White clothing, green lasers, 3D figures, aliens and metallic
man bags – Joeri Woudstra has a soft spot for all things trance.
You may know him better as Torus the visual artist and musician from The Hague. Back in June last year, Woudstra got to play out his trance fantasies as Torus at his Green Laser Radio show for Red Light Radio, lighting up the tiny studio in a stunning display of beaming green rays that was as much a visual as a sonic experience.
At 23, Woudstra came of age when the nineties had all but ended and the noughties was in full swing, yet he grew up with trance. “My dad is a huge trance fan. I remember sitting next to him in the car while he’d play all these classics to me,” he recalls. The very first record Woudstra owned was Barthezz’s “On the Move”. He once asked Barthezz for a remix. “He declined politely, explaining that he has a different sound nowadays.” Woudstra continues: “It’s a pity too, for him. You see that with a lot of the old guard; they make EDM predominantly these days. Even Tiësto.”
To Woudstra, trance represents a nostalgic longing for his childhood. “Sitting in that car with my dad, I was carefree. Nothing mattered other than the music we played.” Trance is not only inextricably linked to his own childhood – days filled with blissful ignorance; Woudstra imagines this to be easily the case for many of his peers in their twenties.
He believes mass nostalgia comes in 20-year cycles and a revival trending at any one time is often one the current generation of clubbers was first exposed to as pre-teens. “For me, it was my dad opening me up to trance; for others, an older sibling perhaps.” The time now seems ripe for the resurgence of trance, what with Rihanna dressed to the “nineties” and electronic music giving a nod to acid house with its liberal adoption of the Smiley Face.
Things are definitely moving along for Woudstra. After leaving quite the impression at his Green Laser Radio show, he was invited to do a follow-up mix for Red Bull Music Academy Radio, before he went on to share the booth with Luc Mast, Job Jobse,
Elias Mazian, Oceanic and Woody at a trance night in De School two months ago.
Woudstra is not the only one reviving a genre that peaked when Paul Oakenfold played with Madonna and U2 at the turn of the century, but was then deemed too much sugar-in-a-can for the critics when it progressed into the Big Room House that took the hit parade by storm. Today, underground clubbing communities outside Amsterdam celebrate the roots of trance and its heritage. Evian Christ has been organizing his Trance Party series in Liverpool and London since 2014. Last year, EDM promoter Insomniac organized its first trance-only event in Southern California. The two-day festival sold out within four hours. Trance influences are audible in a range of recent releases varying from house (Mattheis – Kindred Phenomena) to techno (Kowton – On Repeat), hip hop (AraabMuzik – Electronic Dream), and especially, bass. Just listen to Rustie’s album from last year EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE, or the freshly pressed EP Persona by Lorenzo Senni – latest edition to the Warp family and the first Italian to be signed by the experimental British outlet.
“Wow! I actually listened to that! I was like… is this Warp? We’ve always considered Warp to be really ‘out there’ but it’s actually become kind of mainstream,” remarked Chris Liebing in relation to the tracks that are sonic postcards from the days spent observing his raving mates in Rimini, the Mecca of tacky partying, 15 years ago. Senni, who started out in the straight edge punk scene, told Resident Advisor recently that it was these adolescent exploits that made him into the musician he is today.
Senni is a maestro like no other. Firing cluttering saw tooth synths at your ears with his Roland JP 8000, he transcends the vibes of early trance by leaving out the percussion element, thus transforming its flickering vintage futuristic sound into a more contemporary adaptation.
“It’s great what Lorenzo Senni does,” says Woudstra. “A lot of people sent his tracks to me because they knew of my interest in trance. At first, I thought it was music from around the year 2000, and that some experimental dude had made a trance record and taken the drums out. Then I realized that it’s actually quite contemporary, which is kind of cool. My appeal to trance in general lies in the really intense pieces where the music feels almost drone-like. It triggers some very intense emotions, as if you have no other choice but to surrender to the music.”
“I find it fascinating that we are rather negligible beings in the bigger scheme of things, yet we are capable of creating such larger-than-life sounds simply by twisting some knobs.”
This brings us to the question: What is trance, exactly? Epic swelling arpeggios, floor-filling Big Room synthesizers, energy and euphoria are arguably the main characteristics associated with this genre. It’s almost as if someone got the ludicrous idea to make some music after getting hammered over Christmas dinner with an all-too-typical dysfunctional family, only to fall asleep on the keyboard with one finger pointed at the rave-pad, reverb in full effect. Much like the noble intentions of this musician – hopped up on liquid courage, placing blind faith on his instruments to deliver in spite of himself – trance, at its height, had expressed trust in technology and optimism about the arrival of a new millennium.
