I routinely try to categorize trends in dance music. I’ve been listening to this stuff for well over a decade now and I usually lump the eras, arcs or interests of the various underground and mainstream scenes I follow and assign it to the year where that was a “thing”. The 2017 psy-trance frenzy (thanks to Armin & Vini Vici’s “Great Spirit” kicking it off). The 2015 trance revitalization (marked by the return of Ferry Corsten’s alias Gouryella with the track “Anahera”). The 2012–2014 everything years. These aren’t set in stone. The years don’t actually determine much other than the change in whatever is happening in history and new ideas inspiring other creators around the globe in a world of increasing connections. Some of it will rally around the summer seasons in club music hot zones, but in a globally connected world it’s almost always summer somewhere.
My current head canon for 2023 is that it’s the year of the B-albums.
Nothing in particular is motivating that other than the fact that I haven’t heard an album released this year I’ve completely fallen in love with yet. Some are close. But almost all of them have been decent to good. It’s a resounding “not bad” all around. Originally this was going to be a review for the new album “Deeper Tales” by P.O.S. but I struggled to say too much about the album in my usual expansive way. And then I quickly got wrapped up in three other album releases. 2023 is proving to be a busy year at the very least. There’s been four or five new releases on my radar and seven or more in my peripheral. How can anyone keep up? I don’t know but I’m doing my best. So I figured I’d put together some reviews all at once. It’s not comprehensive but it’s what I’ve been listening to on and off since the year kicked off its steady stream of releases. Expect some Anjuna-focus because that’s just what I tend to enjoy regularly.
Alpha 9 — New Horizons
Artem Stoliarov aka “Arty” aka “Alpha 9" has been a rather consistent musician for roughly the past fifteen years. Despite major trend changes, the Russian percussionist has maintained pretty chord work, poppy snaps, and an ability to dabble into the pop music realm with seeming ease. When Arty started getting typecast for his pop-focuses, he rebranded his entire club sensible side as Alpha 9, an identity he’s maintained since 2017. I’ve seen Arty/Alpha 9 live, he’s phenomenal to witness. And occasionally an Alpha 9 track will really hit the spot better than others. New Horizons, the official first Alpha 9 album, has a couple moments like this, particularly in its midpieces “Speed of Light” and title track “New Horizons”. The two tracks blend seamlessly and the journey across them definitely feels like Alpha 9 trying to take you to someplace new for his style. But the whole album just lacks something memorable to hook you in for the long haul. I’m sure he’d hate to hear this but I personally found Arty’s first album “Glorious” to be more of a departure and greater at finding something new to explore for listeners than the lofty selling point of “New Horizons”. I like it, I just don’t remember it.
RNX — Oscillate
Robert Nickson’s debut alias for his deep trance alias “RNX” was a welcome addition to the Pure Trance imprint. It’s a 15-track experience cleanly edited for an atmospheric colorful time. It doesn’t necessarily have any moments that wow-ed me but I’ve been a fan of Robert’s uplifting elements that feel as big as can be and his more textured elements at play with each RNX release. It’s delicately paced and barely comes close to overstaying it’s welcome. Tracks like “Lovely”, “Molecules”, and the title track stick out as quick and easy favorites I’d love to add to my club music collection. For a debut album it’s a wonderful start to an already accomplished act. I’d love to see Mr. Nickson do more with his ideas, establish some themes, get some vocalists. He’s proven he can do it with his mainstay trance vibes, it’d only get better with the deeper sounds. All in all, a solid album.
