Monday, May 19, 2008

Energy Flash column #2, SonicNet 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Trance rules the world's dancefloors with a white-glove fist. Occasionally, though, voices of dissent pipe up to insist, "that's not real trance, that's Euro". Uttered with a disdainful wrinkle of the nostrils, the E-word is code for “cheese”, for dance music that's too close to conventional chart-pop . And these grouches have a point--the original early Nineties trance was harsh, trippy, and coldly cosmic, and it almost never featured vocals or normal song-structures. Although it was drug music and people raved to, in ways the first-wave Teutonic trance from Berlin and Frankfurt was born as a reaction against rave--or what rave had degenerated into (all goofy kids TV samples, pianos, anthemic choruses). As much as purist Detroit techno or progressive house, the original trance was intended as a stripped-down, somber, cheese-purged purification of techno.

Between 1994, when first-wave trance's hipster credibility was usurped by drum & bass, and 1998, when trance's popularity resurged dramatically off the back of the Mitshubishi phenomenon (the return of reliably high quality Ecstasy), the music changed substantially. Borrowing elements from commercial house (hands in the air breakdowns and crowd-inciting drum rolls) and from Balearic (the spangly MDMA-friendly textures and wistful refrains popular in Ibiza every summer), trance reinvented itself as the populist softcore option---cheesy and proud of it. It became Euro-trance, and as far as connoisseurs were concerned, an abhorrent thing.

What makes it Euro? Maybe it's that's there’s too much Aha and Erasure in the mix. The hallmark of this music is an indecent amount of melody (remember, there's an inverse ratio between tunefulness and deepness in dance culture), a hint of melodrama and operatic-ness. Rhythmically, the Euro element comes in with the nu-trance’s debt to a style of music that will probably never enjoy the hipster rediscovery afforded electro or disco: Hi-NRG. Huge in gay discos all through the Eighties, this genre is defined by a butt-shaking rhythm that is best conveyed by the words "Blue Monday".

Alongside the shameless Mozzarella content, trancephobes always accuse the music of lacking "funk" and "soul"--of being too white, basically. The "funkless" accusation is pretty incontestable. It goes back to Giorgio Moroder, whose productions for Donna Summer pioneered the first all-electronic dance music: Eurodisco. Moroder deliberately simplified funk's clustered beats into an even flow of metronomically regular pulsations, all synched to the unsyncopated four-to-the-floor kick drum. Rhythmic children of Giorgio, trance DJ's like Paul Van Dyk emphasize seamless transitions between tracks, creating the sensation of surging through a frictionless soundscape. And without friction, where's the funk?

The "soul-less" accusation is unfair, though---if anything, trance can be too
E-motional. Besides, there is a European soulfulness to trance, a quality that descends from the serene glide of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" and "Neon Lights", both hymnal songs about falling in love with the modern world while in motion through it. Listen to today's trance, and you think of the pristine, hygienic beauty of a modern unified Europe--the high-speed trains, the autobahns, the pedestrian-only boulevards of city center shopping districts, the noiseless moving walkways of airports. It's why Euro-trance flourishes wherever the romance of streamlined, sterile modernity holds sway, from Hong Kong to Sao Paolo (the most European of Brazil's cities).

It's also why this music, so rootless and synthetic sounding, comes from the Old World. On a recent vacation to Tuscany, I started to understand how the ancient stuff everywhere--medieval hilltowns, cobbled streets, ruined farmhouses -- could feel oppressive to young people. I'm sure it's got something to do with why Italian kids have long favored shiny man-made fabrics and shiny machine-made music. Italian pop radio plays nothing but Euro (that, and the occasional Bon Jovi tune, pop-metal at its most glitteringly inorganic), and it's perfect precisely because it doesn't fit the picturesque landscape of olive groves, sunflower meadows, and ruined farmhouses scrolling past your car windows. In the land of terracotta, plastic has a liberating future-buzz about it

The Italian contribution to rock is negligible, but they did play a significant role in the history of house and techno. Moroder came from the Northern province of Tyrol, culturally poised between Italy and the German speaking world. The style of post-Moroder electronic dancepop known as Italodisco was popular in Detroit, where they called it "progressive"--artists like Klein & MBO and Alexander Robotnik. Robotnik's "Problemes D'Amour" was actually the first dance track to use a Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the basis of acid house and a staple of trance. Later, Italo-house--all tingly-rush inducing piano vamps and shrieking divas--by artists like Black Box and Starlight was hugely influential on the British rave scene. Even today, Italian producers like Tigino & Legato more than pull their weight when it's comes to fuelling Ibiza's midsummer blissfest.

All of which brings back to my original point, the puzzling fact that the word "Euro" is an insult, when "in the beginning" European-ness was the quintessence of cool. Detroit techno, for instance, began as a scene of affluent black teenagers who defined themselves through their obsession with all things European, from music to fashion. It's not inaccurate to describe techno and house as white European music that black Americans "got wrong"---a sort of reverse parallel with the emergence of rock as a white misrecognition of the black blues. Detroit cognoscenti fetishize the obscure Italian records that Carl Craig and Derrick May spun at high school "socials" in the early Eighties (alongside tracks by Yello, Depeche Mode, Liaison Dangereues, and other Euro exotica). But they have no interest, and nothing but contempt, for contemporary Euro, which has clear ancestral links with that music.

“Deep” is a buzzword in dance culture, code for the sort of cognoscenti-pleasing subtleties that ensures the music will never cross-over because it’s not instantly appealing or anthemic enough (see also “dark” and “progressive”, two other praise terms that virtually guarantee a lack of blatant tunefulness and overt emotion). The opposite of “deep” is “cheesy”, basically anything people-pleasing. It’s worth remembering, though, that the Italians have had centuries of experience with using just the right amount of cheese--think risotto, pasta, pizza. Too much and it's inedible, nauseating. Too little, and it lacks flava. The same thing goes for dance music: “cheese” adds savor and pungency. When dance producers get too tasteful, the result is music that is completely tasteless.

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