Music critics have been quick to declare trance dead and buried, a played-out genre, a flash in the pan, a freakishly annoying, bastard offspring of house and techno that was finally taken out behind the shed and put out of our misery once and for all. They wish.
For proof of just how wrong the critics are, I give you England's DJ Magazine, which puts out an annual readers' poll of the Top 100 DJs that has become something of an industry standard. This past year, five of the six highest ranking DJs were trance spinners, though two of them -- Paul van Dyk and Sasha -- avoid the t-word in describing their music, which shows you how unfashionable it's become. And three of the top six were from the Netherlands, the country that has clung most stubbornly to the music's metronomic beats and gushy, new agey melody lines. Clearly there are a lot of punters out there who didn't get the "trance is dead" memo.
Among the genre's high-flying Dutch jocks is one Armin van Buuren, who rose this year from number five to number three in the DJ Mag polls and who keeps the classic trance vibe alive with no apologies -- when DJ Mag asked him to name the "Best Undiscovered Dance Music Territory", he replied, "Where the 'old' trance sound from 1995 left off". In other words, as far as he's unconcerned, the genre fizzled out prematurely, and true believers like him are doing the important work of jolting it, Frankenstein-like, back into life again.
I mention all this in the interest of fairness, because I'm about to tell you that I hate Armin van Buuren's new "artist debut" album, 76, the way I hate bad hangovers, L.A. traffic and Donald Rumsfeld. I hate it so much that the thought of having to listen to it again is actually making me queasy (and my musical gag reflex is strong -- I've listened to it three times already, though I honestly still can't remember what any of the tracks sound like, which is why I fear I'll have to listen to it again). And obviously I'm in the minority on this, because this guy and his excruciatingly schlocky sound are huge. So what do I know?
Not much, apparently, which is why I won't even waste your time or mine with a detailed, track-by-track review of 76. Albums like this are impossible to review, anyway -- I mean, what am I supposed to say, except that yeah, it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect, 76 minutes (hence the title -- clever, huh?) of budda-budda-budda, doonce-doonce-doonce, thump-thump-thump, ascending-chord-drumroll-cymbal-crash-breakdown, cookie-cutter, by-the-book, they-make-software-now-that-generates-this-shit-at-the-touch-of-a-button trance. I guess I should note that he does throw a few downtempo tracks into the mix, but to the untrained ear -- or even the trained one -- the latter-day Morodor beats and endlessly uplifting chord progressions underlying most of these 13 tracks are virtually interchangeable.
Music like this is the clubland equivalent of Yanni, or Kenny G, which are in turn the new age and jazz equivalents of those ornate, tacky Lladro porcelain figurines. Fans of this stuff will tell you it's artistic and sophisticated; detractors will tell you it's very embodiment of bad taste. Personally I side with the detractors, but I'm the first to admit that both sides are deeply steeped in their own peculiar sets of pretensions. We haters of Dutch trance are snobs; we're suspicious of anything popular, and anything this popular that's also this self-consciously arty and pretentious is doubly suspect. Fans of Dutch trance, for their part, vehemently insist it has some greater cultural significance than just being a good soundtrack to rolling your brains out on Ecstasy. Maybe fans of Christina Aguilera also claim her music "takes you into another world" or "opens up your heart" or "is the classical music of our time" or "the sound of the future", but only the really weird, obsessive ones. In my experience, all fans of Dutch trance get weird and obsessive when they're defending it.
The great irony, of course, is that reviews like this one only add fuel to the fires of Dutch trance fans' burning, defiant passion for all those goofy melodies and tedious synth riffs. The more we snobby critics harsh on the music, the more the tranceheads rush to defend it, because part of their pretentiousness is inextricably tied up in their conviction that the music is "misunderstood". This is why I frequently compare trance to prog rock, another pretentious genre routinely lambasted by the critics -- sometimes wrongly so, but rightly more often than not. The same could be said of trance, actually -- it's not all bad, really, and as a genre it's been unfairly maligned of late, but that's largely because the sound has been hijacked by its most slavishly formulaic purveyors (Tiesto, Ferry Corsten, van Buuren) and their tasteless fans, who apparently just want something that sounds like elevator music you can bounce up and down to.
So anyway, yeah, 76 is virtually review-proof. Haters hated it long before I ever had my say in the virtual pages of PopMatters; fans will go on loving it no matter what, smug in the knowledge that only they are able to fully appreciate symphonic density of the uplifting chords and gurgling synths of such astonishingly hackneyed tracks as "Precious", "Blue Fear 2003" (a shameless retread of van Buuren's first big club hit) and "Communication" (a shamelessly un-retreaded track from 1999). They may complain that a few of the songs are too "downtempo" or "low-energy" for their taste, or that the album is not a seamless mix but presents each track as a separate entity, no doubt for the benefit of the growing number of DJs mixing off of CDs these days. But essentially, 76 gives the people exactly what they want, which is pretty much what trance was giving them back in 1995. Fans may call van Buuren's brand of trance the sound of the future, but what he's really selling them is the past.