Friday, December 25, 2009

Armin van Buuren - A State Of Trance 2004 (Original TC Review)

ASOT2004
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Ultra Records: Cat. # UL 1202-2
Released April 10, 2004

Track List:
DISC 1
1. Mark Otten - Tranquility (7:10)
2. Solid Globe - Sahara (5:48)
3. Whirlpool - Under The Sun (Solar Stone Remix) (7:18)
4. Three Drives - Signs From The Universe (4:14)
5. Airwave - Lady Blue (Original Beat) (5:53)
6. Kyau vs. Albert - Velvet Morning (Aalto Remix) (5:01)
7. Fictivision vs. Phynn - Escape (Phynn Mix) (5:36)
8. Perpetuous Dreamer - Future Funland (Astura Remix) (5:00)
9. Active Sight - The Search For Freedom (6:01)
10. Super 8 - Alba (6:00)
11. Oceanlab - Satellite (Original Above & Beyond Remix) (5:45)
12. Robert Nickson - Spiral (6:54)
13. Armin van Buuren featuring Justine Suissa - Burned With Desire (Rising Star Remix) (7:07)

DISC 2
1. Perry O'Neil - Kubik (8:06)
2. Valentino - Flying (Sultan & The Greek Remix) (5:37)
3. Michael Burns - The Ambience (4:35)
4. Anthanasia - Perfect Wave (6:43)
5. St. John vs. Locust - Mind Circles (Perry O'Neil Remix) (4:47)
6. Remy & Roland Klinkenberg - Fearless (5:42)
7. Scott Bond vs Solar Stone - Naked Angel (6:07)
8. Fascinated - Totally Fascinated (6:18)
9. Mono - Rise (5:37)
10. Envio - Time To Say Goodbye (Passiva Remix) (6:04)
11. True From - Forbidden Colours (7:28)
12. Artic Quest - Offbeat (5:31)
13. Water Planet - Introspection (John Askew Mix) (5:06)


(2010 Update:
Pretty benign here, I must admit. I'll grant I didn't have the highest opinion of Armin but the second CD of this was quite good, so I could see the potential of an excellent trance DJ, and even buy into some of the hype a number of his fanboys were gushing on about. You can't help but wonder what would have happened to his career if he'd followed CD2's style instead of the cheesier CD1.

By the way, does anyone know what the hell I was going on about in the Brief? I wrote that, and even I don't have a clue.)



IN BRIEF: One of the world's most popular DJs shows us two sides of the same face.

Is there any point in doing a brief background on Armin van Buuren and his A State Of Trance radio show? Any passing fan of trance will have heard of it after spending a short time around online trance communities. Between acquiring massive amounts of admirers and massive amounts of detractors, there's been a tidy niche carved out for Armin in the genre.

However, for as many people who've listened to his radio show (thanks in large part to online feeds), there are probably far more who haven't checked out what the big fuss was about, whether due to technological limits, time limits, or flat out apathy.

Truth be told, I was one of those folk.

It's not so much the curiosity wasn't there; fact of the matter was as A State Of Trance was starting out, I was putting my interest in trance on the backburner when the overdose of anthems had sent me fleeing to the wonderful, back-to-basics vibe of electroclash and disco punk. By the time I'd come back to the fold, the Sashas, Digweeds, and Oakenfolds had been replaced by a flurry of new cats as trance's movers and shakers -oddly enough, almost all of them Dutch.

At the time of its release, A State Of Trance 2004 held some of the most recent hits of Armin's show. Looking to find out just what the current 'state of trance' was (ho ho!), I figured this would be as good as any place to check out what I'd missed in the previous two years.

Judging from the first disc, things have gotten a lot mellower. This isn't to say trance didn't have a mellow side to it before; it's always kind of lurked about while the heavier tracks held the limelight for the first decade or so. But by the turn of the century, you could see that Ibizan atmosphere starting to emerge from the background when acts like ATB were dominating pop charts. It would appear that aspect of trance has now completely taken over.

The first three tracks are quite similar in this respect with their use of gentle guitar strums and light pad work. Solid Globe's Sahara stands out a bit more than the others, though not for the better. Instead of relying on the strums to carry it, they use a rather goofy sounding cousin of the ATB Hawaiian guitar. You can tell Sahara so desperately wants to be the Next Big Anthem but with a flaccid hook like that, it'll probably receive a mere token footnote in trance's history.

Anyways, we briefly leave the Ibizan fronts with Three Drives' Signs Of The Universe, then make a return as we head into the quite lovely synth pads of Airwave's Lady Blue. Seems a bit odd to arrange tracks like that but I'll give it a pass this early on -compilations of this sort can be troublesome to arrange into a flowing, continuous mix sometimes.