Anjunadeep 14 — James Grant & Jody Wisternoff
Like New Horizons I also don’t remember this one too much. I get lost somewhere around the middle and throughout mix two. Anjunadeep 14 definitely landed square in the “B-Tier” ranking of all the Anjunadeep compilations alongside Anjunadeep 1, 2, and 6. It’s not bad by any stretch, but it relies on a lot more chilled melodic and deep house this time around instead of taking you on some rallying journeys the way the best compilations have used with miniature arcs. It plays familiar tricks like breakbeats to tie off the second mix, a not-quite-final mix 1 closer. It’s using what James & Jody know to be reliable as an approach but not reinventing anything or changing the game up at all for themselves. It’s telling I think that the most upbeat and “awake” the sleepy Anjunadeep 14 feels is only twelve tracks in on “Lotus”. It’s hard to call any of these albums here bad, Anjunadeep 14 is offering up 42 tracks looking into the future of the label’s release schedule, it’s hardly a bad experience. But James & Jody can’t quite achieve all your hopes and dreams every year or two. For me this was one of those cases. And that’s okay since I know they’ll do it again eventually. For my other Anjunadeep friend, this one’s maybe one of his favorites. I wrote up a retrospective on all of them in prep of the release, so they’re all worth your time at least once. Take your pick.
P.O.S. — Deeper Tales
Y’know, it’s kind of a wonder Above & Beyond hadn’t taken this road sooner. I think the trio is due for some time apart creatively and I’m glad they seem to be taking it lately. I know they’re spinning up Tranquility Base again but so far it sounds very much like them just doing the same mainstage-focused sounds without any need for a songwriter or vocalist at the front. It’s not like Above & Beyond struggled in the instrumental mainstage department at all in the past ten years since they started taking an interest in slower tempos and bigger electro pads. The thing we (and by “we” I primarily mean “me”) have wanted from Above & Beyond is for the trio to spend some time exploring what really inspires them musically and stop trying to build an album that can be marketed to all crowds. They already have crowds that will buy anything they make. This exploration I’ve wanted might mean they go off and make music with other producers that aren’t Andrew Bayer. It might mean making a solo album to explore what makes you tick. It might mean the album only gets made by two of the three for a change (Killers-style, it seems to have worked out well for them). It’s sort of telling that one of the strongest vocal singles Above & Beyond have released in recent years is that collaboration they did with Spencer Brown and RBBTS. That one felt genuinely unique, different, and emotional and it was a much more collaborative release. More things like that but all across the board. Above & Beyond did a track with Seven Lions, why not an album?
It’s this sort of “boxed-in” mentality that hurts creativity. It’s why Paavo’s solo album as P.O.S. “Deeper Tales” is such a breath of fresh air among what feels so routine for the trio’s regular releases. Here’s an album made up of tunes that don’t venture above 130 at all and yet it feels more original and interesting than half the material on Common Ground. Because Paavo’s exploring, alone and with others. Paavo dealt with a lot of physical and mental health issues in the past five years. He now spends time at sea to become one with nature more. He collaborated with Spencer Brown more. He got in touch with what interested him about club music culture. The result? An album that threads the needle more like Above & Beyond than Above & Beyond albums do these days. Thunder & Sunshine and Polar Bears feels like a harken back to “Prelude”-level musicality with emotive chord progressions. The remix of “Lonely River” has hypnotizing hooks a plenty. The light piano touch on “Not Going Back” is exactly what half of Common Ground had been missing. I’m not going to lie, listening to Deeper Tales made me question if Paavo’s been the man who made Above & Beyond music so unbelievably good across the Tri-State and Group Therapy eras. Was it his emotive touch on piano? Possibly. Tracks like “Let You Go” demonstrate the melancholy mood can be found even on the grandiose scale, “Tahiti Burning Sunset” feels like better days in the early 10s, and “Coming Home” playfully stabs at its chord progression with instruments aplenty. It’s short and sweet, it has an emotional through-line, but the un-mixed track to track cut doesn’t quite vibe with the album. Maybe if some of the tracks were longer to develop more or if the gaps between tracks was just a tad shorter it’d weave into the album that club-connection that Paavo seemed to have regained in the wake of his healing process.
