Armin van Buuren — Mirage (2010) — Album Review
In 2010 my friend was talking up this stuff called trance music and why it was so rad. At the time I was only half-listening, lost in whatever melodrama was eating my boring 18-year old soul at the time. But then that friend mentioned this new release having electric guitars. I was intrigued. Not long later I was listening to my first trance album: Armin van Buuren’s Mirage. I later realized I had already been acquainted with the joy and beauty of trance music thanks to inserts in various films and Dance Dance Revolution back on the first Xbox. But Mirage was a launching point. For many, Armin van Buuren is the reason they’re aware of the “trance” genre. He certainly is for me. And for many this is a bit of a frustrating point because Armin van Buuren today is about as synonymous with the concept of trance as I am with being a popular writer. And while that’s a conversation to get into one day, this brief story of how I came to listen to and buy Armin van Buuren’s Mirage begins the story of my current love affair with electronic music, especially trance and all its variants. It’s been a journey lasting me nearly ten years and now it’s time I start writing about that journey more so I figured I’d start here. Is Armin van Buuren’s 2010 album Mirage good? Does anyone besides me really care? Let’s put the headphones on and find out.
Who is Armin van Buuren?
Armin van Buuren is a Dutch DJ and music producer. He got his start in the mid-90s, riding the wave of success trance music had in Europe as DJ culture changed near the end of the 80s. There’s a lot of history relevant to this conversation, but I want to try and cover it quickly: DJs used to be those dudes placed somewhere to the side in events with music and the dance floor itself was all that was relevant. But somewhere along that timeline, the talent of disc jockeys became recognized and they were given similar stage recognition to that of a performing musician. This emergence of “DJ culture” or “DJs taking the mainstage” opened opportunities for disc jockeys to become more than just performers. They became respected artists in their own field, despite some DJs never releasing many songs. Almost simultaneously, the electronic genre of trance emerged and found its home across Europe in the 90s. Artists that we’ve historically come to recognize as pioneers of the trance genre are also DJs that were witness to both of these changes taking place. Artists like Paul van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, and DJ Sasha were some of the early adopters of trance, who were also becoming the focal point of attention at club music events with DJ culture’s growth. These progenitors of trance music were now able to open the door for a future generation of trance musicians to gain a larger foothold for recognition for their artistry. Artists like Darude and Robert Miles created some of the most influential and impactful trance music of our time and it’s hard to imagine anyone would’ve cared if Paul, Paul, and Sasha weren’t around to build support for those artists.
However, DJs taking the mainstage also opened the door for “celebrities” to take the mainstage. In the back half of the 90s, a DJ named Armin van Buuren was able to make a name for himself in the trance space. But instead of settle for DJ-ing and artistry and maybe a label or two for promoting his own artists, Mr. van Buuren created a musical kingdom under his flagship label “Armada” (okay technically he started “Armind” first but Armada is now his flagship label and they were created 4 years apart, I’m trying to cut the fat here). In this day and age, if there’s an electronic track released from an artist in Europe or America today and the track is remotely attempting to be something in the trance or house genres, or just something you’d hear at a festival, there’s probably about a 30% chance Armada owns it by association. Across the 00s and 10s, Armin van Buuren and his label Armada, in conjunction with his weekly A State of Trance radio show (having run for over 1,000 episodes at the time of writing), have served to act as beacons in the electronic music industry. For many in the world, his radio show and supporting labels, artists, as well as Armin’s own releases, are the only reason anyone in the world first hears about trance. It’s certainly the case for me. I had heard trance songs before via Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready, Steady, Go” and Ian van Dahl’s “Castles in the Sky”. But for me, those were just some dance songs I heard a long time ago. Armin van Buuren’s Mirage, for me, was the first inkling that there was a whole world of genres, artistry, and albums beyond those songs. Even today, Armin van Buuren still serves as that beacon, keeping the door open for other artists that have still been going at it for years (like Darude) or for ones that stand-in for Robert Miles because there must always be a Robert Miles to be woefully underappreciated while spending a career making melodic soulfully emotive trance music (*cough* The Thrillseekers *cough*). While we could go further into the discussion of Armin van Buuren in relation to trance music specifically, as well as bigger conversations about label powerhouses sucking soul of artists, I feel like this is as good an introduction into the question of “who is Armin van Buuren?” as I should give right now. After all, this is Mirage we’re reviewing, my personal introduction to the wider trance music at large. We’re not reviewing Imagine (yet)and I gotta have something to talk about when reviewing that one.
