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[whitespace] Paul Van Dyk Passion Broker: Paul Van Dyk weaves addictive melodies out of huge, soaring string parts and intricately deployed electronic beats on his new album.

Trance On Fire

Unselfconscious and ego-meltingly lovely, trance music pulses with emphatic richness

By Michelle Goldberg

TRANCE MUSIC is the most popular dance music in the world, the sound one hears pounding the speakers at a full-moon party in Goa, India, or Kho Phangan, Thailand, and at clubs across the globe. Until recently, though, trance seemed eclipsed in the United States by genres like drum 'n' bass, house and garage, all styles with more street cred, if fewer listeners.

Now, trance seems to have resurfaced in this country with a vengeance, with newly minted domestic stars like Sandra Collins taking up space in the glossies, mild-mannered trance king John Digweed making a star-turn cameo in the film Groove, and trance albums and compilations crowding the record stores.

With its focus on anthemic melodies, ultra-smooth production, crisp, clean beats, spacey effects and an enveloping, vaguely New Age ethos, much trance music hews closely to the cyber-hippie vibe that marked the rave scene's inception.

Years ago, rave set itself against the dreary angst of grunge, celebrating brightness and intense, ingenuous electronic beauty. In the intervening years, the culture grew more sophisticated and consequently more jaded. The elegant diva attitude of house music and the rough, hardcore sounds of jungle enchanted both dance-music elites and music journalists, and the smiley-faced (relative) innocence of early raves appeared to be gone forever.

This shift had a lot do with the drugs. The beginning of the rave scene in Britain corresponded with the surging popularity of Ecstasy. The first euphoric rushes of the drug led to sentimentality, openness and unfettered delight, and thus encouraged a culture that celebrated all these things.

After the early days of the rave scene, though, MDMA was increasingly adulterated with speed and other chemicals even as it was rendered ineffective by overuse. Speed, coke and other stimulants gained ascendance, and the more agitated, aggressive sounds of drum 'n' bass and jungle perfectly matched the mood those drugs created.

But that was a few years ago. For quite a while now, the U.S. has been awash in Ecstasy just as Britain was 10 years ago. All this MDMA has spurred a reefer-madness-like hysteria. In addition to a proliferation of hand-wringing news stories, Sen. Bill Graham of Florida has introduced the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, which would both stiffen sentences for Ecstasy-related offenses and ban much information about the drug.

But all the E floating around has increased the audience for radiant, hypnotic trance music--music that, with its unselfconscious, ego-melting loveliness, virtually serves as the soundtrack to a good pill. Not, of course, that one can't make or enjoy trance without taking drugs. It's simply that the drugs and the resurgent rave scene (which came first is a chicken-and-egg question) have created an American audience for the two and a half trance packages out domestically this month.

TWO AND A HALF? Well, yes. This month sees the release Paul Van Dyk's double-disc set Out There and Back (Mute), British megaclub Ministry of Sound's two-CD compilation Trance Nation America (Ultra Records) and a double-CD set called Essential Selection (London), inspired by Pete Tong's famous Radio 1 show in England.

One of the Essential Selection discs, packed with bombastic rave and roll stars, is mixed by Fatboy Slim and should really just be ignored. But the second disc is a sublime trance mix by Paul Oakenfold, a superstar of the genre. Altogether, that makes five big-name trance discs. A hell of a lot of this music is getting made, and a surprising amount is wonderful.

Until recently, trance didn't have a huge American presence, and American artists often found fame abroad before they did at home. This, of course, is an old story--after all, it was English kids who made gods out of once obscure Detroit musicians like Derrick May and Carl Craig. So it actually makes sense that with Trance Nation America a British club label is attempting to introduce America to its homegrown artists. The question, really, is whether we want to meet them.

Unfortunately, Taylor and Jimmy Van M, the DJs who mix one disc apiece on Trance Nation America, have stripped the music of much that makes it refreshing. Just as rave culture itself began as a reaction against dreariness, so trance often seems to be a much-needed push against the dance scene's tendency toward pretension and obscure insularity. At its best, the music is wildly, exuberantly accessible, full of delicious melodrama and a melodicism too often missing from dance music.

But Taylor and Jimmy Van M are both simply too cool for their own good, rarely indulging in the kind of pop grandiosity that makes the new releases from Van Dyk and Oakenfold so invigorating. Van M is guiltier of this than Taylor--his mix is harder, more spare and unvaried, risking little and thus achieving even less.

Taylor's disc includes more daring, resonant selections, including a beautiful remix of Garbage's "Milk" by the Florida trio Rabbit on the Moon, not an act one would expect to find on a trance CD. There's also a fantastically tuneful track here by Pink Bomb featuring Tracey Cattell called "Indica."

Still, Taylor's mix isn't as compelling as the one British DJ Paul Oakenfold offers on Essential Selection. It begins with the sinuous, aquatic "Jaya," then launches into the mysterious, vaguely ominous "The Baguio Track." Oakenfold's choices tend to favor a diffuse kind of spirituality that, while a bit hokey at times, is ideal for the kind of late-night exotic beach-front boogies that originally spawned the trance scene.

There's much chanting on this disc, as well as a gathering, almost religious intensity. The best parts aren't necessarily the climaxes, though, but rather the post-orgasmic dénouements of ethereal tracks like "Another Day," by Skip Raider featuring Jada, and "Viola," by the cheekily named Moogwai.

OF ALL THESE RELEASES, the most impressive is German musician Paul Van Dyk's soaring, sentimental two-CD epic Out There and Back, which succeeds precisely because Van Dyk intrepidly skirts corniness. He's unstingy with passion, weaving addictive melodies out of huge, soaring string parts, floaty synths, piano filigrees, angelic female voices and intricately deployed electronic beats.

"Another Way" pulses with forceful dance beats whose ascending power is tempered by a bittersweet countermelody. Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell's forlorn vocal lends pathos to the propulsive "Tell Me Why," which appears in three versions.

"Face to Face," the best and more florid track on the record, delivers the kind of music that can make any moment feel like a climax in the movie of your life, investing everything that happens while you hear it with an empathetic richness. On it, a heart-rending string melody rises above a pounding beat while high hats ricochet like sparks, the whole thing crescendoing with a force that would be insufferable if it weren't so well done.

Because there's so much maudlin trash out there, many artists seem to have an instinctive horror of anything too exultantly pretty. What makes musicians like Celine Dion horrid, though, aren't the feelings they're trying to express but the grating and insipid way they express them.

Just because romance and rapture have so often served as a pretext for curdled banality doesn't make the sentiments themselves obsolete. One reason trance is so popular, surely, is that it suggests that there's still such a thing as uncorrupted bliss.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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