Let’s be clear: trance isn’t cool.
It never was cool, it isn’t cool, and it never will be cool. As a genre, it’s also responsible for a lot of absolute bilge over the years. It became one of the twin pillars, along with the ironically named progressive house, of the very worst sector of superstar DJ culture in the late ‘90s – and its big, often empty gestures have remained perfect for DJs and musicians who want to reach the maximum number of people with the minimum of effort or commitment. Its supposedly psychedelic end, meanwhile, has become the relentless soundtrack for generations of over-privileged tossbags to shake their clip-on dreadlocks and twinkle their holographic bindis to in various far-flung corners of the world. Elsewhere, epic trance, hard trance, acid trance, dream trance, uplifting trance and electro trance have failed to provide much of interest in 20-odd years.
Trance has its upsides though. We all love a bit of giddy trance-pop (especially when brilliantly welded into footwork/rave beats), and by no means every record that’s come out in the name of the various other forms of trance in the past 20 years has been cack. Most of them, sure, but not all.
But most interesting of all is the mythical dawn of trance. The three years or so when trance’s identity gradually emerged from the drug-doused experiments of a bunch of Frankfurt techno-heads, British new age cowboys and various wideboys on acid were fervid times, with an awful lot going on that people are probably best off forgetting – but also a lot of wide-eyed (in every sense) enthusiasm and experimental spirit that still shines through in many of the sounds of the time.
This was, at root, music of pure function and pure pleasure: for all the frilly philosophical bollocks that surrounded it, it was aimed first and foremost at maximising and prolonging the peak experiences of MDMA and LSD (preferably in combination), and before it settled into mind-numbingly obvious formulas, the naïve experiments of the chancers who made it led them to some genuinely weird and wonderful places. The tracks now often sound variously clunky, tame and ridiculous, and for a few of these picks the “had to be there” factor could well be in operation. But it was a time when genres were still barely differentiated: trance was a stupendously broad and inclusive thing, blurring into “proper” techno, Balearic, house, hardcore, electronica and other scenes – and anyway, when DJs like Andrew Weatherall and Twitch (latterly of Optimo) were involved you know there must be something of value in it.
Among all the indulgence there were plenty of lastingly glorious moments, and even the silly bits are worth revisiting for their historical value.
1. The KLF
‘What Time is Love (Pure Trance)’
Early Balearic/acid house ravers talked about trance-dancing all the time, but it was the KLF who really codified that. Heavily influenced by Italo disco, and heavily influential on so much that would follow, this record nonetheless still sounds completely outside of time.
2. System 7
The proper hippies got in early. Steve Hillage made all kinds of loony prog in the ‘60s and ‘70s (most notably with Gong), but was revered by the likes of The Orb for his (still incredible) 1979 ambient trailblazer album Rainbow Dome Musick, and was more than happy to jump into bed with the E generation in partnership with his wife Miquette Giraudy. More recently he’s got stuck in a rut of boring Goa trance nonsense, but through the ‘90s managed to make tunes with the likes of Carl Craig, Derrick May, Richie Hawtin and Tony “Moody Boys” Thorpe. This is S7’s debut single, wherein Hillage widdles his infinite sustain guitar over a flangey beat not a million miles from early Underworld and a sample from the Baghdad Cafe soundtrack, in entirely pleasant style.
3. Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia
‘Exit 23 (Return)’
Deeper, darker, closer to the hub of things – this Dutch crew of disciples of Genesis P-Orridge’s Temple Ov Psychick Youth were way, way out on their own as one of the most creative acts of the time, somehow deeply psychedelic yet more keyed into the energy of real house music than most of their peers. Their later track ‘Ov The Maenad’ would end up being hammered by Danny Rampling, of all people, but this was the gateway into their tripped out world for many, and still eminently playable.
4. Dance 2 Trance
‘We Came in Peace’
Aand here come the Germans with their cheese! It’s not totally clear how peaceful the duo of Jam El Mar (the Jam of Jam & Spoon) and DJ Dag were – they have every appearance of being a pair of absolute nutbars – but this is lovely, especially in the final minutes when the riffs and strings start coming together to lay out the early coordinates for the rules of trance.
