Welcome to the World of Trance Music!
By Karthik Narayanan Subramanian '14 | april, 2013, Issue 2
Find the right trance music for your mood.
"Sigh. You've become one of them," barked one of my friends with whom I shared a common love for rock and metal during my undergraduate days. He continued: "The corporate life has transformed your taste in music into party-going, clubbing music." When I clarified that although I liked most forms of EDM (electronic dance music), my primary love was for trance music, he gave me a blank stare, breathing the words "same difference." His view represents the core of the problem that currently exists in people's minds today - that trance is just but one breed of the spectrum of sounds that you find in clubs that you can dance to, and that it is a genre that requires you to be "high" to enjoy it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
My aim with this article is three-fold: To demystify the notion that trance music requires one to be on substances to enjoy it, to provide a representative sample comprising a wide variety of sounds that dominate trance music today, and to introduce you - the listener - to trance music in a comprehensive manner.
So let's begin.
The origins of the word "trance" have a lot to do with people associating the music with psychedelia, a higher state of awareness or consciousness, and similar such obscenities. Trance music aims to achieve none of these. It is very simply an expression of one's self that culminates in the release of those minute packets of energy that are stored within us that would go unrecognized otherwise. And the means of achieving this is through a combination of sprawling melodies, bass-lines, grooves, drums, vocals and epic crescendos. The beauty of the genre (as opposed to house music) is that this release of intense energy is typically accompanied by euphoria.
There's a very thin line between euphoria and psychedelia, mind you, and that's where people unfortunately take help to walk the bridge in-between. House music, on the other hand, has a lower tempo as measured in beats per minute (bpm). House songs are typically 126bpm to 132bpm while trance songs are 132bpm to 138bpm (as a comparison, the heart rate is 60bpm – this is why it is not advised to listen to electronic just before sleeping because it makes your pulse race). In general, it is safe to say that you can dance better to house music but trance is more musical, melodic and of course euphoric.
Trance has seen significant progress in its range of sounds over the last two decades. In the 1990s, trance was constrained to a narrow band of frequencies, simple but deep-melodies, fast tempos (138bpm) tending towards intoxicating psychedelia. Check out Binary Finary's "1998" and Push's "Strange World." The early listeners of trance (who are probably in their 40s now) swear by this sound even today. The first man to introduce melodies without necessarily inducing psychedelia was Paul Van Dyk, with his song "For an Angel" in 1994. And then came a song that probably remains the most popular trance song to date – "Sandstorm" by the Finnish producer Darude. The song had less psychedelia but more energy - it was probably one of the first in the genre that made you pump your fists in the air and dance. The sounds of trance had begun to enter the dance music arena. (Note: Links to all the song recommendations are embedded in this article and also listed at the end.)
The 2000s was a landmark decade for trance music, pioneered by the two Dutch superstars DJ Tiesto and Armin Van Buuren. Both legends developed their own sounds and brought unprecedented energy into the dance arena. The "Sound of Tiesto," as it was called, comprised euphoric high-pitched crescendos, shrill and barely audible vocals, fast tempos and beautiful melodies. Tiesto conceptualized the concept of a DJ playing to a crowd of thousands in what became his massive EDM concerts. Check out Tiesto's "Adagio for Strings" or "Elements of Life."
Let's fast forward to today. The different sounds that artists currently represent are a function of the mood they wish to create, the energy they wish to bring on from their tempos, etc. To simplify, trance producers can be represented by the way they deliver euphoria and energy. In my experience, people enjoy one of these aspects much more than the other. Some of the prominent trance producers/DJs are graphed on these axes (we're at Chicago - you thought there wouldn't be a graph?). Pick your level of energy and euphoria and you have your artist! The graph begs the question, "Why would anybody listen to Above & Beyond or Pryda (Eric Prydz) if they are relatively low on both euphoria and energy?" Well, because they make such beautiful and soulful music that engulfs you in incredible ambience. Pryda and Above & Beyond are considered to be two of the most musically gifted trance artists today. Pryda, a Swedish genius, was the fourth member in the early days of Swedish House Mafia, until he realized that he didn't feel the music that SHM was playing, and quit. Pryda chooses to be far less commercial than your average artist, instead typically focusing on making individual records with high production quality. Check out Pryda's "Every Day" or "Allein." If you like his productions, tune in to his monthly radio show called EPIC (Eric Prydz In Concert) Radio.
