I attended my first rave in the summer of 1999, an event called "Transonic" held in a roller rink in Escondido, with the headlining dj Christopher Lawrence. It affected me profoundly and I immediately joined the rave scene. Finding that the music was not nearly up to par with what I had experienced at that first event, I began experimenting with djing on my roommate's belt-driven turntables the following summer. Just a few months after I began, I got my first break as a trance dj in the rave scene, at an underground club called the Batcave.
Although I experienced a lot of initial success as a dj - my third gig had me playing to a packed house of several hundred people - I came in to the rave scene just a bit too late. As a musical scene, it had already peaked, and was rapidly on its way to being diluted by mass-market tastes. As sophisticated trance became harder to find, I turned more and more to a fusion style called progressive. This style blended progressive house and progressive trance; its best known djs were probably Sasha & Digweed.
But even progressive began getting trite and played out within a year or so. Frustated with my attempts to find the kind of music I wanted to play as a dj, I teamed up with the artist now known as Xyla and we began producing our own tracks. The first of these were completed and cut to vinyl in July of 2002.
But again, it was too late. The rave scene continued to grow ever more stagnant, with less and less place for the kind of intellectually stimulating music I was interested in. "Nomadic" was my final attempt to assemble the best trance and progressive available at the time (including two of my own tracks, under the name Xyr). After recording that release, I prepared to announce my retirement as both a dj and producer in late 2002.
At the same time I was waiting for Nomadic to come back from the CD manufacturer, I attended Burning Man for the first time, in August of 2002. There, on Friday night, in the Magic Glasses dome on the Esplanade, I had my world rocked by a whole new genre of trance: psychedelic trance, or psytrance for short. Without hesititation, I renounced my dj retirement and became a psytrance dj. Trading in my turntables for a pair of CDJs, I launched into a career that was more satisfying and successful than anything I had ever experienced in the rave world.
I had joined the rave scene just a bit too late, during or a bit after its peak. I caught the psy scene, on the other hand, at the exact right time. In 2003 it was on its way up, mature enough to have a large body of music with a unique and engaging sound, a developed culture and aesthetic, its own dancing style, and so forth. But it was not yet so mature that the music was well-known outside the tight-knit scene. The parties were the exact right size: a few hundred people, big enough to have lots of energy but small enough to feel cozy.
And the energy! In the rave world I was used to 6 or 8 hour parties, where people would dance for a few hours and that was it. At the time that seemed like a lot. But in the psy scene, parties were 12, 16, 20 or more hours; and people danced what seemed like the entire time.
Psytrance was a dream come true for me. Here was a scene that had many of the same traits as raves, but so much better. The crowd was more mature and more dedicated to the music, particularly the spiritual component of the experience. The focus was on outdoor parties, there were never any hostile security guards, and the promoters seemed so much more genuine. They did it for the love, not the money.
And trance - the whole time! The whole time! I spent my entire rave career desperately seeking out the trance in the sea of house, hardcore, jungle, and breaks that was played at these events. I remember clearly the one time I heard three solid hours of good trance (Christopher Lawrence and Sandra Collins back-to-back at Electric Daisy Carnival). Other than that, this much trance at once was pretty much unheard of in the rave scene. I stayed glued to the speakers every minute that there was decent trance playing.
In the psy scene, though, I could walk away from the music any time I felt like it, even when there was good trance playing. I could come back an hour later or two hours later or whatever and there would still be good trance playing. Amazing, absolutely amazing.
Part of what shaped the psy scene at that time was the corresponding digital music revolution. The finicky hardware synthesizers and other devices that had been used to make electronica historically finally had reasonable software replacements. Software synths and effects offered greater flexibility, and especially control of the frequency space. Psytrance artists were the first to seize onto the new technology because of the nature of the music (though certainly not the last, all-digital production is becoming common in other genres as well).
Digital production brought a whole new level of clarity and precision to the art of making electronica. Most notable is the agility of psy basslines. Bass instruments - electronic or otherwise - have always been mushy and indistinct; low frequency sounds are, by their very nature, difficult to control. Digital bass synths and effects allow the bassline in psytrance to be fast, sharp, and clear, and even to carry complex melodies. This gives psytrance a level of power and energy on the dancefloor that nothing else can match.
