R.I.P. Trance Around the World

Here is how powerful the EDM marketing strategy is: After hosting 450 weekly broadcasts of their popular radio show Trance Around the World, Above & Beyond are ending the show with their final Bangalore soiree and starting Group Therapy Radio. While this brand change would seem to effectively erase the association with trance in particular, to electronic dance styles in general, the group states there won’t be any major changes:

[T]he music policy will remain the same. Above & Beyond will continue to present 90 minutes of the best in trance and progressive, with a 30 minute guest mix from some of their favourite artists each week.

But eerily enough, it’s already somewhat difficult to define modern trance as the EDM boom waters down the essence of most styles: nothing new for big industries attempting to amass larger revenue by providing audiences with a more all-encompassing, streamlining label of the myriad subgenres of music. As usual, this seems to have created a whole new genre in the process. Quotes Sami Yenigun in NPR’s two cents:

“Everything that’s being presented as EDM falls so much within one particular corner of the scene, which is generally a more commercialized corner, a corner with more marketing muscle behind it,” says Philip Sherburne, who writes for SPIN and has covered dance music for more than a decade. “[The term has] been adopted mainly by an American audience to apply to big tent electro-house, American dubstep and things like this.” These things don’t all sound the same. […] In reporting this article I spoke to more than a dozen DJs, industry insiders and dance music journalists (and many, many more in clubs and at festivals), but nobody I spoke to could draw a clear sonic line between EDM and other subgenres of dance music that they don’t consider EDM, like deep house or techno. […] But as the ever-shifting vernacular around dance music has started to congeal, some sort of consensus has formed around its definition: EDM is a pop-driven, mostly high-energy, commercial strain of dance music.

Lest one begins to rank the positive and negative outcomes, it’s important to recognize that anything seeking to emulate a “commercial” value will itself create a highly competitive market for its own best music. While it may not be the most interesting or even challenging sound, EDM encourages a music-making pool similar to the greatest pop: making music for large numbers of people without sacrificing the care and attention it takes to craft a genuinely catchy or meaningful song.

Above & Beyond’s own shift falls under the same ethos. While Trance Around the World confined the group within a certain niche, the change opens the show to possibilities it may discover it wants to pursue. Without relishing its own status as something of a trance legacy, Above & Beyond is choosing to move forward rather than rest on the group’s veteran reputation by making a risky decision that could ensure the group’s survival past EDM’s inevitable rise and fall (which may actually have occurred this summer). Group Therapy is already a phrase I’ve evoked as a kind of otherworldly term for trance, specifically the kind that Above & Beyond are known for: it’s an all-inclusive term that acknowledges how people themselves are an integral experience of the music. Where there’s genuine appreciation, sometimes the more, the better.


The Avex Apex: A Brief History of Trance-pop in Japan

Before the term “EDM” entered the mainstream, dance music has been an omnipresent fixture on the pop music panorama, ranging from Perfume precursors Candies and Triangle, to Yu Hayami’s transformation into an italo disco darling and up into the late 90s and early 00s, where house culture made its heavy crawl outside the club and onto the radio, becoming a Top 40 standard. But pop music is no stranger to the accusations of appropriation and it doesn’t take a Deadmau5-fueled rant on the cover of a mainstream magazine to complain about the mainstreaming of dance music to wonder what will happen when the fad cashes enough checks to move onto the next curiosity.

Japan had its own EDM mainstreaming in the late 90s and early 00s, when the import of trance music reached its eventual zenith, leaving behind a number of co-ed pop groups scrambling for relevance. In the 1990s, the mix-and-match of Shibuya-kei, a type of sound that embraced Continental retro-futurist styles, gained traction at the same time rising-star record label Avex Trax took one look at club culture and saw massive yen signs. While pushing their pop stars towards the then-popular freestyle genre, itself a kind of heir to italo disco, sub-label Rhythm Republic was established in 1994 to focus exclusively on dance music, beginning with the “SUPER EUROBEAT” series (that same year, they opened the nightclub Velfarre, one of the many hotspots Ayumi Hamasaki used to fritter away her teen years before being signed to the record label — to set the scene, she mentions German eurodancers Real McCoy receiving huge play).

