The New York Times, November 29th 1998
by Simon Reynolds
The Esperanto of electronic dance music, trance is probably the most popular rave sound in the world. Although this kinetic, hypnotic music has maintained a presence on the American rave scene since the style emerged in the mid-90's, trance seems to be rising to a new level of prominence in this country.
Where early trance was generally harsh, minimal and coldly cosmic, more recent strains of the genre emphasize melody, recognizably human emotions and a warmly devotional aura. All this makes trance a populist, accessible alternative to the experimental abstraction of hip rave styles like techno and drum-and-bass. In particular, trance's dewey-eyed sentimentalism seems to be attracting younger American ravers who are still in the honeymoon phase of using Ecstasy, an illicit drug that many users believe heightens feelings of tenderness and empathy.
Encouraged by the expanding American audience for trance, Paul Oakenfold, Britain's leading mainstream trance DJ, has launched an offensive on these shores, with regular club tours and the major-label release of his CD Tranceport. The German trance pioneer Paul Van Dyk also released not one but two albums in America this fall. And there's a growing following for the fiercer underground style known as psychedelic trance, with a flurry of parties in New York and the start of an American offshoot by the English label Blue Room Released.
Trance's roots lie in the pulsating metronomic rhythms of Eurodisco, a sound pioneered by the Munich-based producer Giorgio Moroder in 1977 and popularized by his protege Donna Summer. But trance really emerged as a distinct subgenre of rave music in Berlin and Frankfurt around 1993. Some aficionados identify 'Visions of Shiva', a 1992 collaboration between Mr. Van Dyk and the producer Cosmic Baby, as the first trance tune.
Another seminal track was the group Hardfloor's 'Hardtrance Acperience' (1992), which resurrected the classic Roland 303 bass synthesiser sound of the late 80's genre called acid house. With its squeaky timbre and snaking patterns, the 303 remains a trance staple, driving dancers into a Dionysian frenzy.
Recently voted the world's No. 1 DJ in an industry poll conducted by the English dance magazine DJ, Mr. Oakenfold is famous for his role in kickstarting Britain's rave movement with his 1988 acid house club, Spectrum. Having dominated British club culture for a decade, Mr. Oakenfold is now directing his energy toward America. For the next two years, he plans to play at least 50 DJ dates a year in America. On the recording front, Tranceport, a collection of trance tracks by various artists mixed and blended by Mr. Oakenfold, has just been released by the Reprise subsidiary Kinetic, alongside the group Binary Finary's single, '1998', the year's biggest trance anthem. Tranceport features Mr. Van Dyk's remix of '1998'. Mr. Van Dyk's two albums, 45 Rpm (1994) and Seven Ways (1996), sold so well as imports that they have recently been released domestically by Novamute; his new album, Avenue of Stars, will follow next May.
Despite its crowd-pleasing power, trance tends to be despised by dance cognoscenti, who prefer more avant-garde styles like techno (a synthesizer- and drum-based instrumental music) and jungle (a hyperkinetic hybrid of hip-hop and reggae). These hipsters regard overt melody and explicit emotion (both of which trance features in abundance) as "cheesy" — that is to say, too close to normal pop music.
In contrast, Mr. Van Dyk talks of trying "to create little songs, not just rhythm tracks" and stresses the importance of expressing feelings through music. Where techno and jungle producers use terminology from astrophysics or biogenetics in the titles of their tracks, Mr. Van Dyk's most famous anthem, 'For an Angel', was inspired by meeting his girlfriend. Trance's melodramatic expressiveness often makes it verge on being a computer-era update of 19th-century symphonic music. In a similar quest for harmoniousness, Mr. Oakenfold doesn't simply synchronize tracks by tempo but combines them according to musical key, arrangement and dynamics.
Trance comes in several subgenres. As well as the lushly textured, lovey-dovey end of the spectrum represented by Mr. Oakenfold and Mr. Van Dyk, there's also a more bombastic strain of trance pioneered by labels like Noom along with a ferocious variant known as filthy acid techno that's popular in Britain's underground network of illegal raves in abandoned buildings.
But the most significant subgenre is psychedelic trance. Where Mr. Oakenfold and Mr. Van Dyk's brand of trance favors wistful, naive melodies, psychedelic trance features ornate riffs and mandala-swirly patterns, plus an array of sonic effects that mimic LSD-induced sensations like synesthesia and quicksilver light-trails. The sound is rising in popularity on both the East and West Coasts of America. In New York, promoters like Tsunami and In-Trance-It hold parties with increasing regularity. Vain, a downtown club, holds a weekly psychedelic night, and House of Trance, a record store in the Village, is devoted to the genre.
