Editorial: Trance is not dead, the Armin van Buuren Essential Mix edition
With the average festival set hovering around the 60-minute mark and even headliners putting in only 90 minutes on tour stops, things like a three hour Essential Mix may seem extravagant, even unnecessary. Yet last week Armin van Buuren took to Radio 1’s hallowed decks for a special 180-minute episode, packing every second with the mystifying formula of finesse and skill that result in the world’s best sets from the world’s best DJ.
While the set itself – an aural journey accelerating from a techy 125 to a pounding progressive 138 BPM with movie lines, trance fam favorites and the beloved “ESSSEEENNNTTIIALLL” marking the dwindling time – served as a reminder of why Armin has been crowned number one DJ in the world a record-breaking five times. It also served as a reminder that despite the emergence of harder-hitting genres, trance is most certainly not dead. Click below the break to read and hear why.
The question of trance’s resilience in a scene that seems to favor dizzying builds and jaw-breaking drops over composed melodies and emotive bridges is not a new one, but try as Americans might to write off the genre as dated, Euro of the trash variety or simply boring, trance has refused to go away, and its global fan base has refused to shrink. While we may scoff at the “euphoria” and make snide comments about “uplifting vocals,” from Turkey to Finland, Egypt to the Ukraine, millions of people across the world are, pun aside, firmly in a state of trance.
That is not to say that the U.S. is immune to trance. ASOT 600 sold out Madison Square Garden, Ultra and EDC host trance stages, and Gabriel & Dresden, BT, Shogun, Sean Tyas and Tritonal all hail from the glamorous USA. But something about trance turns off the average American EDM fan, the kind of fan that has no idea Tiësto, Paul Oakenfold and Sander van Doorn were once trance giants, and the kind of fan that would scoff at such a notion. But it is precisely those fans that are keeping trance alive: those who claim to like Tiësto’s or Sander’s current sound are unwittingly admitting to liking the essence of the genre, as those DJs wouldn’t be who they are had they not established their roots in trance.
To explain that assertion, what makes trance special is not a BPM range, not the influence of Klaus Schulze’s Trancefer, not even its induced mental state. What makes trance is the story, the journey, and the hypnotic thread that ties trance tracks together. To successfully tell that story and achieve a state of trance, the author needs a firm grip on the language, an ability to string words together in a pleasing way to his reader: dropping the metaphor, he needs a set that has been put together with a purpose and a goal, with an intention and an emotional outcome, creating the kind of set that makes you blinkingly ask why it had to end.
Armin makes sets like that. Tiësto makes sets like that. Dubstep and big room artists do not.
When explaining his Essential Mix, Armin explicitly stated his intention of giving it “a proper build up,” dedicating his first hour to “setting the mood,” the second hour to showcasing Intense and the third hour to “building to a massive climax with some proper banging and uplifting trance,” all while slowly increasing the BPM from 125 to 138, the tempo he has embraced with open arms as his sound tilts more progressive. He did not play the Beatport tracks of the moment. He did not wing it.
Even the progressive “bangers” that found their way into his mix in the final hour were put there with purpose, not slapped in slipshod because the crowd was looking bored. That intention is crucial to trance, and love it or hate it, Tiësto exhibits the same intention when he drops an eyebrow-raising Killers tune for his college co-eds: he doesn’t drop it in, but weaves it into the story – though, to the trance family, his College Life “stories” may seem more like dumbed-down picture books when compared to the emotional novellas of his In Search of Sunrise years.
Trance family infighting about who has and has not revoked their membership rights aside, it is undeniable that something has changed with the overshadowing of trance by big room and dub booms. “EDM” operates on a track release and festival model, where music is cranked out and fans are trucked in, the more of both the better. What has been sacrificed in this model is the set itself, which is something of a paradox as electronic music is designed not for radio play but for dance floors. Gone are the all-night raves, the 6-hour DJ sets, and in their stead are hurried timeslots that sound like iPods on shuffle, punctuated with semi-drunken shouts to make more noise by whoever is behind the decks.
Except, of course, the trance sets, and the “progressive trance” sets (and the techno sets, from which trance sprung all those years ago). While DJs like Armin and Markus Schulz and Ferry Corsten are juggling their classic trance sound with an audience that wants more and more progressive, a whole crop of up and coming DJs are taking the melodic nature of trance and turning it into new genres entirely. W&W, Seven Lions, Arty and Mat Zo are just a handful of artists that have infused progressive and dub sounds with the essence of trance, creating bass lines with beauty, synths with story, and drops with deep effect. There may not be a chilling mezzo-soprano, a supersaw or a strings section, but the thread of trance is there: it just needs to be picked up and tied together to tell the trance story. Through these genre-defying producers, that trance story is still being told.
Even so, you may still hate trance, may still see it as cheesy, repetitive, or intolerable sober. But if you like shows and not just songs, if you consider Tiësto to be skilled, or if you too felt the MMW pull of “The Code,” trance has snuck its way into your subconscious, its tenets found their way into your tastes. And while you may not jump on the Anjunabeats train, adopt the PLUR mentality or fly to Europe for a marathon trance rave, give Armin’s set a listen: if anyone can convert you, it’s the trance god himself.