Mirage: The Epic Empty Album
Mirage is an album riding off the success and heyday of an album that magnified and solidified Armin van Buuren as the mainstay King of Trance in the greater European region. Mirage is an album ultimately depicting just how successful the Dutch DJ has become and illuminates the centrality of Armada and A State of Trance as the trance state. It’s a victory lap album that takes some liberties to show off just how many names Armin can connect to him. It’s also a transitory album, dancing the line between what came before and what was to come. In this aspect, specifically in retrospect, Mirage is incapable of maintaining a foothold and identity all its own. And yet it serves as a fantastic demonstration and introduction for any interested in the genre of trance, despite the fact that it doesn’t always tell you where to go next. This is wonderfully depicted with the opening salvo on the album with Desiderium 207 and then title track Mirage.
Desiderium 207 and Mirage both work as a pair. The opening intro track serves as a mystical tone setter, with vocalizing by Susana bringing you into pace with a low pulsing beat that grows into the main track itself. Mirage, as a trance track, is in fact rather simple compared to other compositions out there. The trick is in the chord progression played at half-time of the track’s beats per minute of 136. This progression isn’t a comfortable happy loop or a dark state to explore. Instead, Mirage’s pads are always growing, always building, never settling. Even when the big lush pads stop and the tone switches to a deeper, bassier vibe the endless loop is still an undercurrent. The switch to this darker place is just one of several transitions across the track implemented to start the progression over while maintaining the feeling that it is instead always building. It’s like that way Hans Zimmer produced the Joker strings in The Dark Knight to feel like an instrument that just never stops sliding up the note scale. This feeling reaches its apex when all beats and electronic elements are dropped, transcending Mirage’s own genre in substitution for orchestral drums and strings before letting loose with a hefty electric guitar to run the progression back one more time. The endlessly looping pattern feels bombastic and exciting in that guitar moment before cutting almost all sounds; Except for that small synth once again looping. Trance’s melodicism in Mirage, the opening track not the album, is a ceaseless expansion akin to exactly the path Armin van Buuren was already well on his way to by the time his previous album Imagine released. Mirage, the track, demonstrates how this sensation of a build has no real endgame in mind aside from some bombastic and exciting moments. It’s not a subtle experience. It’s big, loud, and eternal. The mirage is that this album is planning on going bigger and better than anything you’ve ever heard when in reality: It’s a collection of assorted tracks that hold together incredibly well given their diverse backgrounds. By the time the dust settles on Mirage the haze has tricked you. You’re already listening to the real meat of the album.
Here in 2021 you hopefully already know of Christian Burns, but for those outside the dance and electronic music realm: This dude always brings his A-game. But This Light Between Us was Christian Burns heralding in Mirage as an album all about the possibilities of Armin van Buuren beyond the trance scene. Christian had already seen success when working with Tiesto (and his alias Allure) and BT previously, but This Light Between Us is something special. This breakbeat trance track that can’t escape some 80s-esque style is teeming with attitude. It feels almost natural for Christian Burns to have “started” here only to end up singing all the vocals on All Hail the Silence with all the yearning and strength you can still find back in this moment. It’s important to remember just how strong this moment felt back then removed of this context. It’s an unbelievable track that truly accomplishes transporting you into a place and a time.
The album then segues over into a poppier joyous number next with Not Giving Up on Love. Here Armin employs all the strengths of the then-growing progressive house styles radically altered at the hands of Avicii. The kicks are as big as any progressive house contender, but unlike traditional tracks of the genre, the focus isn’t in some long winded chord progression but instead on happy piano tunes and the guiding voice of Sophie Ellis-Bextor giving the track a traditional song structure. Here trance almost disappears behind two verses, two choruses, and a bridge, complete with a cool moment of just the piano notes jabbing again and again and Sophie’s voice taking the lead during the bridge. But the pads are too thick to remain progressive house. Moments like this are fun on Mirage despite abandoning most trance conventions. I’d be remiss for neglecting to mention the role NERVO probably played in making this song feel as good as it does: The twin duo from Australia no doubt had their hands on the wheel to add in the progressive house inspirations.
