for his new album, Resident Alien, that really seals Ralph's place at the top of my list. "Records that made me go 'ooohh' were about the only criteria for this mix," this elder statesman of the decks proudly states. God, if only all DJs were capable of being this unpretentious.
A superficial listen of Resident Alien, or indeed of any of Ralph's four mix albums, would seem to bely his Joe Grab-a-Pint persona; there's an intricacy and sophistication to the tracks he selects, and to his methods of mixing them, that few other DJs can match. But there's also a willful naiveté, a refusal to draw inside the lines and stick to the crusty conventions of genre and pace, that I think may actually be Ralph's greatest strength. Because he eschews formula, he's never predictable, and never dull, even when he picks tracks you don't happen to like. You're pretty much assured of getting taken somewhere else with each passing tune, which is almost unheard of among trance and progressive club DJs, who are too often willing to allow some monotony to creep into their mixes in the interest of forging a recognizable "style". But Ralph, the battle-scarred veteran of many a tacky wedding reception, could care less about whether you're admiring his style; he'd much rather find just the right song at that moment to make you go "ooohh".
The main disc of Resident Alien thus offers up a typically eclectic Ralphian mix of "big room" anthems, sleek progressive tempo pushers, and left-field cuts long on the weird atmospherics and dense textures that diehard trance fans (myself included) never get tired of. It's much better than his Naturalized double-CD mix of two years ago, which was solid but hampered by some oddly murky engineering, and less shamelessly ravey than 2000's Love Parade: Berlin. It still falls short of the brilliance of his 1999 debut on Paul Oakenfold's Tranceport series, but there's arguably less interesting dance music out there these days, so it's almost unfair to make the comparison. With the tools he has at hand, Ralph does quite well, thank you very much. Tracks like the opener "Deep Sound" from Luis Diaz @ Sanctuary and Thomas Penton's "Lock Up" bubble and bristle with the tension between beauty and menace inherent in all good trance, while leaner, more percussive numbers like Papa Washington Trio's echoey "Trio de Janeiro" and Filmpalast's techno-edged "Istanbul" give the mix room to breathe. This is the sort of stuff the club kids like to hear nowadays, and Ralph's ear for the tracks that do it best is impeccable as always.
Then there are the moments that really do make you go "ooohh", and there are quite a few of them. The first one comes on track two, as Ralph wastes no time getting into the anthems with Chris Fortier's epic remix of a tune called "Everyday" by Prince Quick Mix. While this song regrettably features one of those cookie-cutter female vocals endemic to trance, this courtesy of some treacly waif named Ekaterini, it also has one of those slowly building, gorgeous chord progressions that speaks of world peace, great sex and large doses of Ecstasy. The second one comes about two minutes into Cold Down's "Winter", which starts off sounding like a weird hybrid of progressive trance and Latin house, then moves briefly through a simple, pretty keyboard break before dropping an absolutely bone-crushing bassline. These kinds of ballsy dynamic shifts are another thing Ralph does better than almost anyone else. He does another one towards the mix's end when he veers sharply from the cheesy peak-hour anthemics of Filterheadz presents Orange 3's "In Your Eyes" and back into bass-heavy territory with the wonderfully muscular techno of Tony Thomas' "Butterfly". Ooohh, indeed.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest "ooohh" in Ralph's mix comes at the midway point with a track he himself co-created with Alex Whalen, his co-resident at Washington, DC's legendary club Buzz. "Full Contact" is a pretty simple track, really -- just a rolling progressive house beat and some subtle synths backing the booming, reverberating notes of a melancholy piano tune. But unlike most house/trance piano tracks, which sound unmistakably jaunty even hitting minor chords, the piano on "Full Contact" is a haunting, heartrending instrument, giving the track a wistful quality more beautiful than a million cooing Ekaterinis could ever sound. It's pure loveliness at about 130 beats per minute, and makes you wonder what Ralph could do behind the decks if there were more progressive dance music out there right now that matched this level of brilliance.
Further proof of Ralph's talents as a producer can be found on Resident Alien's bonus disc, the "RFactor EP", a collection of tracks produced for Ralph's new label of the same name. All produced or co-produced by Ralph under various guises, each of the five "RFactor" tracks is a punishing, surprisingly old-school track, with lots of classic trance theatrics that remind you of how good some of this shit sounded before it fell victim to its own popularity, its techniques all ground down into tired formula by countless hacks and then finally ridiculed into near-oblivion by the Great Trance Backlash of 2001-2002. Backlash or no, it's awesome to hear old man Ralph still raising the roof on deliriously synth-laden dance floor shredders like Ralph & Whalen's "Dancing in Hyperspace", Airtight's "Beyond Blue", and especially Verb's "Footprints", which as remixed by Joshua Ryan actually tosses in the air-raid siren guitar intro of Van Halen's "Runnin' with the Devil". This is what I mean when I say I wish more DJs were as unpretentious as Ralph -- few of them seem interested in having this much fun any more.
At the end of the day, in his own brilliant way, Dave Ralph really is that workmanlike, Joe Grab-a-Pint guy that his name evokes. For all his prodigious production and DJing skills, even when he's pushing the envelope on progressive dance music, he's ultimately only doing it in the interest of having a good time. Which suits this old trance fan just fine.