After hardcore had disappeared into the underground, trance was ready to fill that void. It was Tiësto’s 1999 performance at Innercity that propelled him into superstardom. That same year DJ Jean scored a number one hit with “The Launch” and major labels vied to sign Ferry Corsten, who had just made Out of The Blue with his brand new Roland JP 8000. Corsten went on to win a Silver Harp in 2000. The following year, Armin van Buuren started his weekly radioshow A State of Trance and two years later in 2004, Tiësto played at the opening ceremony of the Olypmics in Athens. These three Dutch icons travelled the world and went from bedroom producers to pop stars in the span of a few years. As with Gabber music, ID&T played a crucial role in the development of this new youth movement thanks to arena-filling parties such as Innercity and Sensation.
In Frankfurt, trance had been thriving since the beginning of the 90s, thanks to
Eye Q – the label of Sven Väth and Matthias Hoffmann. The latter was one half of Cygnus X – known for their hits “Orange Theme” and “Superstring”. At the time, Chris Liebing was still an accountant at the Eye Q headquarters in Frankfurt and a DJ in the making.
Liebing speaks about his later foray into techno. “I got into techno because of trance, as many people did in Germany. But it’s a completely different type of trance than what people think about today. For example, if you do a search on YouTube for Eye Q Records – this hard house label from Frankfurt I used to work for – and listen to the first ten records, you will know exactly what I mean. It is really fast and it has a certain emotion to it, but not in a cheesy way.”
What makes the difference? “Difficult to say,” says Liebing. “It’s in the little details. It could be just one note in a melody that makes the difference between it sounding cheesy or just right. A rougher undertone definitely played a part in it [the Eye Q sound], a given with the production methods. The cheesiness comes from it being too polished.”
By the turn of the century, trance was torpedoed into the mainstream by hit parade tracks such as ATB’s “Till I Come”, Fragma’s “Toca’s Miracle” and Robert Miles’ “Children”. Remember that video clip with the endless train ride appearing over and over on the now-defunct TMF? Trance grew into “progressive” and all sorts of subgenres that became popular with visitors of big room events.
Woudstra speaks of this less-than-stellar time period in trance’s evolution. “At some point Usher and all sorts of R&B artists also started to make EDM music by incorporating elements of trance – yearning vocals with plenty of reverb and brash synths. To me that is a very ugly era, musically.”
Trance may have fallen out of favor with the critics but it’s never gone out of fashion with the people. A State of Trance, Armin van Buuren’s weekly radio show, draws over 37 million listeners per week and is celebrating its 750th episode in February. Paul van Dyk still draws bigger crowds than Marcel Dettmann. “Welcome to the ever-thriving world of trance,” said Pete Tong when introducing Aly & Fila’s Essential Mix at the beginning of 2016. The DJ mix of this Egyptian “post-trance” producer duo, repeat chart toppers on DJ Mag Top 100, marked the return of trance to the landmark radio show since 2014.
Monstrous bass drops, intense vocals and over-the-top beats – what is called trance within the framework of EDM seems rather more related to hardstyle. The trance elements that recently found their way back into the underground, however, bear a much closer resemblance to the style of trance from way back.
“It’ll always be a matter of taste… and also a matter of guts, I believe,” says Woody ’s-Gravemade (24), who throws parties in The Hague together with classmates Fabian Bredt and Luka Kueter from the Royal Academy of Art (KABK). “At Deep Sea Discotheque, we always try to show the beauty of the ‘failed record’. Take Cosmic Esmeralda by DJ Stefan Egger for example – that is one very cheesy vocal on top of a very tacky beat. The track is very energetic and before too long, it starts exploding like cheap fireworks in your face in a way that is somehow very wrong. I always have a soft spot for these kind of things, where you’ll be like: can I get away with this? Not really. But then again, why not? I take it up as a challenge to incorporate these tracks into my set in such a way that everything falls into place.”
As a producer Woudstra has a soft spot for Big Reverb. He made a name for himself with releases on Rwina Records where he frequently used the reverberating synths typical for trance combined with trap aesthetics. He’s not the only one connecting the world of the trampoline bass of trap with the big room euphoria of trance. This second wave of trance appears to be rooted in the bass scene (think Rustie and Hudson Mohawke), sometimes combined with corny 8-bit computer sounds known as glitch (think Oneothrix Pointnever).