While the name itself implies origins outside of Asia — and indeed, the sound itself was imported from Britian — the genre itself is mostly unique to Japan. Best described as a combination of house, happy hardcore, and Hi-NRG, the sound features lightening-fast BPM, electric guitars, and dizzying synths played on fast-forward. While the genre enjoyed its own unique labels and artists (a few J-pop groups included Two-Mix, Folder 5 and HINOI TEAM), the mass following of the series eventually found its way onto the reportoire of the label’s pop artists like Namie Amuro and her former backup dancers MAX. In the late 90s, it reached an even wider audience when artists received special remix compilations done in the style. By the time Ayumi Hamasaki was on the label, she received the deluxe “SUPER EUROBEAT” treatment herself.

One of the figures behind these developments was Tetsuya Komuro, who was then a music producer at Avex. If Yasutaka Nakata is credited as the modern-day genius who bridged the gap between Shibuya-kei and electro house, essentially bringing it to a Japanese audience, Tetsuya Komuro was the 90s equivalent to a much higher degree. In the mid-90s, Komuro abandoned his band TM Network to focus on producing a handful of other artists under the Avex Trax label, including Ami Suzuki (whose carer was later resurrected after collaborating with a roster of the most famous Japanese house producers, including RAM RIDER, STUDIO APARTMENT, and the aforementioned Yasutaka Nakata, who produced her album Supreme Show in its entirety). Instead of the pop music that constituted his new project globe, he was keen on exploring conventional dance narratives for the label. But globe (much like Nakata’s capsule) soon became Komuro’s creative and experimental outlet, eventually changing its style to reflect his newest obsession: trance.

Trance music originated in the 90s as a jumbled mess of house, techno, and classical music before its German roots took hold in Scandinavian countries and received the ultimate makeover. While the original style sounds very little like its modern day evolution, by the time godfathers Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten got their hands on it, trance music was ripe for entering the consciousness of an above-ground audience. While the sound still remained firmly underground for several years, Komuro was determined to be the face of Japan’s trance chapter. At the genre’s stylistic peak at the onset of the new millennium, van Buuren, Corsten, and groups like Above & Beyond, Marc et Claude, and Svenson & Gielen were commissioned to remix Avex artists like Ayumi Hamasaki and Every Little Thing under “SUPER EUROBEATS”‘s sister series “Cyber TRANCE.”

With globe, Komuro began releasing epically winding trance-inspired pop singles culminating in outernet, the group’s first true dance album and first spectacular bomb on the charts. Instead of taking a different approach, Komuro pressed forward, releasing fearless trance-pop songs like “try this shoot” that utilized the genre’s predilection for airy female vocals. However, unlike the traditional breakdowns of a trance song, Komuro fit the music into conventional pop structures and maintained his resident MC. He was also big on taking advantage of the maxi-single format to feature his own extended trance mixes that spanned 13+ minutes. In fact, the single’s move from the then-popular 3″ format allowed more space for karaoke versions and remixes, a trend that artists everywhere began taking advantage of. Before long it became impossible for even visual-kei bands like Dir en grey to forgo a remixed track of some blood-curdling song about death and dying — or else release whole remix albums (a couple era-defining remix albums at this time that employed the forgotten practice of wacky remix names like “Free Food Free Drink Mix” and “You’re Damm Touchable K-Mix” before DJ self-promotion became the norm: Tomoe Shinohara’s DEEP SOUND CHANNEL and T.M.Revolution’s DISCORdanza).

Of course, no one took as much advantage of the maxi-single format as Ayumi Hamasaki: from 1999’s Boys & Girls to 2002’s Daybreak, Hamasaki’s singles contained anywhere up to nine remixes from both domestic and foreign DJs, including Fantastic Plastic Machine, Izumi”D•M•X”Miyazaki, Junior Vasquez, and Hex Hector. While Hamasaki eventually dropped the maxi-single format, the “ayu-mi-x” series lives on to the present day, often including many of the same music producers alongside veterans. Nonetheless, it was her collaboration with trance artists like Above & Beyond (for single “M”) and Ferry Corsten (for “WHATEVER” and later on album I am… for “connected“) that eventually opened the doorway to recognition in Europe.

