For most of the population, trance is something to be put up with rather than sought out. Maybe it’s playing at a club, or a trendy bar when the DJ mashes it up with something else; generally speaking, if you’re going out to have a good time, the first thing on your mind is not whether you’ll be hearing something by Johan Gielen before the night is over (I’m not talking about hardcore ravers or intellectual musical nerds here). Furthermore, trance is a genre that can get lost amidst the nearly endless subgenres of popular dance music, not to mention the myriad subgenres of trance itself, which includes everything from progressive to acid. And while trance can be easily dismissed as purely fluff (and even worse than pop music for its sentimental lyrics and prolonged duration), I’d like to consider it one of those genres that bear the mark of growth; understanding how the lyrics function amidst progressions that juxtapose major and minor chords to determine how these “positive” dance tracks are often simultaneously depressing while following similar patterns akin to movements in classical musical…well, you don’t have to like it, but if you can understand and appreciate it, you’ve grown just as much as the day you went back to listen to the Who’s Tommy and finally got it.
In Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester Bangs writes that the experience of the first few listenings to a record can be so “mind-twisting, that you authentically can say you’ll never be quite the same again […] and the whole purpose of the absurd, mechanically persistent involvement with recorded music is the pursuit of that priceless moment” (12). It’s worth highlighting a) the implication that “the experience” exists quite ephemerally, actually, and tends to wear off and b) Bangs’ well-known reputation for doubling back on himself after reviews were published. Combining the two and applying it to OceanLab, you get the basic principle of Sirens of the Sea: the overwhelming abundance of uplifting trance can make the album sound mundane, but only after the first few dozen listens, when the awe and sheer magnificence of the compositions (we are, after all, dealing with a member of Above & Beyond here) are overplayed, and thus invite the immediate need for a “doubling back;” a week ago, I thought this album was the best thing since I was introduced to Quadrophenia, today it could be just another trance album.
I don’t mean to diminish the numerous subtleties that make this album not only a good trance album, but a quite inclusive and successful one. For instance, the song “On a Good Day” is the classic example of a fast-paced, synergized track with a speedy BPM intended to be danced to but is probably better suited for an evening alone: uplifting trance is a paradox and this is its textbook example; a song that relies more on what is not said. The verses are structured around self-effacing confessions (“Little bit lost and a little bit lonely”) until the chorus evokes the gut-twisting split-moment where the speaker notices something lovely (“never seen the sun shine brighter”), but is experiencing such an empty, emotional vacuum (“Been talking to myself forever / and how I wish I knew me better”), that instead of being soothing, she can only remark that “It feels like me on a good day”; these good days are thus rare, transient and possibly impossible to attain ever again: she’s also “a little bit feared” and “a little bit cold” but she’s “getting used to it” (and she’s singing this all in a sort of detached monotone that only enhances the numbness). There are other tracks besides this one: in “Come Home,” she wishes she could take back angry words and bring her lover home and in “Miracle,” she insists there’s “no use hoping for a miracle”; pretty depressing shit for a record that’s meant to be played in clubs.
Perhaps that’s the allure to trance, that complete and utter anomaly that conjures both elation and nostalgia (remember when Kaskade did it in June with Strobelite Seducation with “Angel on My Shoulder” and “Move for Me”?). Listening to Sirens of the Sea and moving beyond the blinding reactions of the first listens, through the nagging doubts of its triumph and into the understanding of its compositional brilliance: that’s even more growth than finally appreciating jazz.