5. Eat Static
If this sounds like breakbeat rave, that’s no surprise: Eat Static played live three times at Rage alongside the likes of Fabio and Grooverider, as well as at many of the big London Orbital raves. An offshoot of the utterly indulgent hippie festival rockers Ozric Tentacles, Eat Static made a surprising number of really great, multi-layered tunes, before they too gurgled down the Goa/psy plughole.
More hippies, this time an offshoot of crusty festy favourites The Magic Mushroom Band (yeah, really). The flip of this 12” – the much, much deeper and trippier ‘Rhythm of Life’ – is the jam really, but this one, which was an anthem for the patchwork trousers gang at Whirl-I-Gig at Shoreditch Town Hall, was the one which looked forward to trance’s shameless embrace of OTT melodies in pursuit of those floaty peaks. That makes it sound like a meringue, which it sort of is.
7. Eden Transmission
‘I’m So High’
Not sure why it was necessary for trance to suck all the syncopation out of acid, but there it is – one-note on-the-beat riffs were the name of the game. Sometimes they really worked, though, generally when they gradually got loads of other stuff piled up on to them over the course of 12 or so minutes.
8. Age Of Love
‘Age Of Love (Jam & Spoon Mix)’
Here we go – the big one. This tune has basically been in constant circulation among one set of DJs or another ever since it came out. You can’t imagine how inescapable it was in the early to mid-90s, yet somehow it never really became an irritant. Banger.
9. Jam & Spoon
Jam & Spoon with the one-two punch. Actually, the whole EP this comes off – on the then-unstoppable R&S label – is without fault. I urge you to also listen to ‘My First Fantastic FF’, which uses the same vocal sample as this plus a snippet of the Twin Peaks theme and builds into one of the most intense brain-exploders of the time. But yeah, ‘Stella’. Just pure pleasure. Can I have a go on your water, mate?
10. Secret Knowledge & Wonder
This one was on Weatherall’s Sabres Of Paradise label. Lord Sabre, as he was then known, would don the trance trousers a few times himself for tracks and remixes around this time, but this one, by his fellow old rocker Kris Needs with Wonder Schneider on jazz-club vamp duties, was the showstopper. I’d tell you what it was like when this got dropped at a Full Circle night at the Zap in Brighton after the lights came up, but I’d then have to give you a ridiculously sweaty hug, talk 19 to the dozen and nick all your fags, and I don’t think you’d like that.
11. Air Liquide
I’m not totally sure, but I think that there might have been some drugs involved here.
For all its screamingly obvious peaks, trance at its best was all about delayed gratification, and Oliver Lieb – who released dozens of bangers on Harthouse & Eye Q – understood that better than most, as you can see from this slow-burner.
‘I Found my Love’
This oddly manages to be both simultaneously innocent and sinister, and is a perfect example of where trance melded into the floaty Balearic side of things.
14. 3 Phase feat. Dr Motte
‘Der Klang Der Familie’
Whereas, in dramatic contrast, early trance could also be pretty abrasive. Dr Motte was the founder of the Love Parade, which would become the biggest free dance music event in the world, and together with Sven Röhrig, aka 3 Phase, he made one of the biggest tunes of the time too. Not bad going if you think about it. This one still does the business in a DJ set.
A supergroup featuring Uwe Schmidt (aka Atom™, Señor Coconut and a quintillion other aliases), Ongaku only made one EP but it was a stone-cold classic, full of Star Trek sound effects and burpy acid. This still sounds genuinely disconcerting now.
16. Sven Väth
‘Ritual of Life’
Digeridoos on a club track? AND sitars? For 10 minutes? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Yes, this is the absolute epitome of everything that right-thinking people should rightly despise – yet, rather like the man himself, despite its preposterousness, this track is kind of masterful and charming. Don’t tell anyone I said that, right?
17. Ege Bam Yasi
A proper Scots bampot, for whom everything in the world had to be turned into an egg pun and assaulted with multiple 303s. He would also make a ridiculous great track full of deranged opera singing for Twitch & Brainstorm’s T&B label, but this was his biggie and it’s really good.
‘The Secret Chamber of Dreams’
Sven again, this time without all the ethno-gubbins, and rolling out 14 minutes of music you actually want to inhabit. The title sums up how this music at its best created a fairytale world you could get lost in. Gauche, yes. Embarrassing, kinda. But good, still.