“Rustie? Very trance!” Woudstra exclaims. “Those overwhelming bass lines really fit with the big spacious vibe of trance. I think you heard the trance influences in what they call bass first – although I am not a big fan of labels. Those elements are now being incorporated by many other genres as well. When I started to play trance tracks people that threw ‘credible’ house and techno parties thought it was not done if I played a trance record after Aphex Twin. But now it seems that these people are also starting to appreciate these records and playing them in their sets. They are acknowledging the qualities in trance.”
“I don’t want to be boxed into any specific corner,” says Woody. “I think all music is cool; from German schlägers to house and techno, and opera to trance. I am personally a big fan of a mix of slow house (around 105 BPM), jungle sounds and repetitive tribal percussion. They call it afro-trance. If it gives me the feeling of trance, then it is.
During that night at De School I also played other stuff than regular trance. You can hear many trance influences these days in other genres. Listen to a record such as Current 82 of DJ Sotofett, for example, or listen to Mongawa – he makes really cool afro-trance. But I think there’s also a lot of trance in Gunnar Haslam’s latest album. You can even hear trance in stuff from Kult of Krameria; they almost make reggaeton. I’ll use all of these in my sets but it doesn’t necessarily qualify as trance.”
Woudstra adds: “I think there’s trance in a lot of stuff. I mainly want two worlds to coexist that would normally not fit together in my sets. Secondly, I want to play music with a certain nostalgic value next to music that is contemporary or doesn’t evoke that nostalgia. Trance, for me, can also be very intense female vocals. Therefore, as a DJ I play just about everything.” During his critically acclaimed set at Lowlands Woudstra incorporated trance edits of sleazy R&B starlet Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”, The Nightcrawlers’ Eurodance classic “Push The Feeling On” on and electro bangers by Mr. Oizo such as “Vous êtes des Animaux”.
Woudstra is happy to report that his set in De School was surprisingly well-received. “It went super well. It was nice to see that people I’d expect to have certain pretentious connotations about music, who I’d expected would sulk in a corner, were actually able to completely go for it. Not so long ago, people would get mad and walk out of my set if I played trance, but the crowd went really crazy that night at De School. Armin van Buuren’s whole media team was there too. They thought it was fucking sick!!”
Trance comes from transcendental and in that sense all dance music is trance. The trance 2.0 revival may be more about the return of playfulness among the serious, self-proclaimed governors of good taste. What was wrong now seems right. Just look at the Green Laser Radio show Woudstra gave at Red Light Radio, the Deep Sea Discotheque parties in The Hague and the enthusiastic response to the trance night at De School.
“The Facebook event completely exploded,” says Woody. “If you see what kind of stuff people were posting… everybody started posting their own trance favourites.”
Woudstra felt a similar enthusiasm on the dance floor. “I started my set slow. After an hour I finally played the first record with a beat and it turned into a total mayhem. Things didn’t calm down until 9.30 AM.”
AraabMuzik’s production work on Dipset’s Salute in 2010 was the first time that Woudstra noticed any interest in trance outside The Netherlands. “Before the night at De School, I did a lot of research on tracks I wanted to play and I discovered that trance never left. There has been a continuous flow of trance that never adapted much.”
Woudstra’s successful night in De School brought him back to the time three years ago where he played trance for the first time. He was the warm-up act for FKA Twigs’ concert in Trouw. “Back then it was more of an experiment. I noticed how much response it invoked. People were really picking up on it, posting videos on Vine and Instagram. I play trance because I really like the music but that was the first time that I realized trance had some sort of momentum.”
Some would argue that Ame’s house classic from 2006 “Rej”, with its looming lush melody, was already the return of trance. Woudstra, though, is only just made aware of it. “Wow, I’ve never heard that one. That is very ‘trance-y’ indeed. Crazy!”
If the sentiments of Woody and Woudstra – two of trance’s young millennial advocates – are anything to go by, this old kid on the block may indeed be poised for a comeback, rebooted with a fresh blood transfusion and an updated face.
“Everything is really trance in the end,” says Woody as he makes sense of this trend. “Speedy J, James Holden… everyone started out with trance. About that euphoric melancholic sound that Tiësto has for example; it is very cheesy on the one hand but on the other hand it’s incredibly trippy and also very nice. Just look at the response of the crowd during our night at De School – everybody went nuts. For beginners who are new to it, trance is also very accessible. Maybe people just need a bit more melancholy in music rather than the sturdy, pace-yourself techno that has been popular the last couple of years.”