In July 2005, I went to Boston to visit a friend from college. That summer, like the one of 2011, is one that I don’t remember fondly. If ’11 was the peak of my post-grad school malaise and quarter-life crisis, then ’05 coming after my first year of college, was an awakening to a world beyond high school. I had mostly breezed through my freshman year, but by the end I felt like I was breaking down after taking medications for depression and being disappointed with some of the spring semester classes.
My ’05 Boston trip came while I was in New England, I think with my family as they were moving my sister into a summer program at RISD, where she would eventually attend college from 2007 to 2011. Boston was an important city to me throughout college, even though I went to school about an hour away in Rhode Island. I went to several Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments there, saw the Celtics victory parade in 2008, and discovered trance music there, during that first trip in July 2005.
Boston that summer felt like an optimistic place. The Red Sox had won their first World Series in forever the previous season, and the Patriots had won the Super Bowl the following winter. The day I went up there was sunny, in the 80s. My friend and I ate at a Chinese restaurant and walked through Boston Common. We stopped by his apartment to get something to drink and watch some TV. From his room I heard music playing – it was “Air for Life” by Above & Beyond, one of the band’s first and most memorable singles.
From that point on, my music tastes started to shift from rock music to trance and EDM (electronic dance music). By 2007 I was delving into Ultra compilations and listening to Tiesto’s albums. I think my peak was in 2008 when I used to listen to a triple-disc Godskitchen compilation in my John St. apartment in Providence while playing Castlevania III on an NES emulator.
The initial discovery of Above & Beyond was the catalyst, though. My interest in “Air for Life” and, a year later, “Good For Me,” opened the doors to many new sounds for me. The band felt like something bigger than trance or EDM. I remember listening to the King Roc Vocal Dub of “Good for Me” one morning while studying Latin at like 7am and it was a nearly religious experience.
Their first album, “Tri-State,” was the first trance/EDM album I ever listened to, which is perhaps strange since it is not exactly representative of the genre. It has 4/4 beats, sure, but it also has piano-laden instrumentals, beatless songs, and alt-rock trappings like guitars and angsty vocals here and there. Their sophomore effort, “Group Therapy,” came out during my low period in 2011 and I never really grew to love it (or maybe I have just resisted it since I associate it with bad moments) despite memorable songs like “Sun & Moon.” Then their “Acoustic” album from last year showed the depth of their songwriting and their capabilities with traditional instruments.
We Are All We Need
Their newest effort, “We Are All We Need,” has been seeping out track by track in their weekly podcast for months now, so there wasn’t that sense of an entirely unknown world opening up that felt when I listened to “Tri-State” for the first time. Still, it feels nearly ironic that an EDM band has made such a coherent and listenable album in 2015, in a genre not traditionally known for its artist albums and at a time when streaming services threaten to commoditize long-form listening.
The title track and “Sticky Fingers” have been concert and podcast favorites for some time now, and their hooks aren’t easily forgotten. While there are plenty of tuneful, melodic trance and EDM songs out there, I often think of vocal hooks as the province of rock or pop music. With these two tunes, as well as “Blue Sky Action,” though, I think of how the experience of EDM can sometimes yield the most memorable vocal hooks, stuff like the verses from “Breathing (Airwave)” by Rank 1 or “Satellite” by OceanLab.
There’s a balance between a unity of feel – that distinctive Above & Beyond airiness – and variety, with many guest vocalists (as is typical on many modern EDM albums, granted). For me, the album plays almost like a best-of from their podcast, which they have done each week for 2 hours for the last 10+ years.
When I was in Boston in 2005, the podcast, then called “Trance Around the World,” was just getting started, and by the time “We Are All We Need” was released, the group had surpassed 550 total episodes – including #ABGT 100 in New York, which I summed up here – between TATW and its rebranded successor, “Group Therapy.” There’s a long continuity to everything Above & Beyond does – they’ve been so consistent and also so different from their peers – and their best work, which certainly includes much of this album, always brings me back to that one day in 2005 when I felt good during an overall bad summer.
The word “Egypt” is European. It is the Anglicization of the Greek word “Aiguptos,” which is turn means “the place where the projection of Ptah manifested,” Ptah being the demiurge of Memphis (a city named by the Greeks, as shown by the distinctive -is case ending) and one of the Neters, or creator gods. The word for “Egypt” literally is just a word for what was mythologized to have happened at Memphis; an entire country was named for one of its cities, sort of like if the word “United States” meant “That Which Occurred at New York City.”
