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Trance reborn: The sound is back and big as ever

With DJs across genres reintroducing it into their sets, and Paul van Dyk launching a new album and live show, is trance being reborn?​

  • Words & photography: David McGraw
  • 24 December 2017

After a brief introduction from a disembodied voice, Paul van Dyk approaches his two laptops, two small MIDI keyboards, and two Roland AIRA units. Two keyboardists stand motionless on either side of the stage, eyes and bodies hidden by black overcoats and dark sunglasses, acknowledging neither each other or van Dyk. The audience cheers. The space is strange, and the stage lighting moves blindingly at times, but the German DJ’s faint smile under what might be the show’s only immobile light suggests he’s very much at ease. After more than two decades in the game, he knows what he’s doing.

As soon as the music starts the crowd pulses like a single organism, the cohesiveness of upraised arms and static legs that occurs during a track’s peak gradually giving way, only to reassemble again a few minutes later. Some dance furiously after every build-up; others are slower, transfixed, and wear distant, mesmerised expressions. Pillars of light emerge from circular metal frames in sync with an LED screen behind the stage. The age of the crowd spans from youth to middle age. Heavy-set banking types with moustaches jostle with festival-heads in ‘Black Flag’ and ‘California’ tank tops. A freshly pressed, sky-blue Oxford shirt here, a white, translucent tunic with frills like a hundred fingers over there. Cross tattoos, short shorts, and baggy pants with reflective tape appear, along with Nike caps, torn jeans and a man wearing a tie.

The energy magnifies exponentially as the show unfolds. During the middle of the set, when van Dyk plays his most popular tracks, there’s an even split between those who jump around and those who belt out the vocals with their eyes closed. The lowest and closest dancefloor is packed, while the stadium seats in the back end remain largely unoccupied. This is a trance show. People didn’t come here to sit down.

“For us, it never left,” says Mixmag’s trance editor Ellie Hanagan when asked whether trance is making a comeback. And of course she’s right. Regular trance nights in the UK may be thin on the ground, but the artists at the scene’s apex have remained at the height of DJ superstardom since the genre’s post-Millennial peak. After all, trance’s lack of fashionability or hipster kudos doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of people listening to Armin van Buuren’s online radio show, prevent Paul van Dyk’s Ibiza residency being a roadblock every week, or ban Above & Beyond from playing some of the world’s most spectacular outdoor locations and selling out mega-venues like Madison Square Garden and The O2 in a matter of minutes. A certain immunity to the vagaries of fashion makes sense when the sound and community has always valued sincerity and cinematics over irony and subtlety. “It’s not like techno,” says Paul, “where you need to be cool, and at a certain age maybe you don’t find it so cool any more to be in the nightclub. With trance, you don’t have that.”

And in 2017, when values like sincerity and community are highly prized by a millennial generation keen to distance itself from the irony and snark of their forebears, trance’s appeal is obvious. “You find people that are as old as fifty-plus, all the way down to sixteen,” says Paul. “Sometimes you see whole families. I just spoke to somebody earlier, he’s a huge fan, like ‘Oh my dad gave me my first CD of you...’” What is new, though, is the sound seeping into the sets of DJs considered ‘underground’ again.

Maybe it started in 2015 when a video went viral of Belfast’s Space Dimension Controller dropping ‘Ayla’ (DJ Taucher mix) at that year’s AVA festival, the screams of the audience in tune with the track’s lead synth all but drowned out the speakers themselves. Hannah Wants included Oxia’s ‘Domino’ on her September 2015 Mixmag cover mix, and at last year’s Awakenings x ADE festival closer, Dax J played a mix of the same tune towards the end of his set, adding a spacious contrast to the brutal energy of the techno that the rest of his performance consisted of. Evian Christ has been riffing on the sound at his Trance Parties for several years, most recently this summer in NYC, while Bicep are clearly influenced by the genre, telling us that during the making of their smash debut album they had to be on the lookout for tracks becoming ‘way too trancey’. Check out the video of Nina Kraviz dropping her rework of ‘The House Of House’ at Kappa Futur this year. Bwana and Umfang are unafraid of the occasional trance diversion, while French producer Oklou takes classic trance melodies and brings them into deeper ambient soundscapes.