While Hamasaki represented a broad range of dance styles including trance, from minimal house to drum n’ bass, other artists took the globe route and attempted crafting their own trance makeovers. Label mates move, also featuring a co-ed group of two men and a lead female vocal, ditched their more eurodance sound to find a more trance-inspired influence on singles like 2001’s “FLY ME SO HIGH” and “come together“, resulting in album SYNERGY, which managed to chart at #10 on the Oricon. In addition, they also lent their songs to DJs like D-Z and 83key for their own numerous remix compilations in trance and eurobeat styles. In fact, the first few years of the 00s were turning out to be Japanese trance-pop’s most commodifying year, reaching an absurd peak in 2002 when former X Japan drummer and metal enthusiast Yoshiki joined globe, released a compilation of self-gratifying X Japan trance remixes (Trance X), and a charity compilation album for the 9/11 attacks entitled song+nation received a sprawling 2-disc trance makeover (song+nation 2 trance), peppered with Komuro’s own original material.

Then, in an astoundingly short period of time, globe’s albums dropped rapidly in sales until they ceased releasing altogether, move lost a member and began recording under the name m.o.v.e., Ayumi Hamasaki made a brief appearance at a Japanese Above & Beyond show before deciding she would no longer sing flighty, easily remixed pop songs, and Yasutaka Nakata’s group capsule made the softer sound of trance seem quaint next to his compressed, chunky electro-house sound.

While trance has continued to evolve and flourish in other countries, its brief moment in the Japanese pop forefront has diminished, save for a remix on a AAA single here and a compilation there. Today, trance maintains a steady fan base, growing both in sound and popularity in the West, particularly North America, where artists like Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten, and Above & Beyond still record and draw large crowds. Whether or not trance in its pure form will ever be as popular as some of the other genres now falling under the brilliant marketing term “EDM,” its rise and fall atop Japan’s pop scene in the early 00s and its unceasing ability to move forward predicts a healthy future, even after its one-shot DJs and bandwagon enthusiasts leave it for newer horizons.

Welcome back appears

The state of East Asian pop music can now be summed up in three words: South Korean. Dubstep. What once seemed a sort of hip novelty has quickly become the most irritating trend that refuses to die softly. It’s greatest example, Hyuna’s “Bubble Pop!” is a prime example of what can make it so difficult to care about: unlike miss A’s expert weave of electro house in album Touch, “Bubble Pop!” strives for at least three different genres without providing any glue. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve missed a lot. And I’m going to make up for it by talking about three or four of my favorite, least favorite, and most interesting musical moments of 2011, April onwards; blink and you’ll miss the Cut Copy reference.

Yasutaka Nakata, etc.

There are a couple of different ways to approach some of the best music that was released in 2011, and Yasutaka Nakata’s work is as good a place as any to start. Yes, Perfume’s JPN was annoying in all the ways it was the best: as long as you didn’t think too much about how it was mostly a singles collection with very little original material (and everyone did), it’s really a generous serving of everything Nakata does so well, without all the annoying self-involved navel-gazing that can happen on albums like STEREO WORXXX.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu also happened this year, in case you didn’t know. And though it’s a shame one of her songs ended up on JPN, she still brings something quintessentially Japanese to the mix. I guess I’d like to believe that everything she does is tongue-in-cheek, which makes what she has to say about being Harajuku’s fun house mirror that much more worthwhile. But even if it wasn’t, there is nothing ambiguous about what she, or Perfume are doing. The titles of the albums (JPN and Moshi Moshi Harajuku) are homages in themselves, proud labels that no Korean pop star wants to stick on themselves. Yes, Perfume is on a major label now and Kyary seems to have made some kind of inconsequential mark on Scandinavia, but these aren’t artists trying to do or be anything different than they already are. This is Japan. This is our pop music. Irrashaimase.

South Korean Pop Music

K-pop is everywhere: it’s on The Singles Jukebox, it’s being championed by rock critic Frank Kogan, it’s on David Letterman, it’s being analyzed and dissected in really awesome, really smart ways all around the web. And that 2NE1 video! Best pop song of the year? You don’t say! It’s amazing how much effort has been put into making K-pop a thing and how quickly it’s caught on when compared to the months and years and decades that Japanese pop/rock has tried to crawl into the market (J-pop could take a note here and there). Then again, it’s also amazing how long Korean pop music has actually been around, and how little anyone seems to think it existed pre-2NE1.

Yet I love how exuberant and free of burden all of the songs seem to be: they are unfettered by turmoil or angst or the general day to day shitstorm of life. In some ways, this creates quintessential pop narratives, even when it’s bizarre and sometimes tasteless. It’s the type of sound that practically begs you to feel guilty, and if I believed in guilty pleasures, I might feel somewhat paranoid about my enthusiasm for stuff that still kind of makes me cringe sometimes.