The Greeks’ influence over the English language and over Western ideas is so engrained as to be unnoticeable. Take not only “Egypt,” but also “Asia,” which was the Greek term for everything beyond the known world, east of the Aegean Sea. There aren’t any clear geographic boundaries between Europe and Asia, plus the latter is so vast that its narrow implied meaning in many conversations – it is often just a stand-in for “China and nearby countries,” in the way that the the U.S. is a stand-in for “North America” – is at odds with the area that is nominally encloses.
With names that are themselves generalizations, Egypt, Asia, et al because empty vessels for broad-brushed statements about the economies, politics and cultures of these areas. “The Asian Century,” for instance, is such a general concept as to mean nothing but “even more of the power – albeit the same type of capitalistic economic power – will be concentrated outside the borders of Europe, in this Other that we’ve been building up or millennia.” Similarly, “Egyptian EDM/trance music” often means “music that is made by people from within these geographic boundaries,” rather than music that takes on particular characteristics of the local environment. Generic words are useful for spreading and reinforcing notions of globalization and homogenization.
I thought about the latter case while listening to Aly & Fila’s “Future Sound of Egypt” podcast, which is filled with hours of EDM tracks from Egyptian artists. If not for the voice-over about Cairo being the largest city in the Middle East (another big and vague term), though, one might not have any notion that this music was made in Egypt instead of the U.S. or the U.K. There aren’t any neys or unusual instruments. “Egypt” was originally conceived as a vast yet discrete area, tied to a Greek memory involving just one of its cities worldview, and in EDM at least it is now a country where most of the music is tied to European norms, just as its name and description were and still are.
Aly & Fila are an Egyptian duo that make some of the most melodic, memorable EDM today, in song- and album-sized chunks that more digestible than having to listen to, say, a full DJ set. Their last two albums, “Quiet Storm” and “The Other Shore” are useful introductions for anyone even mildly interested in vocal dance music. Throughout their songs, one can still see the long lineage of that original verbal colonization of Egypt by the Greeks (or even earlier by the Hebrews, whose word for Egypt situated it as the opposite of Israel; but Hebrew roots haven’t come over to English as visibly as Greek ones have).
Their songs are in English, plus many of their vocals are from the British singer Sue McLaren. In addition to being made into a vessel for the world-views of the ancient Greeks and Semites, Egypt has also been the subject of centuries of colonization by countries like France and the U.K., which only ended less than 60 years ago with the Suez Crisis. The cultural reach continues, however, in traditions like the love of football and the integration of English lyrics and album-like suites in the music of Aly & Fila. Listening to the latter, I think of this great quote from the book “Soccernomics,” about the ongoing cultural victories of the British Empire over the American Empire:
“This is a struggle between two very different types of empire: the British (which contrary to popular opinion still exists) and the American (which contrary to popular opinion may have never existed.”
Both countries have contributed to EDM and trance, although other former colonial empires (the Netherlands, for instance, which is the home of Aly & Fila’s record label, Armada, of many famous DJs) have had much more significant stakes in these genres than in Anglocentric ones like rock and hip-hop. EDM is about experience, but it is also about a globalized music industry with roots going all the back to the Greeks’ broad categorizations of countries, continents, and the people who live in them.
2004 seems longer ago than any other year to me, which I understand makes no sense. How can it seem longer ago than 1999, or 1991, or even 1989 – all years I remember, at least in bits and chunks? Maybe because 2004 felt like a bridge, some convergence of the analog past and the digital future. It was the year I graduated high school and started college. It was the year Facebook was invented, the peak of Windows dominance, the calm before the Apple-Google-let-me-check-my-phone storm. It was a time when there was still hope that George W. Bush wouldn’t be reelected. It was a moment at which I could feel the changes on horizon while being able to look into the past and realize how far away it would soon feel.
It was also the year that Above & Beyond launched their massively successful radio show/podcast Trance Around the World. The show ran for 450 episodes until 2012, when it was rebranded as Group Therapy, after their sophomore album. In 2004, A&B was on fire with songs like “No One On Earth” and “Satellite” (by OceanLab, the combination of A&B + Justine Suissa) that mixed drama and unshakable melodies with EDM churn. 10 years later, they’re more popular than ever – the 100th episode of Group Therapy (and the 550th episode of the radio show overall) was a live set in a sold out Madison Square Garden.
I’ve been fascinated with issues of EDM criticism and have even compiled my own list of A&B’s best singles. ABGT 100 didn’t seem like a time for critical reflection, but in the relatively quiet spot I found at the back of the floor, there was time to think. I appreciated how strands of Cygnus X were woven into Mat Zo, how Andrew Bayer unfurled one vocal masterpiece after another, and A&B’s integration of “These Shoulders,” perhaps Julie Thompson’s finest moment on Anjunabeats. I also got this great photo which looks kinda like Deadmau5 lost in a crowd of ABGT partygoers:
It was all so harsh, yet so gentle. All new, yet so old.