In the early hours of a Monday morning in Stockholm, after a Friday night gig at Barcelona’s Club Marabú, the heavily trance-informed Staycore label’s Cristian Dinamarca reveals how nostalgia brought him back to the genre. “I’ve been going back to when I used to listen to a lot of trance, when I was twelve to fifteen, maybe. Back then I was really into Ferry Corsten,” he says, His most recent EP, ‘Himnos’, sampled some trance tracks from his childhood, including Fridge’s ‘Paradise’ and PPK’s ‘ResuRection’ with sizable doses of audio effects and pounding, relentless drums. “I guess it’s a new sound, but all the melodies… I didn’t do them, so I don’t know if I’m taking the genre somewhere else.” For Dinamarca, the appeal of trance in a DJ set is simple. “It’s because a lot of the melodies are kind of weird, kind of sad… there’s always this sort of euphoria.”

Meanwhile the genre itself is mutating in different directions and sub-genres, says Ellie, citing Pryda’s ‘Stay With Me’ and Sander van Doorn’s resurrection of his Purple Haze alias as signaling a mini tech-trance revival, and, of course, van Buuren’s festival-
friendly, EDM-leaning ‘A State Of Trance’ sound itself, also championed by the likes of W&W, Hardwell and Dash Berlin.

Tonight’s concert at NYC’s Playstation Theater is the debut of van Dyk’s brand-new AEON live show, ahead of the release of new album ‘From Then On’. He’s been in the DJ game long enough to have seen it all, but it still marks a huge personal comeback: last February he was badly injured in a sickening fall through the stage at the A State Of Trance festival in Utrecht. He suffered brain and spine injuries and was lucky to survive, having to learn how to walk and speak again and spending weeks
in a wheelchair.

Two days after AEON’s successful opening night, though, relaxing in a lavish hotel suite overlooking the Midtown financial buildings a few blocks away from the theatre, Paul reminisces happily about his history with New York, which dates to around the turn of the Millennium and the legendary Twilo, which he describes as “the temple for electronic music”.

“There wasn’t any of that kind of music on the radio or on TV whatsoever. If you loved [it], you had to look for it,” he says. At that time, there wasn’t an audience that clamoured for trance specifically. For club DJs, “the only limitation was the quality of the music. As an example, Sasha and John Digweed, playing their kind of violent style. They had me doing my ‘Trance Force’.”

When Twilo eventually shut its doors van Dyk played a periodic series of New York shows through the late 00s and early 10s in a very different venue: Central Park. He remembers it fondly. “You saw core fans, ravers, party kids, but you also saw people who were simply just fans of the music coming from Wall Street in their suits. Once, it was raining, and there was a guy in his suit, obviously a banker –” he jumps up from the table and, beaming from the memory, imitates the man’s euphoric dance. “He was like, ‘YEAHHH!’”

Paul van Dyk’s Ibiza residency dates back as far as those Twilo years. “At Amnesia it’s about the music – otherwise, it wouldn’t have run for that long. We figured out the other day that I’ve been playing there for seventeen years! You can’t do that if you just follow the hype.”

Maybe that’s the beauty of trance in 2017. It’s beyond hype. Beyond fashion. Just doing its thing. For some people it will always be too earnest, too sweet, too obvious; and like van Dyk’s live show, its emphasis on the epic may betray an occasional lack of self-awareness. But it has sincerity, and offers a sense of escapism and surrender that’s untainted by irony or posturing. “Powerful, straight-forward,” says Paul van Dyk. And like him, it’s a survivor.

PVD’s ‘From Then On’ is out now on Vandit

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