The field of electronic music has become both extensive and competitive. This has brutally necessitated two aspects for an artist in order to be successful: a) You have to produce tracks in addition to mixing them, and b) You need to have your signature sound. The latter is tricky to comprehend for new listeners, but an obvious requirement for success because it is the signature sound that helps an artist retain his or her fan base. The top artists rarely deviate from their signature sounds.
Let me give you a quick summary of the main signature sounds in trance today with sample tracks.
1. The Armada Sound
Pioneered by the Dutch superstar Armin Van Buuren, his label Armada Music signs artists that produce tracks high in intensity and maintain the trance sound of the 1990s while also favoring use of certain classical instruments like the piano. Different producers within the Armada label have slightly different sounds; for instance, Ørjan Nilsen (see the graph) brings out incredible energy with extensive drum reverbs in his tracks whilst MarLo infuses energy via electro-like beats.
Dash Berlin is probably the best vocal trance artist (vocals are not very common in trance, but Dash Berlin brings aplenty) whilst Andrew Rayel, a 20-year-old from Moldova and the future of trance in my opinion, brings in such an epic feel with a few dozen pianos that he probably destroys them every time he produces a track. Check out the songs "Communication (Tomas Heredia Remix)" by Armin Van Buuren, "An Angel's Love (Vocal Mix)," by Alex M.O.R.P.H featuring Sylvia Tosun, "Tuvan" by Armin Van Buuren presenting Gaia, "Aeon of Revenge," by Andrew Rayel, "Between the Rays" by Ørjan Nilsen, and "Man on the Run" by Dash Berlin.
Armin's track "Communication" has often been voted one of the best trance tracks ever made; "Tuvan" was voted the 2009 trance track of the year while "An Angel's Love" was voted the 2011 trance track of the year. The best way to listen to the Armada Sound further is through Armin's weekly radio show "A State of Trance" (on Spotify).
2. The Anjunabeats Sound
Arguably the second biggest label after Armada Music, Anjunabeats is run by the legendary UK producers Above & Beyond (A&B). The label gets its name from the Anjuna Beach in Goa, India where A&B started out in 1999. A&B have earned a fiercely dedicated fan base over time that loves them for the emotional depth of their songs. Sample their song "Good for Me" which was voted the trance track of the year in 2006 or "On a Good Day" where Justin Suissa's tranquilizing vocals calm you down. They are the only artists to have won the BBC Radio Essential Mix of the year twice. Their songs inspire beauty, comprise very well-written lyrics and focus strongly on establishing distinctive memories for each of their tracks.
Listening to A&B can be a revelation for many towards the spectrum of beautiful sounds that could be achieved with electronic music. A&B have signed on a number of artists that have a similar style of music - slow tempos (126 to 130bpm) - and innovative song structures. Some examples are the Finnish duo Super8 & Tab, the Californian duo Norin & Rad and the London based Ilan Bluestone. Listen to the following songs for a more comprehensive taste of the Anjunabeats sound: "Here in the Dark (Aurosonic Progressive Mix)" by Headstrong featuring Shelly Harland, "L.A." and "Teardrops" by Super8 & Tab, "Sinai" by Ilan Bluestone (my favorite track of 2013 so far), "Alone Tonight" by Above & Beyond, and "Wayfarer" by Audien. If you are in love with this sound, you should definitely tune in to A&B's weekly Group Therapy Radio.
3. The Coldharbour Sound
Mention Coldharbour to a dedicated trance music fan and her eyes will light up. Such is the passion that Markus Schulz, the German-born and Miami resident producer inspires in fans. Commonly known as The Unicorn Slayer in the trance community, his reputation certainly precedes him. Markus Schulz plays a style of deep, intense, dark trance that takes your mind to a combination of states and slays each one of them individually. If you were to hypothetically have a "Pink Floyd of trance" award, this man would certainly be your pick. There are not many producers today who play nine-hour sets and take you on a sufficiently long musical journey. In September 2012, he was crowned America's Number One DJ of 2012. Hitting off the big charts with his 2008 single "The New World," he has produced one too many a gem of trance tracks. Check out "Chinook (Uplifting Mix)" by Markus Schulz presenting Dakota or "Finish Line" by Markus Schulz and Elevation, or "The Spiritual Gateway (Transmission 2013 Theme)" by Markus Schulz.