Above & Beyond have made some good albums, but the album is not the ideal vessel for their strengths. In his roundup of 1990s albums 15 years ago, music critic Ned Raggett noted that the album could eventually be dislodged as the dominant unit of musical consumption. While it remains venerable in rock and hip-hop, the album – with a few exceptions, such as Deadmau5’s While (1<2) and Andrew Bayer’s It’s Artificial – provides less insight into many EDM artists’ talents than singles and podcasts, two media that A&B have mastered. Their Group Therapy podcast really is a post-album format that retains some of the album’s trappings – coherence, flow/transition – while making everything multi-tenanted and casual. And their impressive catalog of singles can and often does fill out the primary and flashback portions of the show.
#10: Walter White
How will we remember Breaking Bad? I thought it peaked with the antepenultimate episode, “Ozymandias,” with the final two somehow managing to be simultaneously drawn-out and rushed. That said, listening to the digital-only release “Walter White” brings back better memories than recalling “Felina.”
The distinctive screeches of “Walter White” still adorn the intro to each Group Therapy episode, but they’re not even the best part of the song. There’s the drop at 1:31 that, considering the context and title, I’ll always associate with Walt crossing the point of no return during the conflict at the trailer. Then there’s the airiness at 2:46 and the melodic line at around 3:00 that is as clear as the blue crystals that Walt and Jesse cook. The background vox at 3:29 are in keeping with the frequent EDM usage of Morricone-like arrangements, but they work especially well here, since the imagery and the narrative are, well, like something from a latter-day Spaghetti Western.
#9: Sticky Fingers
Let’s start with the title. This song is catchy and punchy enough to make you think it’s a cover of a long-lost original version of the title track to the Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic album, Sticky Fingers. The video, inspired by Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo, is also rockist, with the band playing traditional instruments while Alex Vargas moves around like…well, Mick Jagger. It’s the most rock song they’ve done, both in sound and presentation.
“Sticky Fingers” is unusual in the non-OceanLab A&B catalog because of its tremendous vocal hook. Like the also Vargas-fronted “Blue Sky Action,” it has an unforgettable refrain (and those background vocals! presumably from Tony McGuinness). The piano, which goes in and out of the mix, is very 90s – I thought of Endtroducing… . The song’s thrust is as powerful as “Hello” or “Mariana Trench,” but works so much better with Vargas’ vocals.
#8: Breaking Ties
Justine Suissa has a way of conveying simultaneous despair and hope that is different form any other trance chanteuse. Her extraordinary interpretations are naturally suited for songs that go above and beyond the typical EDM and trance templates.
Witness “Breaking Ties.” It’s like a 1990s chill out ballad (indebted to Massive Attack) lifted by a novel acoustic guitar, percussion, and Suissa’s beautiful “You and I/truth and lies” refrain. “Satellite” may be more tuneful, but “Breaking Ties” is the OceanLab song that shines with A&B’s ear for melody and arrangement.
“Anphonic” is exemplary of what A&B and the rest of the Anjunabeats stable have been good at for so long – a big buildup that pays off in unexpected melody. This collaboration with Kyau & Albert is the standout tune from Anjunabeats 8 and a fine technical specimen.
The crunching build-up is woven back in with the delightful midsection chords, foreshadowing the later achievements of “Walter White” and providing a blueprint for both “Hello” and “Mariana Trench.” I ranked it as the second best if the group’s many great collaborations.
#6: Far From in Love
“Far From in Love” was A&B’s first single, released in 2002, but this early effort ranks up there with their later work. The ingredients of A&B’s magic are here – the sultry vocal from Cate Cameron, the tunefulness, and the atmosphere that yields itself so well to reinterpretation.
It made sense that, according to Tony McGuinness on an episode Group Therapy, “Far From in Love” was the inspiration for the sound on Acoustic. Even from the start, A&B were up to things bigger than EDM and trance as traditionally conceived.
#5: Sun & Moon
The Group Therapy artist album that spawned the podcast of the same name always seemed weaker than either Tri-State or Acoustic. That’s not to say it lacks standouts – “Sun & Moon” is one of A&B’s finest tunes.
Front-and-center vocals on non-OceanLab A&B tracks were rare before this one. Airy voices like those of Zoe Johnston and Hannah Thomas were perfect accompaniments to A&B’s early work, though there were some signs of using male vocals, such as “Stealing Time” and “For All I Care.”
