Trance never stopped rolling

Art by Tyler Farmer.

A response to the Pitchfork piece “Trance Is Back—and It’s No Joke.”

Earlier this year, in a story for Pitchfork, the writer Phillip Sherburne declared, “Trance Is Back—and It’s No Joke.” The critically maligned genre of euphoric dance music appears always on the verge of a comeback to music’s tastemakers. (Pitchfork a few years back also published “In Defense of Trance”.) A similar “look at this novelty” stance was taken last decade when the English producer Evian Christ, best known then for helping work on Kanye West’s Yeezus, started throwing trance parties in England. Sherburne’s thesis stemmed more from curiosity around artists like the Montreal producer TDJ, who were pulling from trance yet didn’t emerge from established trance circles. This interest in an outsider’s approach to the genre follows a history of music journalists keeping at arm’s length of the extremely popular, though perhaps too painfully earnest genre. Sherburne argues that if more self-serious music critics and their readers were often hesitant to embrace the genre that’s ebbed and flowed out of the mainstream since the ’90s, a new audience is ready to make a fuller embrace.

Credit to critics, it makes sense that trance never really grabbed them. The genre’s lineage can be found in late ’80s British acid house, Belgian new beat, and Ibiza parties. A singles driven genre which would also be early to a culture of mix CDs (similar to its American forebears of disco, house, and techno), trance existed outside of the album-centric mode that defined late 20th century music criticism. Still, a couple recent compilations pulling from the United Kingdom (Planet Love Vol. 1 – Early Transmissions 1991​-​95) and the Netherlands (Hypnotised: A Journey Through Dutch Trance Music (1994​-​2005)) reveal that the genre’s earliest days were far more varied than what eventually fully crossed over in the later ‘90s. Planet Love shows that the ambient leaning of early Warp Records (see: Aphex Twin, Autechre) helped shape some of the genre’s ethereal mood. Hypnotised shows that while the length of songs could drag, their pop sensibility was hard to dismiss. 

That could be why when the genre found more mainstream success in the 2000s, it wasn’t through wordless epics but rather songs truncated for radio with stronger, more emphasized vocals. The pairing of cutting edge electronic music and vocals previously found success in the early ‘90s on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean via eurodance and vocal house; trance producers like ATB and Sash! were updating that formula. Yet, as the genre fell back in popularity on the charts by the early 2010s, it was replaced by EDM, which further refined the genre’s adventurism into the pure bombast of Swedish House Mafia and more mainstream pop of Calvin Harris and Zedd. 

In his piece, Sherburne focuses on a DJ like Avalon Emerson’s interest in the genre, rather than those who’ve remained committed to the genre for decades. He creates a feeling of novelty around trance, despite the fact that veteran acts like Above and Beyond and Armin Van Buren, with their respective online radio shows Group Therapy and State of Trance, have sustained its relevance and garnered a global audience. That’s why these acts ended up so easily filling out late evening festival stages as EDM’s popularity waned. These DJs, along with their peers like Paul Van Dyk and Ferry Corsten, were early success stories for the genre and never left it behind no matter the peaks or valleys. Yet Sherburne is right to note that there are now emerging scenes where producers are grabbing from the genre who, at first blush, appear distant from that older legacy. 

Sherburne does offer some good recommendations, but there’s plenty more out there who are having a bit more fun with the genre. In Paris, the explicitly eurodance and trance party and label La Darude zeroes in on a noticeably brighter and lighter vision of nightlife away from bleaker Berlin-inspired techno. That may account for their Instagram explicitly recommending Y2K attire for parties, but also in their recent compilations that bounce around between donk, eurodance, and more unrelenting trance. Then over in Berlin, one can check out Speedmaster Records that again, keeping with the ‘00s style, is almost like a funhouse mirror on more aggressive techno but with a noticeably glossier sheen. (I’d be remiss not to also mention the Berlin duo DJ Heartstring, who’ve made some of the best singles in this style the last few years.) 

In Colombia, Underzone, a label and party, is also very committed to trance with a slight twist, swapping the goofiness of eurodance for the darker elements of techno. A similar trend can be heard in a recent Boiler Room set from the Dutch producer KI/KI, which is certainly full of trance bangers but doesn’t go for the full ‘00s pop nostalgia that you might hear in TDJ’s recent IglooFest set. That slight difference can even be heard in the New York City-based duo Spyware with their Trancespotting mix series, which, pulling from Brooklyn’s own heavy techno community, keeps its trance fairly aggressive with little of the euphoric relief associated with the music. All of these differing interpretations of the genre point to just how popular and global the music was during the early ’00s, where globally various scenes could produce such splintered sounds. 

Earlier this year in Montreal, the previously mentioned IglooFest featured a lineup of La Darude, Narciss, TDJ, Moistbreezy (who is part of a NYC party hulahoop that I help throw along with our friend Crystal), and Tiesto, a Dutch DJ/producer that’s headlined festivals for nearly two decades and produced the soundtrack of the 2004 Olympics. The lineup for someone following the more “underground” side of trance rang a lot of bells, since even if one doesn’t hear a ton of Tiesto, Paul Oakenfold, etc at these parties or mixes, they’re clear forebears of this style for many of these acts. Hardwell, the Dutch producer, hinted at this subtle sonic exchange via his remix of a David Guetta update on Benny Banasi’s “Satisfaction”. The festival-ready mix wouldn’t sound that outta place next to TDJ’s own recent mashup of Banasi’s classic with Charli XCX’s “Hot In It”, produced again by…Tiesto. Even a cursory listen to Ultra 2023 sets by EDM mainstays like Alesso and Afrojack engenders a similar whipsawing between EDM and 00s nostalgia, the descendants of trance hypercharged into rapid fire snippet bursts.

The success of EDM in the late ‘00s alongside the global financial crisis at the time, and since, drew comparisons to disco’s arrival during the ‘70s economic downturn. Whenever the economy goes to shit, people wanna dance over synthetic European beats is the theory. Last year, that received another test run as the financial press, and market watchers, chatted about a looming economic recession while one of the biggest songs of 2022 was the saccharine “I’m Good” by David Guetta and Bebe Rexha, which sampled the eurodance classic “I’m Blue” by Eiffel 65. Yet the post-pandemic underground revival of trance isn’t that neat. One can see hints of a desire for a bit of lighter fun, splashed with bits of ‘00s nostalgia, but even if critical and mainstream attention waned, trance never stopped rolling.