Things start to get more energetic as we move into Velvet Morning, at least until the song breaks down for a minute and a half to let a few sung lyrics and mild breakbeats play out. This isn't too bad, though, as the breakdown does help change the tone of this mix, leading to a wonderful payoff.

Oh, not in Velvet Morning (although it's not too bad in that song). Rather, Fictivision & Phynn's Escape completely leaps out at you with energy, thanks in large part to one major factor: bass. Sure, there's been bass on this mix so far, but for the most part it plays second, even third, fiddle to the more melodic elements the former songs were intent on providing. Escape's bottom end instead fills out the low frequencies as it rolls along to some energetic rhythms. Pair this up with simple, effective synth arpeggios and melodies, and this mix seems about ready to be taken to the next level.

Whoops! Looks like I spoke too soon.

Um, Armin, what are you doing here? You do not give your audience a song that has just as much ass shaking goodness as hands in the air vibes, only to follow it up with a track that is almost completely devoid of bass that can match pace. Without that extra emphasis on the rhythm being maintained, you're going to lose your momentum.

Any hope of seeing that energetic charge created by Escape carry over is lost instantly with Future Funland, and Active Sight's The Search For Freedom doesn't get any better when a ninety second breakdown slows things right down to a crawl. Sorry, but as fine as these tracks are, coming off the heels of Escape just makes them sound inconsequential.

Alba by Super 8 passes us by without much fanfare and we're now into one of the most notorious tracks of 2004: Above & Beyond's remix of Satellite.

Why is it notorious? Well, it seems to have gained a reputation for polarizing more epic trance fans than any other track. Either you absolutely love it for Suissa's vocals, sputtering supersaws, and grandiose build, or hate it for those exact same reasons.

How could such a simple song have such an effect? Well, it probably has to do with the fact this track bares more than a passing similarity to DJ Tiësto's seminal remix for Delerium's Silence. The fact Satellite really is nothing more than a carbon copy of it will please those who couldn't get enough of Silence, and chase off those who were sick and tired of the endless wanna-bes that followed in the wake of the remix's success.

Okay, the fact I've spent the last two paragraphs going on about one song's reputation instead of how it actually sounds kind of shows how much interest in this mix I have left. Sure, the remaining songs are fine (quite wonderful if you have someone to tenderly embrace, I might add, so cynics of lamour may want to stay away) but when I still have those infectious rhythms of Escape lingering in my head even after six other songs have played, there is a serious problem here.

As a test, I started the disc at Future Funland, just to see if it might be something to do with the tracks themselves. Without Escape's rhythms so recently in my mind, the second half of the disc sounded much better. Granted, there were still a couple of nitpicks I could point out but, for the most part, the flow of the tracks made more sense and, most importantly, I did not feel as though the momentum took a huge dive (it didn't exactly gain any either, but steady momentum is much preferable to a drop). Had Escape been left out of this mix, it would have been a pleasant enough listen. Instead, we are given a rather substantial tease to something bigger only to have it cruelly snatched away, the remaining tracks sounding like nothing more than filler as a result.

Anyhow, enough moaning about woulda-coulda-shouldas, as I still have another CD to listen to here.

The second disc starts out much like the first in terms of atmosphere. However, there are grooving prog rhythms at work instead, allowing you to be swept up in their hypnotic patterns. Relying more on soundscapes than melodies, the opening stanza of this mix manages to do in its first two tracks what the first one couldn't even manage in its entirety namely, allow my mind to drift with the music. Sultan & The Greek's remix of Valentino's Flying perfectly captures that hypnotic feeling with its eerie pads and grooving bass.

The Ambience by Michael Burns keeps the mellow tone going, tiding us over nicely into the subtly stuttering chords of Peter Martin's Perfect Wave. As these chords gently get tweaked with pitch effects, the mind is taken on an entrancing sojourn. Additional synth pads join in some four minutes in, bringing with it a wave of bliss.

It's strange how these four opening tracks have managed to move me more physically and mentally than all but one of the first disc's tracks (no prize for guessing which one, I'm afraid). I get the impression that Armin was allowed to get a little more creative in track selection for this second disc than the first, creating a mix with excellent flow. I'm quite impressed by this turn of events but I'll hold off on full praise for the moment; I've been let down by strong openings before.

The rhythm gets a little heavier with Mind Circles, and the mood gets deeper with Fearless, taking this mix into darker pastures. Taking its cue from these tracks is Solar Stone's and Scott Bond's offering of Naked Angel. This song hits all the right notes with driving rhythms, ghostly pads, and heavenly female voices. A mild breakdown over halfway through adds a simple piano melody to create a wonderfully benign vibe over the song.

