If you're a dance music fan, you probably vaguely remember a progressive anthem from the summer/fall of 2000 called "Pistolwhip", which for a while rivaled Azzido Da Bass's "Doom's Night" in its ubiquity, and even became an unlikely chart hit in the UK thanks to a damn-the-torpedoes trance remix by James Holden. Certainly I was among the masses who'd enjoyed many a hands-in-the-air moment to its crescendoing synths, but I didn't really take notice of the guy behind the track until a night I spent about a year later at a cheesy megaclub here in Los Angeles.
My friend and I had actually come to the megaclub to hear a certain big-name DJ, but he was playing one of those phone-it-in sets a lot of big name DJs play in L.A. megaclubs when they sense, correctly, that most of the crowd is just there to strut their Versace and scope for celebrities. So we wandered into a side room, where a skinny kid behind the decks was laying down some of the most aggressive, blistering trance I had heard in a long time, to an audience of about 12. We had planned on leaving soon, but we decided to stay and dance for a few songs, and then a few more, and a few more, and pretty soon it was clear we wouldn't be able to stop dancing for as long as this kid was spinning. My friend, who is bolder about these sorts of things than I am, finally decided to go up and ask the young DJ his name. She couldn't hear the answer over the music, so finally the kid went rifling through his record crate, pulled out a copy of "Pistolwhip", and pointed to the name on the cover: Joshua Ryan.
If Joshua Ryan ever gets huge -- and he deserves to -- I'll look back on that night with the same fond reverence my rock 'n' roll friends reserve for the times they saw bands like Jane's Addiction and Soul Coughing playing to virtually empty rooms in shitty dives where no one understood or cared what they were trying to do. For all the success of "Pistolwhip", Joshua Ryan was not then, and maybe never will be, a megaclub kind of DJ -- which is why so few of us stayed to hear that amazing set he played. His music is too edgy, too relentless, too unapologetically rooted in the now-much-maligned dynamics of trance, and possibly even too cerebral -- this is a guy who lists obscure classical composers like Dvorak among his list of influences.
Perhaps Ryan himself understands this, which could account for why he still has yet to release the obligatory DJ mix album, or anything else really except a series of now highly-prized 12-inches and CD singles dating back to his debut on Rampant Records in 1998. Now, finally, comes By Design, a collection of Ryan originals released under various names, plus one remix. It's not quite an artist debut, and not quite a retrospective -- most of the tracks here are either brand-new or so obscure they may as well be, although "Pistolwhip" inevitably turns up, in the Holden remix that drove all those club kids nuts in England back in the day. What it is, is the long-overdue coming-out of a major talent on the progressive dance music scene, a guy who's all of 24 and already has the songwriting skills and production chops to rival old hands like BT and Deepsky.
Like BT, Ryan is not content to work in a single genre -- he has also produced, with his old Pittsburgh buddy Dieselboy, some very fine drum 'n' bass singles -- but on By Design, he wisely keeps the genre-hopping to a minimum, using other sounds to influence and vary his style without straying from the progressive trance path. The result may be less commercially viable than a Movement in Still Life, but it's ultimately a more solid, satisfying album. Even working with his own material, Ryan mixes and sequences By Design like a club set, starting from the spare, melancholy breakbeats and filtered female vocals of Luke Fair's remix of Ryan's new single, "Buildings Inbetween", then building slowly to the back-to-back climaxes of "Pistolwhip" and another Ryan peak-hour favorite, "Fury".
The journey to "Fury" takes Ryan through tracks ranging from by-the-numbers trance -- his collaboration with Brian Dietrich, under the moniker R + D, on "Kuro" is decent but unmemorable -- to tunes like his Stilllife collaboration "Damage" and his remix of Paul Grogan's "Distrakted" that are among some of the best trance tracks I've heard in a long time. Everything Ryan does on these numbers strictly adheres to the formula: eerie sound effects rising and sinking back into the mix, tension-building washes of bass, synth and distorted vocals, climaxes of dense, pounding percussion and simple, looped melodic hooks. But like any great artist who's mastered his chosen genre, in Ryan's hands the whole somehow becomes greater than the sum of its parts. He also has a great ear for other people's reworking of his material -- in addition to the Holden version of "Pistolwhip" and the Luke Fair take on "Buildings Inbetween", there's a great remix of "Fury" by German producer Ian Wilkie that strips down the swirling atmospherics of the original into a menacing, techno-tinged stomp. (Ironically, it's "Pistolwhip", with its bubblegum synths and predictable breakdowns, that sounds the most dated in this set.)
Ryan saves his most interesting material for last. "Yield" is a conventional pop song masquerading as a trance anthem, and it works remarkably well, managing in a Moby-like way to be catchy without ever lapsing into cheesiness, and throwing a great, unexpected electro-breaks bridge into the works for good measure. If Ryan chooses to produce more material in this style, I'll be assured of my bragging rights at having seen him spin to a virtually empty room. The Golan Globus-credited "Blazer" throws some chiming, U2-like guitar into the mix, giving By Design a pretty, midtempo finish.
By Design, by rights, should firmly place Joshua Ryan in the upper echelons of progressive trance producers. Even if he never headlines the megaclubs, I suspect his future appearances here in L.A., and elsewhere, will draw much bigger crowds.