In July, London’s ICA hosted an exhibition collecting “a series of materials recalling and responding to the events of The Trance War, which took place in Europe (1998 – ongoing).”
Curated by Evian Christ and visual artist David Rudnick, the installation commemorated “the 30,000 Dogs whose lives were lost during the disputed conflict,” displayed Euphoria and Gatecrasher compilations behind glass cases and culminated in a live performance that saw a child recite choral versions of trance classics while stewards in hi-vis jackets parted the crowd with glowsticks. One writer described the exhibition as the “self-indulgent joke of a spoilt shithead” before it even opened.
It would be easy to turn your nose up at Evian Christ’s Trance War and accompanying Trance Party, but they’re a more accurate reflection of UK culture than flying half of Ostgut Ton to London to recreate Berghain in a damp warehouse. For the majority of people in the UK aged between the ages of 18 and 35, their first memories of dance music were Robert Miles’s ‘Children’, stories of your mate’s brother’s trip to Cream and watching Ibiza Uncovered. It was a world of foam parties, lasers and total excess, one that’s largely to been lost to a country hit by recession and club closures. As Evian Christ explained to Dazed in October, it’s that ridiculousness he wants to recreate on an unironic level with his parties.
Despite The Guardian’s recent claim that an album from Rustie and a few trance-themed parties from Evian Christ signalled a “comeback” for trance, the reality is it never went away. Paul Van Dyk still draws bigger crowds than Marcel Dettmann will ever dream of, and it continues to evolve into new mutant forms in the EDM world. What did happen is that the sound of trance itself became inextricably linked with gaudy excess. The sawtooth waves and cheesy presets that make trance recognisable became shorthand for trash, a reflection of the snobbery that often rears its head in underground club culture. For those producing in these circles, these sounds have become toxic.
Over the past few years, something has changed. In 2015 sawtooth waves and trance presets became underground club music’s most prevalent musical memes, supplanting the ubiquitous jungle breakbeat of the past few years with something more emotive. SOPHIE’s ‘Just Like We Never Said Goodbye’ and Rustie’s EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE were the most notable moments, but once you started hearing trance signifiers they were everywhere – the music of Dark0 and instrumental grime outlier Rabit, the ritual techno of Aïsha Devi, and in the stadium-sized bangers of Amnesia Scanner to name a few.
While this trend feels like it’s become inescapable in 2015, it’s been bubbling under the surface for a while. Both Doss and Ana Caprix are producers that have been making what could be loosely described as “alt-trance” for a few years now. They both make the kind of ultra-synthetic, highly sweetened music you might expect from the PC Music collective, but positioned at the far tail end of a two-week Ibiza comedown. I’d go so far as to say Ana Caprix’s For Seven Nights This Island Is Ours might be the best Balearic record of the past five years, if you’re willing to put your prejudices aside and accept that it’s a sound that’s as much inspired by a night at Pacha as it is Sueño Latino.
It’s difficult to know exactly why this is happening now, but in the case of PC Music, it almost certainly seems to be the dredging up of a shared cultural memory. While the label certainly wasn’t as prevalent as it was in 2014, this year it tapped into the aesthetic of early Clubland complilations like never before. The artwork for Life Sim’s ‘IDL’ for example, which was almost certainly a conscious attempt to evoke 90s Ibiza, or easyFun’s easyMix, whose vocal breakdowns I’m almost certain I heard played in a provincial nightclub in 2002. For those who watched this kind of culture unfold on television as a four-year-child, the allure of experiencing it in person must be as strong as those of us who dabbled in the nu-rave movement of 2006 because we’d missed rave the first time around.
The popularity of of PC Music is one reason why trance sounds are being accepted by younger producers, but nobody has done more to further the cause in the experimental scene than Lorenzo Senni. Senni has been challenging the underground’s preconceptions of trance since 2012’s Quantum Jelly, an album of music that took his obsession with trance build-ups and made an entire LP out of them. In November I watched Senni perform a set of his deconstructed trance to a concert hall in Berlin and it was as visceral as a noise gig, a shifting collage of trance chords, hoover bass and crowd noise I’m fairly certain was sampled from a Scooter live DVD. His music sometimes evokes a nostalgia for trance’s heyday, but the way he twisted its sound also touches on something much more dystopian.
It’s this dark undercurrent that much of the recent use of trance sounds seems to be tapping into. Rabit’s ‘Tearz’ is actually sampled from a Commodore 64 game, but arriving in the midst of a swathe of trance-obsessed music it feels like the Blade Runner-meets-Ferry Corsten banger we never had. The evocative digital leads from Norwegian artist TCF’s recent EP for Ekster on the other hand sound like the personification of a sentient AI, something that’s probably no coincidence given his interest in cryptography, Bitcoins and the future of tech. Probably the best unintentional trance track of the year was Oneohtrix Point Never’s ‘Mutant Standard’, an eight-minute epic that imagined the genre’s ecstacy-laced highs through the mind of a cyborg suffering from meth withdrawal. Cheesy Eurotrance was always characterised by its smooth lift-off and rounded edges, but in 2015 these sounds have been recontextualised to be as jarring as possible – a reflection perhaps, of a less affluent and more cynical era.
It’s interesting then, that arguably the biggest trance moment of 2015 didn’t come from PC Music, Evian Christ or the experimental underground. Livity Sound artist Kowton made his name making gritty, eight-bar techno with a grime influence, and while he’s broadened his sound in recent years, nobody in underground club music made a track as unashamedly hands in the air as ‘On Repeat’. It could be argued it’s more of a homage to a certain strand of 90s Detroit techno, but the way those chords swell are straight out the trance handbook. We might be a a long way off seeing Tiësto at Berghain, but it seems unlikely we’ve seen the last of its unlikely resurgence in the underground.