Psytrance as a genre seemed to peak around 2005. The quantity and quality of trance coming out during this time was mind-blowing. Antykthera Mechanism was created in this period: I was like a kid in a candy store (hence the double CD). Although I had been dabbling in producing psytrance, none of what I had made could compare with the stellar quality of tracks that I had in my dj crate, so I didn't bother using any on my mix cds.
Starting in about the beginning of 2006, the quality of the music being released began to decline sharply. There was more music than ever, but an increasing percentage of it was derivative and predictable. This coincided with the growing size of the scene - the same mass-market dilution that had happened in the rave scene was now happening in psy. (This is not as visible in Los Angeles and the US in general as it is in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Pleasantly, most of the US has remained a sort of trance backwater, a pocket of underground in what is not an underground scene much of anyplace else.)
Arturo from Maia Records put it really well in an interview in the winter 2006 issue of Revolve:
"One of the most diminishing tendencies of today's scene is the relentless release of generic, repetitive and uneventful music. [...] Unique, special, memorable, and fresh are adjectives we want Maia Records to be related with."
Yep, those adjectives are what it's all about. Regrettably "unique" and "memorable" are not applicable to the majority of cookie-cutter trance being cranked out these days.
Many parallels can be drawn between the decline of the trance scene and the decline of the rave scene before it. For example, the best place to find sophisticated music is in the subtle sounds of progressive, usally called prog psy in the psy scene. (Green Sector wisely latched on to this.) I began djing more progressive tracks myself, but the passion wasn't quite there for me there. I'd been down that road before, and I knew where it ended.
"Cold" was my finale in the psytrance world. I hope this disc showed what good electronica can be: sophisticated, dark, and challenging to the listener's expectations. I also had the opportunity to include the one psytrance track I've made that I feel has any real merit: Steel's Engima.
Alas, too little too late. With legions of trancers around the world dancing mindlessly to formulaic fullon, and a few holdouts at home retreating into progressive, I see that there's no place for me as a dj or producer in psy anymore. I'll still be on the dancefloor; with all this scene has given me, I can't abandon it easily, and I do still love dancing the morning away under the shade of Jack's trees. But my heart isn't in it like it once was.
So what's next? Musically, the genre to watch is psychotic trance, aka twisted trance. ("Nighttime trance" and "dark psy" are two other terms used, but I don't find these as descriptive as the first two.) I've had my eye on this scene since early 2005, when my former production partner Xyla shifted her dj and production efforts there. This scene has much in common with the goa scene in, say, 2000: young, small, full of energy and promise - but still very raw.
Why not jump over there right away then? Well, for me personally, the music was still too immature in 2005, and psytrance was right at its peak. Psychotic trance lacked sophistication, subtlety, and power (the latter mostly due to weak production). But I saw its potential. I had a strong hunch then that this would be the future of trance.
Since then, psychotic trance has grown much more refined. As I write this in March of 2007, I find myself listening to it much more often. I wouldn't be surprised if, in a year or two, this is the only place to be.
It's odd, having watched the rise and fall of musical scenes twice now. As I watch what's going on in the psychotic scene, it all seems so familiar. But this is strangely comforting. There's this cycle of youth, climax, and decay that goes with each new style of music that arises. Eventually any genre becomes trite and predictable, but there's always a new one around the corner. You just have to keep your eyes open for it, because it rarely looks exactly like what you would expect.
Will I become a psychotic trance dj or producer, you ask? Probably not. I think this time I'll just stick to dancing and collecting the music for my own listening. But I'm far from done with music as a pursuit in my life. I already have some new musical projects in the works, but they have more to do with music technology, utilizing my knowledge of software, hardware, and networking to try to revolutionize the way music is made and performed. DJing and producing through traditional means already seem tired and worn out to me. The new techniques and technologies I have in mind will allow artists to push the boundaries of our listening and dancing experiences. Whether my experimentation resolves into anything of note remains to be seen.
In the meantime, you'll see me on the dancefloor. I don't lament the loss of past glory days - though I may try to savor a particular sound even as it is on its way out. With music, and indeed any kind of art, it's all about what's new, fresh, different; challenging and surprising you, bending your mind in new ways you never imagined.