Acoustic, an album of classic Above & Beyond and Oceanlab tracks reinterpreted for acoustic instruments, brings Above & Beyond full-circle. The trio reinvented the trance artist album with 2006’s Tri-State. Rather than turbocharge their songs (and these were indeed songs, rather than tracks, with a certain flow and craft that would be familiar even to rock fans) with enormous drops and breakdowns, the band (another rockist word) took an approach to songwriting and arrangement that saw the instrumental title track encased in piano, “Good For Me” floating on air without a beat, and “For All I Care” festooned with the trapping of alt rock, all scratchy electric guitar and angsty vocals.
Overall, the album’s aesthetics presaged the eventual reentry of acoustic instruments (check out all the piano and guitar on Deadmau5’s While 1 < 2) and off-kilter musics (Mumford and Sons epitomize the trend) back into the mainstream. Yet, its innovations were palatable. When reengineered for Tri-State Remixed, they soared as trance classics, and Above & Beyond continued to sharpen its dancefloor chops on 2011’s Group Therapy, which now serves as the name of the group’s increasingly stylistically diverse podcast. Jono, Tony, and Paavo made it such that you could listen to new sounds and approaches to trance without having to pause and consider the novelty or remark on something that seemed unusual (granted, I’ve done that for the past two paragraphs here, but this is obviously after-the-fact).
Acoustic is both groundbreaking – a stripped down, latter-day MTV Unplugged from an alternate universe, one in which trance acts have the stuffy cultural capital of rock bands – and a return to Above & Beyond’s roots. There’s nothing much else like it. On closing number “Making Plans – the one all-new track here, and a verbal parallel to “Stealing Time,” also represented here in a mashup with “Satellite” – Tony McGuinness remarks that many of the band’s tracks start out as acoustic, stripped-down affairs. As Acoustic makes clear, the surprise with Above & Beyond isn’t how much these songs change when rejiggered for mass consumption, but how much they stay the same, holding onto those same memory melodies and lyrics (“Satellite”‘s opening lines are unforgettably poetic).
Songs such as “Sun and Moon” are beautiful wrapped up in the orchestral sweep and acoustics of this album, but the sound isn’t radically different when freed from the electronics of original home Group Therapy. Instead, the Acoustic version excavates what made the best of the band’s oeuvre (“Can’t Sleep,” “Sirens of the Sea,” “Miracle”) so good in the first place: A distinctive combination of melody, lyrical insight, and ornate arrangement that works in a stripped-down setting just as well as on a stage in front of thousands of fans. Acoustic isn’t a radical step forward so much as it is a de facto best-of, demonstrating why Above & Beyond are a cut above (and beyond).
I once observed to someone in college that playing Nickelback songs on piano was a traumatic experience. One could see all the limitations of the tunes and how much the band relied on volume and in-your-face production. Acoustic is the exact opposite, plus who would have expected trance of all genres to be amenable to acoustic deconstruction? My favorite so far of 2014.