I’d also be remiss to neglect to mention how Armin sprinkles moments like this across Mirage to set a variety of emotional states, with NERVO helping on almost all of those tracks that set those states. Here on Not Giving Up on Love, the song is planting a flag at the end of the exciting album intro. Later the absolutely smexy song Feels So Good keeps the album chugging along at a spot where where many albums would be starting their wind down phase. But Armin is only getting started there at track 8. Nadia Ali’s vocals bring a sleekness to the track’s productions that are unmatched. It’ll only be two tracks later when Armin needs to reset the tone of the album again with Drowning but it was necessary after the long winded and heavily exploratory Virtual Friend. Drowning instead is a romper, picking up the pace for a couple minutes to tell you to get very pumped up for the slew of tracks taking up Mirage’s back end. And though it’s the last time Armin uses NERVO, he uses one last pop sensibility at the end to illuminate the way for the uninitiated trance fans with the help of Adam Young. Everyone knows Owl City so why not end the album with him on Youtopia?
There’s an undeniable debate when asking whether these artists with more widespread appeal in their musical style belonged here on Mirage, the album by the then-King of Trance, whether Mirage is Armin veering off into dance pop and chasing trends needlessly. But in retrospect there’s an undeniable interest Armin had in exploring the side of dance music that didn’t care about being loyal to one genre or another, so long as the music was enjoyable and so long as Armin van Buren remained as big and relevant as possible. It’s easy to think an artist belongs to a convention, a style, a genre, a niche. It’s also easy to feel like an artist has abandoned your fandom and chased notoriety. What’s not easy is to consider is that artists that found mass success might want to pursue more than just what they’re known for, that they feel trapped into forever being who they currently are and that they can’t evolve into anything beyond that one thing less they invoke the rage of those who were there to see an artist begin. Avicii struggled with this, deadmau5 eternally struggles with this. It’s just hard to wonder whether Armin struggled or struggles with this when the man sits so far up the totem pole of a musical empire. But it’s easy to see which way the wind was headed here on Mirage. And it wasn’t blowing towards trance, it was blowing gently away from it.
And yet, Mirage is an album teeming with some good trance numbers. They may be bigger and more bombastic many times, but that just suits Armin’s life at the time: Playing at festivals and maintaining his position as the biggest name in trance. Mirage doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it should for heralding in an era of trance that tried to be bigger. For a genre that was at one point very wound up in melodics and a sense of transcending, Mirage is playing two cards most of the time: The first being that melodic trance that die hards so deeply love and struggle to find these days, and the second being a trance that can only be described as big, epic, the sort of thing you’d play at a set in a giant space to try to live up to your name. It’s an idea that can never truly be realized in execution because Armin is still a human and not an idea. But a few tracks on Mirage do come close to this later idea of a trance track so big that when you play it at a festival you’ll level the hills to dust and be unmatched. After Mirage’s opening, the first of these plays is Full Focus, a track I unapologetically find annoying. It’s got tense beats with a ferocious persistence in its bassline. But the synth and pad work is overly distorted and the track feels more like a piece built to keep pace during a set. It’s memorable but only in how loud it is. The rest of these larger trance pieces are saved for the back chunk of the album, starting with one of two I’d consider tracks that really come close to that “big trance” idea I discussed.
Coming Home, despite being larger and epic, is a rather intimate number. It starts with a series of light notes that fade in from pure quiet. The main beats and bassline all serve to support that series of notes, but then there’s a guitar lick added into the loop to suggest what’s to come. A distorted colorful piano plays a wonderful series of notes during the bridge before the guitar licks reveal themselves to be preceding a guitar build. Unlike Mirage, this guitar brings more highs and allows the bridge to break into the track’s beats once more. Here, for the first time on the album, Coming Home builds with its guitar and beats at the same time to allow for something the album had been lacking prior to this moment: Transcendance. The tracks starts at one beautiful state of longing to one of a stronger feeling of longing and beauty, with backing vocals filling the space during pauses between the bars. It’s something trance music doesn’t do quite as often but the end result is a wonderful thing. Here the guitar feels appropriately epic. This is followed up by a neat trance number Armin van Buuren made in collaboration with BT and Christian Burns called These Silent Hearts. Christian provided the stronger vocals while BT provided some vocals as well. But, the real neat trick is how BT and Armin wove together an additional track that lines up thematically with BT’s These Hopeful Machines album also releases that year. It may not feel like that album, but the chord progression in the track’s bridge is borrowed almost directly from These Hopeful Machine’s “The Emergency”. The anthemic piece pushes that more “big trance” style without really pushing a transcending feel except when the vocals are involved. Orbion feels like a more steady and more focused version of Full Focus with the additional benefit of some operatic vocals. But neither These Silent Hearts and Orbion approach Minack.