Richard Bedford’s voice is seasoned with experience and a little darkness. The imagery he has to work with here – suns, moons, big roulette wheels – taps into A&B’s tradition of unexpected lyrical richness and insight. The “big wheel” part in particular reminds me of the final track from Massive Attack’s 1991 album – “Hymn of the Big Wheel.”
#4: Air for Life
Tri-State is a singular achievement in EDM and trance because of how it extends those genres into strange territory – piano quasi-balladry, alt-rock, folk – without seeming heavy-handed or out of its depth. “Air for Life,” while not as gloriously off-kilter as “Home,” “Good for Me,” or “For All I Care,” foreshadowed all of the album’s strengths when it came out in 2005.
There’s so much going on here, in both the front and back of the mix. Then there’s the vocal that floats atop the controlled chaos like air, apropos. Done with Andy Moor, this was a breakthrough and probably their most pivotal collaboration.
OceanLab’s Sirens of the Sea Remixed album may be the most listenable LP in the entire Anjunabeats catalog. It’s one killer tune after another, and none is more killer than “Satellite.”
It has the best of rock balladry and EDM without the weaknesses of either. That’s to say, it has sensitive lyrics with rich imagery (“I’m like footsteps in the snow / I’ll follow you everywhere you go.”) and a propulsive, tuneful surge, but never seems saccharine or boring.
I come back to “Satellite” more than any other A&B song, though I’ve ranked it third since I think it doesn’t say as much about why they’re special as the top two do. I’m not the only one who can’t leave it alone; Ilan Bluestone did a remix of it this year, a decade after its original release.
#2: No One on Earth
Lyrics aren’t a strong suit of EDM or trance. Leave it to A&B to weave songs that are as remarkable for their words as for their music.
While “Satellite” is a good poem, it can’t match the strangeness and lyricism of “No One on Earth” from 2004, which paints a picture of an alien or savage coming to rescue an often-spurned lover.
“Down through the dark trees
You came to save me
You’re so ugly and you’re so beautiful
You’re like no one on earth could be”
Not your standard EDM or trance fare. And the musical backing is just as surreal, with a nuanced performance from Zoe Johnston that highlights the strengths of her different registers. The original, with the breathy middle section, is my favorite, though the Gabriel & Dresden remix, which I heard on their 2004 album Bloom, is somehow even more dramatic.
#1: Good for Me
I first started listening to trance and EDM via the Ultra Trance/Ultra Dance and In Search of Sunrise CD series. I discovered Above and Beyond, Deadmau5 and may others through these volumes. The best discovery, though, was the King Roc Vocal Mix of “Good for Me,” the first A&B track I ever heard.
I remember thinking that the title was such a nice reversal of the sarcastic cliche “good for you” – “Good for Me” is the opposite, a sincere letter to a loved one. The delayed vocals cut through the fog of that morning – I was in my dorm at 7am, studying for a Latin exam, while it rained outside – and I listened to it probably 10 times during that study session.
Why? The melody, the ambience, Zoe Johnston’s vocals – “Good for Me” is not easily forgotten, and is as suitable for a dance floor as a wedding. It’s worked in seemingly every imaginable form: a club mix, a dub mix, an acoustic reading, and of course the airy, beatless original, which is the centerpiece of 2006’s masterful Tri-State. More than any other single, it shows all of A&B’s strengths simultaneously – the focus on tuneful composition, the knack for unusual arrangement, and the perfect pairing of melody and lyrics.
The album: From LP to SoundCloud
The album as an art form has been under escalating artistic, economic, and political pressures for decades. Since the decline of vinyl LPs in the 1980s, creative possibilities such as themed sides or run-out grooves were lost, swept away by digital audio. Bonus tracks, remixes, live versions, the whole lot were appended to already exhausting CD run times, producing an experience that was increasingly at odds with the ideal of the album as a digestible, coherent statement. It was the musical equivalent of every novel suddenly becoming Infinite Jest (that is not a compliment).
The CD was overtaken by the MP3, a simple file with no close association with any larger artistic system, at least not in the same way as a vinyl groove or a Red Book audio track. The MP3 could go it alone, be shoved into a playlist with anything else, mislabeled (the early days of Napster sent one Pitchfork writer for a ride by labeling old Pavement material as Weezer’s then-unreleased Green Album), or shuffled off onto an iPod or smartphone.