Still, for every Big Bang and 2NE1 and “Hot Summer” and “Oh! Honey,” we get “Bubble Pop!” and “FACE” and a neverending series of Japanese language crossovers. I like Korean pop, and as anything I really like, I want to see it grow and evolve and stop resorting to dubstep breakdowns or cliche representations of gender. I want to see it go beyond crafting brilliant dance singles to craft one, just one, slow song that doesn’t sound like it was written for Toni Braxton in 1994. One of my top ten albums of the year was a Korean pop album, but it wasn’t one you’ve probably heard much about: it’s Neon Bunny’s Seoulight and it was not performed on Inkigayo or accompanied by a career-defining music video. It has no trademark single easily recognizable by a syllable or phrase: it’s just a great album, made up of more than mostly filler. There’s a lot of debate about K-pop’s longevity, it’s ability to really go anywhere, but whether or not it continues to crop up on Pitchfork or simply recede into its own home field niche market, is irrelevant: we’ll always have 2011.

Group Therapy

2011 was also pretty great for EDM of any kind: if at some point you considered yourself a music fan this year, you probably heard it somewhere, even if what you heard was just pop music’s appropriation. My favorite song of the year was probably Above & Beyond’s “Sun & Moon.” But the most disappointing album of the year (besides Cut Copy’s Zonoscope) was Group Therapy, the album on which it was released. When you coin a defining phrase for a genre, practically renaming that genre in the process, there’s a type of pressure so immense it threatens to collapse on itself. Group Therapy wasn’t a terrible album, it just wasn’t as epic as it should have been. Or rather, it wasn’t as therapeutic as its live component was meant to be — enough that speaking about seeing the group live on the North American leg of their “Group Therapy Tour” makes me a bit uncomfortable.

There were a lot of albums this year that seemed to be just a little less ambitious than advertised: Shonen Knife’s Osaka Ramones was supposed to be a fun covers album, instead it was just another useless, mediocre version of songs that don’t need any improving, remixing, or alternate versions. Ayumi Hamasaki’s FIVE, “BRILLANTE” aside, is now that mini-album sandwiched between what are now two really interesting albums (whether they are conventionally bad or good is irrelevant). I liked Hunx and His Punx’s Too Young to Be in Love and Mind Spiders’ self-titled debut, but these are not albums I have given much thought to since the year ended. Yet I still think about Hamasaki’s impromptu marriage and her sincere belief in its grit, this album, Love songs, that is so clearly written for and about it, and then, last month, Party queen, and how quickly we are able to change our minds, and not bother to suffer over it.

In a way, trance music is the best place to tread this territory, as it’s probably some of the saddest music you’ll hear. There’s a lot of crossover between electro and prog right now, a lot of stuff like BT & Adam K’s “Tomahawk” that illuminates whole new corners that EDM has forgotten to scavenge, but there is still the “Never Let Me Go“s next to the “Let Go“s and the “Never Go Back“s with the “Start Again“s. It’s in this frame where it becomes visible that sometimes Group Therapy tries so hard to make a statement that it forgets to say anything. It also forgets its own purpose in the process: trance music is meant to be played to massive crowds and a sea of bodies so dense, one’s life is threatened by an enthusiastic groover’s elbow. For an album summing up what makes the genre so unique, so all-encompassing, there’s a lot of shuffling self-reflection, a lot of time spent alone among the aural equivalent, with minimal instrumentation and lyrics that sometimes border on the nonsensical. Though it succeeds in avoiding the sometimes too-literal weakness of vocal trance, it fails to capture what the lead singles so simply summed up in a few lines: I’m sorry. I’ll never get over you. I won’t forget about the people I love. This song is going to help me. That’s what music does.

