The Miami club scene is one of America's hottest, but to listen to most critics and DJs talk you'd never know it. For most dance music connoisseurs, the U.S. epicenters of cutting-edge sounds remain cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, which are considered more "sophisticated" than a Miami scene that's still widely viewed as being more interested in cocaine and hardbodies than in what's on the sound system. But some interesting sounds have come out of Miami in recent years, not the least of which has been a kitchen-sink style of progressive trance that mixes in harder, almost funky house-flavored beats, some breaks and a schizo layering of progressive's darker tonalities with the Ecstasy-peak, sappy vocals and melodic melodrama of old-school trance gods like BT and Tiesto. While you don't necessarily have to like this stuff, at least it's striving to push trance in new directions instead of rehashing past glories.
Producer/DJ Noel Sanger doesn't really want you to think of him as a product of the Miami scene -- he's far more interested in flashing his resumé of remixes for a truly global list of trance and house producers -- but that's still pretty much what he is. Over an obscure but prolific 12-year career that's seen him put out four albums and a slew of original tracks and remixes for artists like BT, Jan Johnston and Delerium, Sanger has remained an acolyte of the Miami trance sound, occasionally venturing into more straight-up house and breakbeat territory but always displaying a telltale fondness for regrettably cheesy vocals and, more interestingly, in the tension between trance's conflicting impulses towards malevolence and prettiness. A vintage Sanger track like "No Greater Love" (released under his Westbrook Project alias) percolates with all these elements and makes for a compelling listen, even if you can't stand singer Nicole Henry's elfin cooing. Love him or hate him, there's no denying Sanger's production skills.
There's no denying his DJ skills, either, not after listening to his latest, Summerbreeze2, Nettwerk Records' second in a mix CD series designed to showcase some of the world's top "progressive" deckhands (the first Summerbreeze featured the work of one of Sanger's professed idols, Holland's DJ Tiesto). Through 21 tracks spread over two discs, Sanger's mixing is flawless, and his track selections are impressively solid, especially considering that all but three are 2002 releases and there's not one over-familiar anthem in the bunch. But be warned: for all of Sanger's claims to the "progressive" label, he's no John Digweed. Most of Summerbreeze2 is a straight, old-fashioned trance set, with a few breaks and darker textures thrown in to remind us it's 2002, but enough old-school hokum, mainly in the form of unbearable vocals, to scare away anyone who likes their music truly cutting-edge.
Lest their be any doubt, Sanger airs his biggest hunk of cheese right off the bat, subjecting us on Opal's "Ocean of Blue" to what sounds like high school journal writing as delivered by the voiceover actress in a Calvin Klein perfume ad. Sanger's own "Kali Ma" gets even worse, with a male speaker describing some dance floor temptress in terms that make Anne Rice sound like Shakespeare. "She will consume me," the voice deadpans during a lull in Sanger's rather uninspired progressive house backbeat, "or she will devour me. The choice is mine." I don't expect Booker Prize material with my dance music, but please. How high do you have to be to appreciate this nonsense?
Sanger's disc one set gets bailed out around track four by fellow Miami trancesmith Greg "Stryke" Chin, a real rising talent who put out a terrific album of original material earlier this year on Substance Records called Pages from the Blue Diary. "Perfect Love", a new track not featured on that album, is probably the best thing I've heard from Stryke yet, a pulsating gem of smooth, melodic trance with understated vocals and nicely timed breaks. It's got smash hit written all over it.
Nothing Sanger drops after "Perfect Love" quite measures up to it, but on the other hand, he never descends back to the depths of "Ocean of Blue", either. Fitalic's "No Way Out" follows out Stryke's tuneful track with some nice Sasha-like atmospherics before giving way to Sanger's own "My Prayer", a pretty piece of classic, melodic trance with the usual wince-inducing vocals breathily delivered by Miami-based singer-songwriter Dauby. It's cheesy, but Dauby happens to be Sanger's wife, so we'll let it slide. Sanger redeems himself a couple of tracks later anyway with another original track, "Trapped", which has another cheesy vocal but wraps it in so much trancey synth goodness that you hardly notice.
Disc one of Summerbreeze2 wraps up with a couple of really cool tracks, Oko Tek's tweaky "White Light" and Chris Lane's shimmering "Santiago de Cuba", which bookend Mike Hiratzka less memorable exercise in dubbed-out progressive atmospherics, "Homage". Then we come to disc two, which Sanger's press kit proclaims to be his "breakbeat" set, and indeed it starts off in full-blown electro-trance-breaks territory with Sanger's own remix of Prophecy's "Daydreaming". Sanger's white-boy-funk breaks sound so much like a BT track, complete with that trademark "flutter cut" vocal breakdown, that it's probably grounds for a lawsuit, but it's still pretty cool stuff.
Just as disc one of Summerbreeze 2 is interesting but hardly progressive, disc two has many highlights but nary a breakbeat after its third track, a rather uninspired Sanger remix of another Stryke tune, "All That Remains". From there, Sanger returns to the same mix of dark, heavy trance textures and corny female vocals that are apparently his preferred stock-in-trade. "I'm as puzzled as a newborn child," Claire Pearce purrs on Barraka's "Song to the Siren", her voice indistinguishable from that of Julie Mays on the next track, Memnon's very old-school epic trance track "In This Moment". Move along, folks, nothing more to see here.
Ben Camp's thundering "Syndrome" picks things up again -- finally, no twee vocals, just a propulsive trance track with synth strings that borrow from the Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack for their exotic/ominous vibe, but to good effect. Pete Lazonby's "Wavespeech" is packed with similarly powerful atmospherics, especially as remixed here by the production duo Tilt, the guys responsible for one of the best trance anthems of the late 90's, "Children". With Allen & Healy's "Head Over Heels" (as remixed by YumYum, whoever that is), Sanger finally brings some breakbeats back into the mix, here using them in the place of a conventional trance build to raise this very tweaky progressive house track to nicely peak-hour energy levels. Sanger's "breakz remix" of Penton and Duran's "Control Factor" does indeed also feature some breaks, although they're folded into such an insistent, skittering trance beat that I'd hardly call it a breakbeat track. Still, whatever you want to call it, it's another cool track, marred only by one of those insufferably overlong breakdowns that trance DJs seem to find impossible to resist.
Sanger wraps things up by showing off his mixing skills, navigating from the tricky rhythms of "Control Factor" into the thick basslines and trancey high-hats and hand claps of Trigger's "Bring Me Back" without missing a beat. "Bring Me Back" is a fitting end to Summerbreeze2, a track that's big and noisy and great apart from the fact that it was recorded in 2001 and could easily have been cut in 1996.
"To me," Sanger is quoted in his press kit as saying, "progressive doesn't necessarily mean a specific sound; it's the attitude, the mentality of the music moving forward". By his own standards, then, you'd have to judge Summerbreeze 2 to be a failure. Truly progressive DJ/producers like Sasha and Deep Dish are out there creating truly new sounds; Sanger is putting forth the trance equivalent of nu-metal, dropping a few breakbeats and darker textures into an old formula to freshen it up the way so many bands are now adding a DJ and a few raps in the hopes that no one will notice they basically sound like Stone Temple Pilots. I must emphasize that this is not to say Summerbreeze 2 is bad; it just isn't what it advertises itself to be. Diehard fans of old school trance will probably find Sanger's work to be a great balance of the familiar and the daringly original; others will dismiss it, and the Miami club sound it captures so well, as more of the same.