Minack, in real life, is an open air theater in England that looks similar to something like an ancient Greek theater but smaller. Minack, the collaboration track, with Ferry Corsten, is an absolute winner of Armin van Buuren’s “bigger than life” pursuits. It only makes sense that it would happen on this collaboration. The track starts with a hiss, a siren, providing atmosphere as if a fog machine made computer-generated notes. It grows a bit but it quickly gets layered with a glitchy grungy Ferry bassline and Armin’s signature percussion. Some strange robotic voice says things that don’t sound like words at all every few bars. And synth work provides the sensation you could be listening to this on a big open field at night. It doesn’t exactly deliver the inspiration of the Minack theater, but it’s unmistakably a place. The track carries you off to it and you have fun being there. The bridge features some more signature Ferry work, this time in the presence of a slow wobbling synth that grows and plays in time with percussions that pick up again. The build hits as alternations against the synth itself before it all comes to a big party dance. It’s an absolute blast of a track that serves excellently as the album’s climax before Youtopia ushers in the album’s goodbye. Even if one isn’t quite so happy with where Armin went in the wake of Imagine and Mirage, I can’t deny the strength of this moment here in 2010 and tracks like Coming Home and Minack. They successfully blow the doors open for a trance sound that’s more expansive than his previous sounds.
While the back half of Mirage is clearly demonstrating Armin’s festival and larger-club capabilities, Mirage isn’t devoid of paying homage to melodic trance sensibilities. I Don’t Own You feels like a b-side track from Imagine that feels so welcome here with some room added to its pad work. A clearer, more liquid track compared to Imagine’s more grungy-breakbeat moments, I Don’t Own You feels loose and fun to dance to while the pad work and backing vocals loop melodramatic sounds with a voice saying, “I don’t own you, you don’t own me” given a reverse-effect flair at some trails of the sentence. It’s not anything dramatic (in fact if you’re looking for dramatic go buy The Thrillseekers remix of this track, the superior version), but as a track playing right after Not Giving Up on Love and before Full Focus it’s giving Mirage room to pause and for trance to just be what it is for a few minutes. Take a Moment, which plays after the absolute bombast of Full Focus, allows melodic trance to really take its stead. Here Armin is linking more trance DJs to himself by building this track in collaboration with Josh Gabriel and Meredith Call, with Winter Kills on the vocals. Like most Josh Gabriel (or Gabriel & Dresden productions) it’s a bit slower but a number that pontificates on where we are and where we’re going. It’s not the best melodic track you’ve ever heard, but it’s keeping up the pace and will inspire similarly good remix work (The Shogun remix, in particular). The real melodic trance winner on the album though is Virtual Friend. It’s a deep melodic tech-trance piece that contrasts a disconnect of humans with the world around them while endlessly plugged in to technology. It’s perhaps the most unique and out of place track on Mirage, but instead of standing out like a thumb tack, you’ll invite it to stay with you long after Mirage is forgotten. It’s still relevant in this day and age and delivered exquisitely by Sophie Hunter providing cold, detached vocals while warm guitar and piano welcome you into the track’s open. When it’s too late and the track is over you’ll just liten to the lingering piano notes fall on a cold, quiet world.
I can’t disagree with an entire group of fans that feel like an album like this this signaled the end of their culture, melodic trance being as mostly irrelevant to the grand scheme of music as it is these days. But I can’t deny that I’ve enjoyed this album thoroughly over the past ten years. It’s an album not really meant to take you on some deeper introspective journey, it’s an album reminding you that Armin is the guy (or was the guy however you want to slice it). In the end it’s an album I found worth my time and maybe you will too. I can’t recommend it heavily to people who are already well-converted trance fans that would recognize names like Raz Nitzan (who incidentally has production credits on Down to Love). Give it a listen if maybe you wound up never hearing it. And if you don’t care to, thanks for reading this weirdo’s passionate writing about an average trance album. Actually thanks anyways. Happy New Year.