Speaking of the Power of Music

Ayumi Hamasaki’s concerts haven’t exactly been the stuff of legend lately. They’ve just been a lot like what everyone else is doing with more useless dance interludes (really, it doesn’t take that long to change an outfit). But after the earthquake in March, she decided to nix the “~HOTEL Love songs~” thing (a full-blown concept based around the idea of her and at-the-time husband Manny, I’m guessing) and bring it back to the one thing she seems to be forgetting about lately: her music. The “POWER of MUSIC” live is Hamasaki at some of her finest diva moments (even though her vocals aren’t always up to the challenge). There’s a simple stage set up in what alternately resembles a roulette wheel and a giant record player with some moving pieces here and there, but that’s about it. Songs get whole new arrangements or take their cues from classical versions we’ve heard from previous remixes. There’s minimal monologuing, which is always appreciated. The song choice is a little dubious, but it’s more a chance to show off how lasting and epic Hamasaki’s back catalog is: it’s a huge pay-off for long-time fans who have context and experience to witness how thrilling it still is to hear “Boys & Girls” live or how huge “A Song is born”‘s leap can be from one continent’s tragedy to another. There were rumors a while back that this might be turned into a live album, and for Hamasaki’s first and only live album, I don’t think Avex could go with a better choice. It’s pretty seminal in its own way, complete without being overwhelming, stripped down without losing its lushness. And also, she looks like a goddess, so there’s that.

It’s the opposite from my other favorite concert released in 2011, Tomohisa Yamasahita’s “Asia Tour 2011 SUPER GOOD, SUPER BAD.” Where Hamasaki brings herself and the crowd to tears, choking up lyrics like they’re repressed memories, I’m fairly certain there is not a single song Yamashita actually sings live. It’s two hours of really incredible Japanese pop music, bereft of audience banter and any kind of actual emotion. I don’t know why this concert happens to work, but Yamashita is actually a fairly superb performer. No, not exactly the type of guy who will happily run through all the concert gimmicks while refusing a paycheck for the encore, but certainly a professional entertainer. The outfits are a bit Justin Timberlake circa N’Sync, yet I am still all about feeling this man in his jewelry or whatever the hell that line in that amazing song that has yet to have a studio release is (seriously, help me out): but he had an incredible dual album of the same name, a duet with Namie Amuro, and hasn’t been around for two decades, so he’s someone to look out for.

Finally, “Perfume Live @ Tokyo Dome” was more a victory lap, but it was still super fun. There’s some cool lasers and minimal fireworks at the end during “POLYRHYTHM” (which, if this doesn’t provoke some sort of welling up of emotions, either because you are a huge fan and seeing Perfume play the Dome is a sort of triumph you can share in, or because they hit those ‘works at just the right moment, when you’re exhausted from just watching all three of them sweat it out in dance routine after dance routine, and you’re forgetting how many songs there are in their discography but damn, “POLYRYTHM” is still one of the greatest pop songs ever put to sound system and it’s just so lovely), but it’s Perfume, and it’s still pretty amazing how far they have come and how far they can still go.

Oh and one more thing

“Born This Way” is a great album. Even after all that squawking about herself during endless concert monologues, and that annoying title track, there is something fundamentally wonderful about Lady Gaga’s album. There are open roads, confessional bar stools, heavy metal lovers, and a sheisse on top of it. Juggling Christian metaphors, big Broadway numbers, and teenage punks running around with their parents’ hard-earned money is almost more than one album can take, but Born This Way‘s single failure of trying on too many things at once is like saying that human beings are failures for doing the same. This is Gaga’s statement album, and beneath the ode to an ex-boyfriend that seems to choke every song, there is also some pretty fallible, ugly, and beautiful music.

Without further ado, here are my “best of” lists for 2011.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

01. Perfume: JPN
02. Lady Gaga: Born This Way
03. Neon Bunny: Seoulight
04. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Moshi Moshi Harajuku
05. Yelle: Safari Disco Club
06. Tomohisa Yamashita: SUPERGOOD, SUPERBAD
07. Cults: Cults
08. Escort: Escort
09. Kaskade: Fire & Ice
10. Hunx and His Punx: Too Young to Be in Love

Continue reading

Above & Beyond’s “Sun & Moon”

Above & Beyond / Sun & Moon / March 21, 2011
01. Sun & Moon

For one month in January, all of East Asia agreed: keep your head down. That the song, another take on the inexhaustible template of bad break-ups, was so popular it was performed for several weeks on South Korean music shows, translated into Japanese, hit number one on the Oricon, and then sputtered out as if it never existed, is just another demonstration of how pop music brings together so quickly and fades away twice as soon. There is obsession, followed by post-partum, followed by an even lengthier indifference. But “Sun & Moon” is not pop music. There is no moving on. There is only the courageous acceptance that you will never move on; you will never get over it.

