Even though the “electronica” big bang went boom a couple of years ago, dance music enthusiasts managed to win a few Pyrrhic victories when Fatboy Slim, Prodigy, and the Chemical Brothers cracked the Top 40. But they weren’t the revolution everyone had predicted—just dance groups in rock and roll clothing.
Big beat might be the new rock, but it is trance—a psychedelic offspring of ambient and Detroit techno, mimicking traditional fuguelike structures for dramatic effect—that will become the new pop music: It’s got all the trappings of pop, just translated for the electronic arena, with easy-on-the-ear melodies, bubblegum harmonies, and uplifting, one-dimensional themes.
Better still, the almost decade-old subgenre has the best-looking DJs in dance music: Sasha and Digweed and Paul Van Dyk, all Anglo-pale, blue-eyed pretty boys, make great cover stories and feature articles, where full-color glossies can be splashed on page after page. (What’s more, the boys don’t have to be shown in that typical DJ-looking-serious-while-spinning-records pose.)
Which explains why trance has arrived, finally, or perhaps inevitably, in America and especially New York City. U.K. superstars Sasha and Diggers (as they are known affectionately overseas) have held court at Twilo on the last Friday of the month for three years. At the onset of their residency, they spent a few months struggling to adapt Manhattanite and bridge-and- tunnel ears to trance. While trance is the most peppy form of modern dance music, it must have sounded completely alien to city kids raised on hard techno (thank you, Frankie Bones) or vocal garage and mainstream house (thank you again, Danny Tenaglia and Junior Vasquez).
But with Ecstasy assisting trance’s long, tumultuous breakdowns and buildups, everyone finally got the idea. (Ready, set, go—can’t you just feel the emotion?) Trance is written the way your sixth-grade teacher taught you to write short stories or essays: with a beginning (intro), a middle (climax), and an end (denouement). Essentially this is the electronic equivalent of verse-chorus-verse, a format from which trance almost never varies. The symmetry brings about a sense of closure to tracks; but it’s the dramatic climax that really defines trance, hooking new followers and creating new enemies. In the epic house music favored by S&D, long, melodramatic surges of tinkly pianos, lush synths, wicked samples, and whatever else lead to a musical eruption—an eruption in which the thematic language of the beginning reappears at the end, with the overdone flair of a drag queen.
Whew. S&D rule trance land, but of the two, Sasha, the supercute one, gets more attention. The other famed trance duo, Paul Oakenfold and Dave Ralph, also stand unjustly unequal under the spotlight; Oakie eats it all up (since he was there from The Beginning of Rave, Oakenfold is treated foolishly by many Brit clubbing mags as some kind of godlike figure). In reality, though, Digweed and Ralph play deeper than their counterparts—often spinning darker tunes that fall way outside the formulaic definition of trance. (That other pretty boy, German DJ Paul Van Dyk, fits in another category altogether, playing the fluffiest trance in existence. I’d like to see a DJ battle between Oakie and Van Dyk, where each tries to outdo the other in pure cotton-candy content.)
While jungle holds my heart, I’m banking that trance actually cracks the American Top 40 first, not only because it’s as formulaic as a Britney Spears track, but also because the style’s producers can remix a Britney track and still retain credibility, even among serious fans. (The same scenario in jungle would have headz burning so-and-so’s entire collection, just for breaching an unspoken contract.) As a result, trance’s remixed cheese ranges all the way from the Titanic theme to Madonna.
Trance also reigns supreme on the mix-CD circuit; Oakenfold’s 1999 Tranceport sold 100,000 units upon its release (no mean feat for an “underground” genre), and continues to be a top seller. The Thrive label’s Global Underground series has featured nearly all of trance’s heroes: Sasha, Digweed, Oakenfold, Dave Seaman, and now even Tenaglia (who plays his more progressive stuff on GU). Digweed and Ralph have just put out their own mix CDs as well, each carefully crafting a specific narrative.
On Tranceport II (Kinetic), Ralph partially ignores the genre that’s his bread and butter, augmenting the trance promised in the title with acid house, trippy techno, and Florida and West Coast breakbeats (à la Hardkiss). Though Digweed’s selection on Bedrock (Ultra) is more sophisticated, Ralph will appeal to the kiddies more. Still, he’s nowhere near as shallow as Oakenfold, who spins music lighter than my pillow.
Ralph’s new release, like Digweed’s, is a double CD. Live, too, the trance DJs prefer marathons above all else: A three-hour set is “short,” since it doesn’t give them nearly enough room to build their case; a seven-hour set ending long after daybreak, just about right. (With Oakenfold, though, it’s just four more hours of total torture.)
Nearly 40 minutes passes before Digweed plays a lick of trance on Bedrock(named after his club night). Instead, he opts for tech house—which, ironically, can induce more of a trance if done right than trance per se. In the right hands—and Digweed has a good handle on things—layers of tech-house tracks, like Tiny Trendies’ “The Sky Is Not Crying” or Science Dept.’s “Repercussion,” can add up to their own anthem. Bedrock’s middle climaxes sound a bit clichéd, but the latter part of Disc One (where he even gets all jazzy) proves Digweed can do what any good DJ strives for: take a listener on a journey. Tuned in, E’d up, and blissed out.
Sasha and Digweed play Twilo January 28.