As such, using M.I.K.E.'s Totally Fascinated (under the Fascinated guise) is a great contrast to follow with. Borrowing more than just the habit of using tons of aliases from Oliver Lieb, this track has much in common with many a Lieb produced release. In what may be the most inhuman song on this entire two-disc set, the electronic heritage of trance is given a chance to show off sinister sounds as subtle, synthesized melodies pulse and meander in the background. The climax to this song adds hauntingly ominous effects to the fray with superb skill, ending it with a rush of primal energy.

Feeding off that rush, the busier rhythm of Rise by Mono works brilliantly in keeping this mix on a steady upward climb of excellence. While the main melody may sound a little whiny in other mixes, it plays remarkably well as a follow up to the comparatively unmelodic Totally Fascinated. As fine it is that tech-trance can hypnotically draw you deep within your psyche, having a little melody thrown in for good measure at points can help accentuate points.

With Envio's Time To Say Goodbye, things start to slow down a bit. Actually, they slow down drastically as this song uses a breakdown and build that lasts over two and a half minutes. Good lord, but does this ever go on. Considering how good this mix has been thus far, I normally wouldn't be too annoyed by such a long interlude, especially since this track has an air of wrapping things up soon. However, there's a rather weak, er, 'melody' used in the breakdown that doesn't add anything at all. The fact we have to endure it for so long quickly takes us out of that trancey state of mind everything else before it had expertly put us in. "Reality's on her way..."

Anyhow, the climax of Time To Say Goodbye manages to recover a bit but it's quite apparent Armin's changed lanes now. With True Form's Forbidden Colours, he takes a complete one-eighty. With its peppy synth arpeggios, this is a stark contrast to much of what's already been played but not a bad offering, really. I guess it's quite nice to go out on this album with an uplifting note.

Oh, wait, Armin's not done yet. He takes another one-eighty with Artic Quest's Offbeat. Returning to the more ominous, darker textures of much of this mix, there is a wonderfully mysterious little melody introduced in a breakdown, building subtly into some tech-trance rhythms. Never overdoing it, this is a great way to go out on an enigmatic note.

Oh, wait, Armin's still not done yet. Geez, these last two tracks certainly had an air of finality to them; it's quite disconcerting to keep having another track follow it up. Still, Introspection by Water Planet is a pleasant enough excursion. Nothing too fancy here with some bright melodies, mellow pads, and stomping rhythms, this kind of encapsulates most of the elements heard throughout this mix. This is probably the honest-to-god best method to end the mix on; a nice way to go out on a summarized note (for real this time).
And now, I am stuck with a dilemma.

The first disc really sounds more like a compilation of big trance tunes put into a continuous mix, mainly because of the lack of any type of consistent momentum. Like any compilation, you are given a selection of tracks to enjoy, but very little in terms of that proverbial journey to follow; much like a typical radio show, actually.

The second disc sounds more like a DJ mix, as the flow is more logical and actually builds towards something. Despite the final act of it sounding more like a random mish-mash of leftover tunes Armin wanted to include on this release (but was unable to find any logical place to include them without things sounding even more jarring at points), everything else up to that point is quite enjoyable.

So what's the dilemma? In a nutshell, do I rate this as a DJ mix release, or as a compilation release?

Actually, it isn't too hard to choose as my answer lies in the front cover. The fact the DJ's name is in big, bold letters with a photo of his face (albeit slightly hidden) leads me to believe the marketing team expect folks would be after this for the DJ rather than the material. As such, how do I rate Armin van Buuren, the DJ?

Well, he can beatmatch the percussive lead-outs and lead-ins of each track. That's about it, really. There aren't any other fancy DJ tricks to be had here so it boils down to track selection. As I bemoaned at length already, the track selection for the first disc is very off kilter for a DJ set, with very little in terms of surprises to be had (most of the tracks follow the melodic theme, with a slight increase in energy towards the end) a two star rating from me in most cases. On the other hand, the second disc's choice of music for a DJ mix has much better flow and diversity, creating a far more pleasent excursion into trance, a four star rating from me in most cases.

I guess this leaves this release smack in the middle: three stars. There is enough enjoyable material to keep me interested in the more popular forms of trance at present but I hope things show a little more innovation in the near future than what is on offer here. I'd imagine trance could get even more mundane than after the anthem boom of yore if this melodic form dominates for too long.


Score: 6/10

ACE TRACKS/MIXES:
Fictivision vs. Phynn - Escape (Phynn Mix)
Anthanasia - Perfect Wave
Fascinated - Totally Fascinated


Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2005 for TranceCritic.com.

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