It’s ironic that the album featuring this single is titled Group Therapy when the music video effectively exhibits how being alone with the music can take on brief, but therapeutic results. But the overarching genre of trance is meant to be played in large venues for huge crowds and it’s this ambitious title that shows Above & Beyond’s progression from helping to create the genre, to defining it. After all, in terms of function, the term “group therapy” is practically as self-explanatory as drum and bass in defining their particular brand of trance. It’s this ability to highlight the group’s astounding achievement in dance music without breaking the formula that makes “Sun & Moon” a doubly compelling narrative: if Anjunabeats had a tumblr, its tags would consist entirely of #trance for beginners, #brutally simple but effective lyrics, #oont oont oont, #dance music to cry to. Here’s another one: #dance therapy.

On my tumblr, the tags are simply #perfection, #everything I love about trance.

Ferry Corsten’s “We Belong”

Ferry Corsten / We Belong / May 11, 2009
We Belong

There are some genres that are particularly accessible to sampling; it’s not that you can’t do it with every genre (feasibly, you could), just that some genres have really embraced and excelled at the art. Trance is one of them. While the easy way out for any genre of dance music has been to completely cover tracks (the Rock 2 Dance compilation is a good example: what would a bunch of classic rock songs sound as Cascada-esque club hits?), sampling is a skill involving twice as much dexterity and wit. Since trance works in movements, it’s important to build up smoothly to what will become the iconic riff; this was done perfectly in Mike Mikhajin’s “The Reaper,” a sampling of Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” so subtle, yet so obvious once you heard it, that it found the rare medium between was and wasn’t. Not only did it meld in the sample gracefully, it worked within the genre to create a song so niched, it was unmistakeably trance without bowing to the higher power of rock that would make it just another cover.

Ferry Corsten’s “We Belong,” off of January’s Twice in a Blue Moon, attempts something similar, albeit within a much closer neighborhood. Italo disco, while something of an underground genre in the 80s, has probably subconsciously influenced more pop and dance music than first imagined (this has always been one of my favorite genres to sink into, as it will inevitably creep up somewhere later, reaping marvelous trivia spoils, i.e. 2007’s cover of Sabrina Solerno’s “Boys” on He Jie’s Definitely Not an Angel – an obscure Mandarin singer covering an obscure European club hit and with aplomb). “We Belong” pays homage to Fun Fun’s “Happy Station,” a sort of banal song about special people you can meet at the station (erm, the lyrics are italo’s drawback, always), but where Mikhajin flourishes, Corsten, the sort of godson of trance, falls short once again – the same loop is played over and over again with a new melody and set of lyrics; “Quiet witness to forever / in my silence I keep holding on / I am reaching to forever / and I understand where we belong” isn’t exactly poetic, let alone coherent, but it’s not any worse than the original. The radio edit of the song allows just enough time for the loop to be recognizable and not annoying. As with most Corsten tracks, there’s a certain sort of urgency for naught (see “Fire”), but it also serves a specific emotional function, which it executes.

But knowing it comes from some really odd track by two lip-synching models in 1983 makes it all the more fun.

Official Site
Buy We Belong

Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2008

01. Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours [ read full review ]
02. Ami Suzuki – DOLCE [ read full review ]
03. OceanLab – Sirens of the Sea [ read full review ]
04. PlayRadioPlay! – Texas
05. M83 – Saturdays = Youth
06. Perfume – GAME
07. Tiziano Ferro – Alla mia Eta
08. Britney Spears – Circus [ read full review ]
09. MEG – STEP
10. Santogold – Santogold

Continue reading

OceanLab’s “Sirens of the Sea”

OceanLab / Sirens of the Sea / July 21, 2008
02. Sirens of the Sea / 05. Miracle / 10. Lonely Girl

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.

Official Site
Buy Sirens of the Sea

March singles catch-up: Aira, DJ Shog, Madonna

March has proven both the most and least productive example of the ’08 (so far). Not to say a lot of stuff hasn’t been released, just that most of it has been hasn’t even been worth listening to. American released singles are harder for me to keep track of, never being able to tell what’s brand-new and what’s just album re-hash and foreign discs were just lackluster (see: MY LITTLE LOVER, Yuko Ando, alice nine., etc). Even so, I must admit the ratio of successful singles to duds is significantly higher than past months (February – 1:4, January – yeah right, like I’m done getting through all of those).

