Understated Classics #38: Trance Nation (Various Artists)
I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been in need of some music that:
- Blots out the outside world
- Helps me to concentrate on my work
- Makes me feel a bit less anxious about the state of the world
Well, allow me to submit the compilation Trance Nation for your consideration as an understated classic.
But Matt I’ve heard trance music, I hear you say, and it’s one of the least understated forms of music possible. Yes, dear reader, we are talking about that borderline obnoxious musical form with the thudding beats and the tinkly high synth lines. Indeed, it is a genre that has grown and eaten itself, and the rest of pop music along with it. The “give it a drop or go home” mentality that infects modern pop musics originates in Trance.
For a while, trance seemed an innocuous confection. For the most part, the tunes were made (written? constructed?) in the bedroom, and played in Ibiza clubs. The joy of a compilation like Trance Nation is that it captures a breakthrough moment without resorting to all the blockbusters of the day. The sensitivity of the genre is not often noted but that’s what shines through. It’s two and a half hours of solid trance: all killer and no filler. Better yet, it is peppered with deep cuts that demonstrate the history and the evolution of the genre. There are songs on this compilation that had been knocking around for almost a decade when it was released.
Trance emerged into the mainstream at a time when it was very easy to create electronic music, but there were still reasonable barriers to doing so. These days, we could make almost any of the tracks on Trance Nation on our phones, but back then the new territory was being claimed, in the main, usually by people iterating upon a formula developed in their bedroom studios and tested in the clubs. The internet, while widespread enough to generate hype and reputation, was not at its current pervasive state that leaves 12” records and CD singles irrelevant.
In the end Trance Nation is all about the tunes. Every track here is a banger, whether you’ve ever heard of it or not. That’s what sells compilations. Because Trance has a clear cut set of rules, it has an iconic sound, which makes the variations here seem familiar. Even so, there are tunes that would make it on to many non-trance compilations, including “Dark Train” by Underworld, “Children” by Robert Miles, “Offshore” by Chicane, BBE’s “Seven Days and One Week”, ATB’s “9PM (‘Til I Come)”, etc and so on. Better yet, some genius has collated most of the tracks into a Spotify playlist which is unmixed and includes the full length versions. You don’t get to hear some of the spot-on mixing and interweaving of some of the tracks, but on the other hand the full length versions go deeper, longer, and harder. Nice.
Individual trance artists often struggled to make album length compilations of their own work sufficiently interesting to be worth more than a cursory listen. Those that managed it often did so by veering off into other genres for variety, as we’ll discuss when we get to whichever BT album I am going to pick for this series. But that same homogeneity makes for some great music to work to, particularly when the crazy lady next door has decided a pandemic is the best time to get their house remodelled.
The last compilation I included in this series was Fabric 12, which was an impressive collage of other artists’ dance music that set out an artistic vision for the genre. Funnily enough, Trance Nation also includes Papua New Guinea by Future Sound of London but otherwise this compilation serves a completely different purpose: you know what trance is, you want some trance and here is some trance.
As with any crowd-pleasing formula (e.g. the Shrek movies) Trance Nation became a series of four instalments that delivered diminishing returns. Volume 2 is also very good, if slightly more reliant on commercial trance and less diligent about history. By edition four, classic cuts like Lil Louis’ French Kiss and Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness were being included in butchered remix versions. There may have been a fifth or sixth or seventy second instalment, but number four is where it jumped the shark.
We always want more of a good thing. This compilation borders on too much, but in a good way. After all of Trance Nation, you’ll feel woozy and energised and uplifted; you won’t need to touch another bite for quite a while.