Now even the MP3 is bowing to streaming services such as Spotify and SoundCloud. Music has become something to experience, not own. In this sense, it has come full circle, returning to its millennia-old state as something that individuals and groups absorb in a continuous stream, without the discrete packaging of an album or single. The key difference, though, is that the user has more curatorial power than ever – it took the decline of the album to make everyone her own album producer and sequencer.
As someone who listens predominantly to albums, I have found the music industry’s direction over the past three decades dispiriting, but also liberating. What’s telling about the most shift to streaming is that it appears to have affected EDM more acutely, and earlier, than rock or even hip-hop.
The idea of an artist album in trance, house, techno, or any EDM field was always a lot different than in other genres – an artist might go years, producing tons of remixes, mixtapes, and podcasts, without putting together a “proper” album of original, deliberately sequenced music. Look at Sasha and Michael Cassette for but two examples. EDM artists, it seems, were just waiting for the consumptive and technological breakthroughs that would turn their habits into freeform yet stamped listening experiences enabled by the likes of SoundCloud and Pandora.
Deadmau5: At the frontier of the album’s evolution
No artist in EDM has been as publicly and repeatedly conscious of the genre’s complex relationship with form than Deadmau5. His albums, if you can call them that, have all born cheeky, inscrutable titles, from Random Album Title to <album title goes here> to For Lack of a Better Name. None of them were what a rockist might think of as an album, often recycling previously released material and using segues to disguise an absence of cohesion. Deadmau5 himself has also been at the center of recent debates about authenticity in EDM, a blanket genre going up against decades of rock-centric critical skepticism of electronic music’s value.
Leave it to Deadmau5 to expose one of the core contradictions of EDM: while mixtapes and similar media are often continuous, with one song fading into the other, this seamlessness does not play the same role as it does in rock, a genre in which the segue (think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper) is often a way of making a Big Artistic Statement. In EDM, it’s just mechanics – an experience might run through all sorts of disparate songs, but still keep the listener gripped with nice transitions. Mat Zo’s “Mat Zo Mixes” on SoundCloud, which span drum ‘n’ bass and Anjunadeep releases, exemplify this exact ethos.
There are plenty of EDM artists still dedicated to the album experience, though. Above & Beyond’s recent Acoustic release is an example of a trance artist taking up the classic rock trope of an unplugged set to confer seriousness and artistic depth. Now, Deadmau5 himself is on the eve of releasing a double album with a cute C programming-inspired title and 25 tracks that he claims represents the first work that he’s made that can “even be called an album.”
Is Deadmau5 injecting traditional album design into the anti-album EDM world? Earlier this year, he purged his massively popular SoundCloud feed. His albums have been getting progressively more immersive and deliberate, with 4×4=12 and <album titles goes here> both showing the traces of long player logic despite their castoff titles.
While(1 <2): Deadmau5’s Biggest Statement So Far
Deadmau5’s latest album, While(1 < 2), is both his most forward-looking and old school effort. It has more genre exercises than ever before – minor-key piano interludes, contemplative acoustic guitar, vocoder experiments, and 90s/early 00s alt-rock angst – to go alongside some of the most distinctive hooks (“Phantoms Can’t Hang,” “Avaritia”) of his career.
Its unmixed version, clocking in at an astonishing 139 minutes, resists flow and momentum, almost deliberately. There’s a remix of the ancient NIN track “Survivalism” right next to the piano balladry of “Silent Picture.” Hook-drenched opener “Avaritia” segues into the barely-there “Coelacanth I,” which yields to a remix of How to Destroy Angels’ “Ice Age.” While the influence of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is undeniable – both in Deadmau5’s apparent love of “The Social Network” sound track and in the two Reznor-related remixes that sit next to the 20+ originals – While(1 < 2) has even more in common with Aphex Twin’s 2001 oddity Drukqs, another double album chock full of discrete genre exercises from drum ‘n’ bass to classical (the unforgettable Avril 14th became the basis of Kanye West’s “Blame Game”).
Strangely, While(1 < 2) becomes an album through this resistance to the easy segue and undifferentiated experience of the mixtape and, one could argue, of latter-day rock and pop albums, which have taken the coherence mandate of Sgt. Pepper and its successors to the extreme, by making everything sound the same (uniformly loud, vaguely dance-y, consistently exhausting). The tracks on While(1 < 2) each call out for individual attention – why else put the title-says-it-all “A Moment to Myself” as a prelude to the upbeat, hookier “Pets”? Yet its epic length, by willfully tempting short attention spans, begs for it to be put on in the background as something that doesn’t have to be touched for more than 2 hours. It can demand careful attention or mere acquiescence, depending on the listener’s situation. Time to have another go at it.