Mitsuki Aira has been a fascinating study in trend-spotting and I’ve been keeping my eye on her since well, August 2007, when she released her first single COLORFUL TOKYO SOUNDS No.9 because of producer Terukado Oonishi’s bid to become the next Yasutaka Nakata and cash in on the electro chip-tune that is currently making groups like Perfume and capsule some huge, unexplainably brilliant phenomenon that we can only hope isn’t a phenomenon at all, but a long-term investment in the music industry’s all too low-brow, jazzy, big band-saturated environment. COLORFUL TOKYO SOUNDS No.9 wasn’t anything to write overseas about, but with CHINA DISCOTICA, Aira is finally showing some signs of possible break-through. “CHINA DISCOTICA” tries a bit too hard (8-bit? 24-bit? #-bit overload), but “ROMANTIC ROPE” is just the type of song that can be advertised as Nakata inspired instead of Nakata rip-off. The incredible staccato speed of the chorus, the subtle base of synth enhancing rather than distracting, and the tweaked vocals work in the sort of cool distance the mysteriously aloof maintain without appearing anti-social.

I’m guessing Aira will release at least one more single before an album is in the works (and who knows when that will be – it’s been seven months since COLORFUL TOKYO SOUNDS No.9), but if you’re of the MEG/COLTEMONIKHA type, you’d be hard-pressed not to add Aira to your list.

I tried to do some quick research on DJ Shog, just to see if there was, in fact, some time in the past I’ve heard something of his and simply failed to attach the name – nothing came up except, shockingly, an Ayumi Hamasaki remix of “Depend on you” from the European vinyl. Fact is, I don’t actually remember this remix at all: Depend on you is probably one of my least favorite remix vinyls, and really, I don’t remember anything off of it and I won’t pretend like I do or that there is any significant connection between single “Feel Me (Through the Radio)” and the Hamasaki remix. There simply isn’t any relationship at all; “Feel Me” has a fantastic verse melody, a looping, nonsensical chorus, and an Inpetto Remix to change it up when things get boring, while the “Depend on you” remix is still just a filler track. The other remixes are barely worth a single spin apiece, but “Feel Me” still gets my vote for best trance single of the month (and hey, he lists both Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys as influences, that’s pretty friggin’ cool).

I’ve been playing the ass out of Madonna’s new single “4 Minutes,” not because it’s original or even remarkable (I can’t describe it any better than fourfour: “She’s so far past telling us what’s cool (back in the day, when she showed the world the Lower East Side and vouging) that she’s now telling us what we already like”), but because it’s amazing how such an ambitious song negates itself with its own ego – but does a successful Madonna/Timberlake/Timberland collab need to be ambitious or is it just a given? Wouldn’t want the song to rest on its celeb laurels but pointing out its lack of pop aesthetic and thin melody is moot – it’s all about the hook.

February singles catch-up: Noriyuki, Hikki, Adam K

You know February has been bad for music when Noriyuki Makihara’s single “Firefly ~Boku wa Ikiteiku” is the best release all month. I mean really. The only work I know by this guy is 1999’s “Hungry Spider.” Isn’t he more of an adult contemporary artist? Jesus. By the end of the performance he looks like he’s going to pass out (but it’s so cute when he claps his hands, it’s forgiveable). Also, he’s not trying to be ironic with the sweater, is he? A brilliant song, though, subtly based on piano and consistently orbiting acousics and heavy drums (fake, real, who cares). I won’t bother debating this great song, it’s probably the one thing I’ve been the most sure about in the past four weeks.

So is it “Firefly” or Hikaru Utada’s “HEART STATION” that gets top billing? I honestly couldn’t tell you. The thing about Utada’s single is that it was leaked about five years too early for it to matter too much come February. That doesn’t necessarily dispute its greatness, it was just greatness a month prior. Lots of soulful crooning and breathing on the title track, plus a stunning piano loop on “Stay Gold;” I couldn’t ask for much more in my art-pop diva. Her album by the same title comes out later this month and it’s one of the few releases that are sure to make a splash this March (aside from Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colours, which won’t make a splash anywhere, but which I’ll spend far too long gushing about anyway).

Best trance single this month is, by far, Adam K’s “Long Distance” (look, a shitty non-video). I don’t have words to back this up, and why should I? It’s an instrumental track that speaks for itself. First time I’ve heard harmonica (palatable harmonica) in a trance title without wincing. This paragraph now officially serves as nothing except proof that I listened to other singles besides Japanese pop this month (Son Ho Young is Korean, so there).