19. The Visions Of Shiva
Now this one really does sound clunky. By no less than Paul Van Dyk, there’s hardly a hint of the ultra-expensive high-gloss finish that would make him a jet-setting trance deity, but there is plenty of that sweet naivete that defined a lot of these records. Awful piano sound though.
‘The Experience of Taking a Step into Someone’s Dream’
Absolutely immense. Gurgle gurgle gurgle whoosh whoosh whoosh oh my deary me I’m in hyperspace. Weatherall used to absolutely rinse this to death, and rightly so. Worth watching too how it looked on MTV (yes, MTV used to play records like this) with vector graphics of people praying to a techno Stonehenge.
From the Black Dog Productions stable that also featured Plaid, this one illustrates just how overlapping trance and Warp-ish electronica were. Also: mind-frazzlingly lush.
‘The Gravitational Arch of 10’
IT’S GOT A FIVE-AND-A-HALF MINUTE INTRO! And it’s from the time when Richie Hawtin was a funny baldy man who put out trance records on his label.
23. Lunatic Asylum
Trance could be quite punky too, and it started to get faster and faster. This one, which was signed by Laurent Garnier to FNAC, was one to grind your teeth down to stumps to. That “dicky-dee-dicky-dee-dicky-dee” gated riff would become one of the worst cliches of trance for quite a while but this one delivered it first and best, and would send clubs infernal when it came back after that space-out mid section.
‘Tremora Del Terra’
Again, absolutely zero syncopation, zero funk whatsoever (despite a rudimentary breakbeat section) – this is borderline fascistic in its rigidity. But damn, it’s fun. This one’s for the fistpumping gurners.
‘Trip to Space’
See, there’s that “dicky-dee-dicky-dee-dicky-dee” again – AND A PAN PIPE. This is proper full-fat processed plastic cheese, and sets the tone for all kinds of bad things to come – but go on, admit it, it makes you feel just a little bit like whipping your top off, pumping your arms skywards and working up a sweat, doesn’t it?
26. Dr Atomic
The early progressive house of labels like Guerilla, Cowboy and even Junior Boys Own frequently veered well into trance quadrants of the galaxy, and never more so than with this Brighton-based bunch of cheeky chappies. Atomic batteries to power…
Unavoidable. Undeniable. Huge. Go on, you know you love it.
28. Exit EEE
Full fat cheese again, but this one has an abnormal amount of groove to it. One that used to get dropped to ease off a bit if people started overheating.
29. Union Jack
‘Two Full Moons and a Trout’
In certain senses the acid parping and metallic choir are as silly as the title – but the effects of this one pumped out at full volume have to be seen to be believed. The perfect example of how trance worked over the long track to reach ludicrous levels of intensity despite never actually going overboard with distortion or wig-out effects.
30. Art of Trance
Again, silly but sublime. Platipus Records would quickly become one of the most formulaic and over-slick of trance factories – not to mention turning the game upside down by first releasing Robert Miles’s ‘Children’ – but in those early, balmy years before the rules were set in stone they put out a whole set of genuine oddities that leavened the genre’s more overblown tendencies with very funny sounds indeed.
31. Energy 52
‘Cafe Del Mar’
True commercial trance, of the sort that would take over the world, starts here. The video, the riffs, the structure: everything about it completely eschews psychedelia and positively reeks of cocaine, posing and ambition. It’s the beginning of so many horrors, but as a piece of viciously effective dance music it’s undeniable.
32. Emannuel Top
The French would embrace particularly hard and dark versions of trance for the Spiral Tribe influenced “teknival” free party scene after soundsystems like Spiral Tribe left the UK following the 1994 Criminal Justice Act – and maybe this from Frenchman Top was a presaging of that. It’s definitely moody, and throbs relentlessly in all the right places.
33. Humate & Rabbit In The Moon
Floridian trio Rabbit In The Moon were closely related to the San Francisco based Hardkiss crew and full of Californian hey-wow good vibes and gleaming production values. This one, with Paul Van Dyk collaborator Humate, is one of their best, almost veering into Detroit techno territory at points, but always full of tons of that gooey E-head trance bonhomie.
34. Desert Storm
Little bit of politics, yeah? Hard to tell whether the Gulf War reference in the title and initial sample is there to rabble-rouse, or if it’s just a bit of dramatic frisson. Either way this is a melancholy gem that shows how the simplest, most unfunky elements could be pieced together into something greater than the sum of their parts.
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