Psychedelic trance was originally associated with Goa in South West India, the drug-and-dance paradise that lures raver tourists from across the world. By 1996, clubs had sprung up throughout Europe offering a surrogate version of the Goa experience. In September 1996, the promoter John Emmanuel Gartmann held America's first psychedelic trance rave, Return to the Source — a now legendary party at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. These days Mr. Gartmann's company, Tsunami, holds a psychedelic party every second Friday at Vinyl, a club in TriBeCa.
In the beginning, Tsunami events drew a crowd that was 80 percent European expatriates, members of what Mr. Gartmann calls "the international traveling set" — nomads who spend the winter party season going to raves in India and Thailand. For a long time, the only Americans at Tsunami parties, it seemed, were students from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. "My only explanation is that maybe they'd traveled a lot during their vacations," Mr. Gartmann said. Now Tsunami parties consist of 60 percent American ravers, who are turning on, tuning in and dropping in on the psychedelic scene because of its euphoric energy.
Psychedelic trance parties simulate the Goa experience as closely as possible. In India, parties on the beach or in the jungle run from sunset to dawn, whereupon dancers pick up flutes and conches to invoke the sun. In this spirit, Tsunami raves are structured so that the music progresses from "night music" (hard and sinister) through spiritually uplifting "sunrise music" to the sheer elation of "morning music".
The fashion and decor that accompany psychedelic trance also originated in India. "We like to get dressed up for the festival," said Mr. Gartmann. "Women get adorned. They look like goddesses. It's a celebration, an honoring, infused with the spiritual energy of India." Dancers wear fluorescent-patterned clothes that glow under ultraviolet light, T-shirts decorated with fractal-like patterns and sweat pants made of paisley and tie-dyed fabric. Some women adopt a beach bum look (white halter-tops, hair swept away from the face using white plastic sunglasses), accessorized with luminous nose rings, bracelets and bindis. Fluorescent face-paint and hair dye are also popular. For men, a common look is the unshaven backpacker style. At Tsunami's parties, the walls and ceilings are covered with gaudy streamers, papier-mache sculptures of magic mushrooms, butterfly mobiles and retina-scorching mandala tapestries.
As might be expected from the name, the psychedelic trance scene is surrounded by neo-hippy rhetoric, a syncretic mish-mash of mystical notions drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Western religions. As such, it resonates with the vogue for Eastern spirituality in late-90's pop culture, from the Beasties Boys' devotion to Tibetan Buddhism to Madonna's flirtation with the kabbalah and yoga. Coincidentally, Madonna's latest album, Ray of Light, is steeped in the influence of the poppier end of trance, courtesy of its producer, William Orbit.
Eddie Bang, who works at the New York techno store Satellite, says that for psychedelic trance fans the music itself is like a religion. "They're tribally devoted to the scene," he said. In many respects, they are like Deadheads, another movement of mostly white, middle-class youths drawn to gaudy neo-hippy clothing, trance-dancing and tripping on hallucinogens like LSD and Ecstasy.
Spiritual vibes and loud colors aside, what makes the psychedelic scene so attractive to its devotees is the joyous frenzy of the crowd, which bounces and flails with a fervor rarely seen on New York dance floors. And although the music is generally held in critical disdain, psychedelic trance can be exhilirating. Performing live at Tsunami's recent Totally Twisted rave, the British producer Hallucinogen transported the dancers into a sonic maelstrom of phosphorescent filigree. Where many trance artists are minimalists, Hallucinogen is a maximalist. His tracks are continually morphing; every couple of bars, a new arpeggiated riff comes writhing out of the amazingly intricate mix.
Because of its Teutonic roots, trance is sometimes criticized as an unfunky form of dance music. In trance, creativity does operate largely on the level of melody and layering of texture rather than rhythm (the usual province of dance music). But adventurous producers like Hallucinogen are expanding trance's rhythmic palette of clockwork beats and chugging bass lines by weaving in dub reggae-style echo effects and speeded-up hip-hop beats. From the growing sophistication of the music to the irresistible energy it catalyzes on the dance floor, psychedelic trance is ready to explode into wider popular consciousness.