What is more amazing is that the musical armageddon of artists signed onto Coldharbour such as Arnej, Omnia, KhoMha, Beat Service, Mr Pit and Grube & Hovsepian have all made astonishing tracks in the past few years while closely following the dark Coldharbour Sound. For instance, check out "We Unite" by Arnej, "Artemis" by KhoMha or "The Fusion" by Omnia & Ira (#2 track of 2012), "Fortuna" by Beat Service, "City of Angels" by Grube & Hovsepian or "Apache" by Fisherman & Hawkins. If you happen to like the Coldharbor Sound, you are in for intense euphoric moments. If you want to take it one step further, check out the "Los Angeles 2012" compilation on Spotify; you can catch him live in his upcoming North American bus tour.
4. The Garuda Sound
Yet another reason to believe the European dominance in trance music presents itself in the form of the Garuda camp run by the Southampton-born UK producer Gareth Emery. Gareth has been involved in some controversies recently with fans accusing him of changing his sound towards a more House- and Electro-based music. This accusation seems to result from his increasing focus on the American audience. While having acknowledged that he is open to and is experimenting with a broader range of sounds, the fact remains that The Garuda God continues to bang out one track of the year after another. His track "Sanctuary" was the voted number two trance track of 2010, while "Concrete Angel" won track of the year in 2012.
His sound itself is undergoing change as we speak but the quintessential Garuda tracks are club monsters - simple melodies that are easy on the ear and make you pop your keys in your pocket and go for a drive. Make no mistake - Gareth's recent tracks may sound commercial but his roots are in some remarkable trance productions. Check out his "BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix" from 2008 and you will find a superbly paced two-hour musical set that can even make your grandmother listen. I promise.
Like other producers, Gareth has brought on a mini-army of Garuda professionals - the primary camper being Ben Gold. Check out "Tokyo (Ben Gold Remix)" by Gareth Emery, or "Fall with Me" or "Apex," both by Ben Gold. You should definitely also check out "Everafter (Craig Connelly Remix)" by Tritonal and "The Other Side" by Luke Bond. If you wish to follow this sound, tune in to his weekly Gareth Emery podcast!
5. The 138 Sound a.k.a The Uplifting Sound
This is not for the faint-hearted. The harsher sounds of trance typically take the form of the fastest beats at 138bpm. If you are new to electronic or trance music, this sound will likely put you off and (falsely) reaffirm your belief that trance implies psychedelia. The reason for this is simple - the 138 sound is intended for one and only one reason - to create euphoria. This sound has been in a lot of news recently driven mainly by the godfather of the sound himself - Armin Van Buuren. In a radio show two months ago, Armin declared "So who's afraid of 138?" Within days, it had a mini-cult following, so much so that there were T-shirts and caps manufactured and sold with the "Who's afraid of 138?" caption for a separate "Who's afraid of 138?" stage at one of his recent live shows!
The producers that play the 138 sound currently are Armin, Aly & Fila, John O' Callaghan, James Dymond, Arctic Moon, Bryan Kearney, John Askew and Indecent Noise. This is also my favorite sound of trance. The fans of the 138 sound are primarily listeners who love the 1990s style trance and can contain all the euphoria sitting in one place. It gets overbearing sometimes, really. If you think you are ready, check out "First Coming (Ian Standerwick Remix)" by Ciro Visone, "Stresstest (John Askew Remix)" by John O'Callaghan vs. Commander Tom, "Full Moon Fever" by Indecent Noise or "This Light Between Us (Armin's Great Strings Remix)" by Armin Van Buuren.
So there we go - these are the main types of sounds that prevail currently in trance music. Different producers have their own styles and variations and if you are interested, this is just the beginning. Two other producers with distinctive sounds are W&W and Arty. In Armin's words, W&W are the "upcoming certified Dutch dance floor destroyers." The energy that W&W brings is unparalleled in my opinion (which is also why they rank the highest in the chart). W&W play electro-based trance music with sounds very similar to house music. Check out W&W's "Liftoff," "Shotgun," or "Moscow." Arty is a 22-year-old Russian wonder-kid who has made news in the past few years with his mind-blowingly distinctive sound. Try Arty's "Believe in Me," "Must be the Love" with BT and Nadia Ali, and "Together We Are."
Karthik is a co-chair of AudioBooth. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/cbishguy to discuss music in any form. He has an interest in trying out new forms of music (like Jazz) and other genres / sounds as well.
The Armada Sound
The Anjunabeats Sound
The Coldharbour Sound
The Garuda Sound
The 138 Sound
W&W and Arty