Simon Doty — Universal Language
Speaking of club connections, I’m really liking this one the more I listen to it. Where Deeper Tales lacked some strength in the moment to moment pacing, Univeral Language is expertly crafted…except it isn’t. This one’s hard to recommend outside certain experiences because the album is so geared towards a refined 10-track true-to-statement “club experience”. The Canadian DJ was touring for the album in advance of the album’s release so listeners could hear the tracks before they released anywhere. Simon probably got to workshop finishing touches on the album because of it. The album’s light themes of connected soulful introspection start right at the beginning with spoken word poetry on “Soulflow” and maintains that mindset throughout. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, the house vibes are immaculately paced. But it’s not mixed. The main release is a collection of album cuts and DJ sites like Beatport, Bandcamp, and the Anjunastore (reasonably) all have extended cuts you can download too. That’s awesome. But over on YouTube you can find the best version of the album where Simon Doty played a “secret” set and mixed the whole album start to finish in about an hour. Ideally this is the best version of the album, which you can’t buy anywhere. A continuous mix in the package would’ve been really swell. Instead I just made one myself with the extended cuts from the Bandcamp package. My money’s on Simon Doty’s Universal Language tour to become something of a “Illusion of Perfection” for the artist where the album itself serves to kinda lift up club culture and extended mix mindsets for the label, not to mention more Anjunadeep US recognition is welcome (he’s coming to my town in August for a cool rooftop set). But so far the reception seems to have been mostly “that was cool!” And it certainly is. I just hope it catches on a little stronger because those classic deep house vibes are a breath of fresh, simple, refined air.
Roger Shah & Ambedo — Tribute to Earth
What a weird one. I love it. I also don’t?
Roger Shah & singer/songwriter Ambedo join up to create a trance album dedicated to Earth and all of nature. The mix album is a fantastic journey with all sorts of instrumental flourishes that give each track just enough of a unique spin. The low-EQ rumble that indicates the start of “Forests”, the crystal clear Thrillseekers-esque highs in the bridge of “Flowers”, the howl of “Wolves” or the Sunlounger-esque slight strum on “Sun and Moon”, they all work as fantastic hooks or memorable pieces on this constantly moving 138 trance experience. Much like Universal Language there’s an immediate desire to nab almost every extended mix on this album because it’s all sitting at such an impeccable consistency from one track to the next. There doesn’t feel like a “down” moment throughout except one main design flaw that kinda brings it down a couple notches for me: Tribute to Earth is a trance album featuring a through-line of poet pieces written and spoken by Ambedo. On its face that’s great. Her voice is beautiful and the words are excellently written, but almost all the poem pieces are set in the midst of each track’s bridge, allowing the pace to start feeling predictable and a tad monotonous. It might’ve been nicer to have some more variety (like mid-way track “New Horizon” with JES does) where the poetry is spoken over a verse or chorus. What hurts this more is Ambedo’s narration becoming almost euphroic one or two times, a little off-tone with the album’s pursuit of looking at a grander beauty clashed against such high-pace beats. That “euphoria” really feels offputting a few times in a way that’s hard to place politely.
What balances these detractors out is the utter earnestness with which this album approaches the subject matter. The album artwork and title design is very “middle-school science class special film” (laughably, and yet not?). And the last track isn’t just a beautiful description, but a call to action to do more to help keep the beauty of the planet alive. “Thoughts and prayers won’t change our course” Ambedo admonishes. This album isn’t here to just show you something pretty and talk some fluff. At the same time this is maybe the best example in recent memory of an album where the supporting video imagery has come out to uplift the album’s experience. On YouTube you can find a video mix of the album that matches the audio experience but I implore you to watch it, have it running in the background while you listen to the music. The breathtaking footage is excellently paced and cut to match your audio experience in a way that’s bound to bring you a smile and feel utterly transcendent at some point in the viewing experience (for me it was during the montage after the bridge on “The Greatest Gift”). Where on BT’s Underscore album the drone footage felt like a nice accompaniment to the musical theming, here on Tribute to Earth the video experience feels utterly essential.