The Myth Of Genre Evolution

If I’d been given a fiver every time I’d heard someone say to me that trance isn’t as good as it used to be, I’d have retired from working by now and have far more time free to spend in the studio proving them wrong.

People often talk about how “the genre has evolved” since its’ early conception, without ever actually stopping for a moment to think about what they’re saying. Or maybe they’ll say how “trance was amazing back in (insert random year here) but it’s all gone downhill now.” Perhaps you’ve heard someone moan about how all trance is boring these days, or had some self-appointed sage tell you about how they “used to be into trance but prefer progressive now”. Maybe you’ve even had my all time favourite – “trance is a gateway genre into EDM but it’s just a phase before you discover more intelligent music”.

Down the years I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to have these arguments, to the point that I’ve now gotten bored of the constant frustration I’m faced with when doing so. The final one of these, concerning “intelligent music” is such a ridiculous oxymoron that I’ll deal with that in a separate topic of its’ own one day. I accept that there are some people in the world who just don’t get it, refuse to get it, and likely will one day die never having gotten it. Once this might have saddened me, but ultimately I suppose it’s their loss and not mine.

Let me try and put this in simple layman’s terms. “Trance” is not an object, or a living entity, it is a word used to describe an abstract concept that doesn’t change.

For example, if you went back 500 years you wouldn’t see as many houses as you do today, but you would see some of them. Over the last 500 years, building methods have evolved, building technology has evolved, builders have evolved, as have tenants, and the rest of the world has evolved with them. But the concept of the “house” has stayed the same. Still it is a building with 4 or more walls mainly intended to shelter people from the elements. In 1000 years from now, assuming humans haven’t evolved beyond the need for physical form yet, a house will still be a building with 4 or more walls mainly intended to shelter people from the elements.

I'm simple yet functional

I'm simple yet functional

It’s a classic misconception that musical genres change, because everything else is changing around the genre. Specifically, music producers evolve, music technology evolves, clubbers and music enthusiasts evolve, and the world in general evolves. Yet for some reason there are still people who think that everything stays the same but it is the genre that evolves around them. This modern-day flat-earth syndrome is prevalent across EDM enthusiasts and many of them ought to know better.

I'm complicated but still functional

I'm complicated but still functional

Down the years, many many many people have tried to define all the genres of music by example and description. The most famous is probably Ishkur’s version which I personally disagree with almost entirely. The truth is though, that there is no standard definition for what trance is, because it’s quite a wide spectrum, but essentially it’s made up from 3 elements – a 4/4 beat, synths, and melody. People will disagree with me on this (and they often do) but the point is that these are not the only elements in trance, they are just the essential ones. In the same way, the 3 essential ingredients to pizza are dough, sauce, and cheese – but you’ll rarely get one with just those 3 elements.

I am a static, unchanging concept

I am a static, unchanging concept

Often I get told that “pop” music can be defined the same way, and indeed there are many similarities between trance and a lot of “pop” music. However, “pop” is invariably slower in bpm, and more to the point, trance is a genre of music that revolves around the music – the orchestration, the arrangement, the tune, the melody etc – whereas in “pop” it is invariably the music that revolves around a catchy vocal. Does this mean that vocal trance is pop? Sometimes but not always – it depends whether the vocal dominates the track or not. Often trance producers use a vocal as just another instrument to create atmosphere – it’s rare that a vocal will become the lead element of the tune (and in cases where it does, they are often referred to as “cheese”). It’s also the reason why, if a trance tune wants to get into the pop charts, it will more often than not be given vocals over the top, usually to the abject horror of trance purists.

The point is though, before I go completely off topic, that the three elements of trance are the same now as they were back in 1991/92 or so when the genre was first emerging. Even prior to it emerging and before it even had a name, the genre still existed as an abstract concept, waiting to be unveiled. Stories of the emergence differ wildly – a bastardisation of Detroit techno by the Germans, natural successor to acid house, the culmination of 15 years of Kraftwerk, 80’s electro without the vocals – but if there’s anything we can be sure about it’s that the Germans who made the first big impact with it, and that it contained my three essential elements then just as it does now.

The fact is though, that EDM generally was emerging from the late 80’s in a big way, in various different forms, and it’s entirely likely that no one person or artist is responsible. The major change was the availability of electronic synths and other forms of electronic music production in the 80’s, when the keyboard became the new guitar. I can remember the Pet Shop Boys appearing on TV in the mid-80’s and they always had a big wall of machines behind them to make their sounds, machines that doubtless became as obsolete as the 1960’s supercomputers that used to take up an entire room but would nowadays be out-processed by a mobile phone.

I laugh at you, 1960's supercomputer

I laugh at you, 1960's supercomputer

EDM today is vastly different to the EDM of 20 years ago, that much is undeniable – but the evolution has been a technological one and a personal one. However, musical genres remain static and unchanged. Jazz is still jazz, classical is still classical, rock is still rock, and trance is still trance. All genres have been interpreted differently down the years, with various offshoots and tangents to the originals, but this is not evolution, this is reinterpretation.

The difference is subtle but vitally important. Many artists have combined genres, split them, or done their utmost to remain undefined by them, and in doing so, many have created genres they can call their own. Robert Miles, for example, was widely imitated, and when he first emerged, was described in the music press at the time as “dream house”, though history now defines him as trance. In the mid-90’s, there was a spate of what you could probably define as “epic progressive” trance from the likes of BT, Sasha, Digweed, Blue Amazon and so on, when 15 minute tracks made a comeback (many DJ’s described them as “toilet tracks” – not because they were shit, but because they were ideal to put on if you needed to rush away from the decks to go to the toilet). Nowadays though, none of them make music which could be described as “epic progressive trance” in any sense of the word. This is not because EPT has died, or evolved, or become something else – it is because the producers have moved onto other things. Anyone could turn around today and make an epic progressive trance tune, and the definition of what it is hasn’t changed.

The fallacy is perpetuated by the insistence of people to define producers by a musical genre, rather than tracks themselves. Invariably, music producers are wildly obsessive music enthusiasts in general, otherwise they wouldn’t have spent so much time and money down the years in trying to make music. But music enthusiasts are such that they appreciate a wide spectrum of music, of many genres, and as such will take their influences from a huge field. Thus it follows that anyone obsessed enough to lock themselves away for days and weeks on end in a soundproof room trying to turn the noises in their heads into reality will not just constantly repeat themselves throughout their careers. Similarly anyone with a wide appreciation of music in general will not stick solely to one narrow element of music.

So it is natural that music producers will evolve, just as it is inevitable that music technology will evolve. So why is it hard to grasp that producers can move from one genre to another? My favourite artist album of all time is Moby’s “Everything Is Wrong”, where in the space of 13 tracks he managed to cover opera, rock, thrash metal, trip hop, classical, happy hardcore, ambient, trance, and then some. The strangest thing about the album though is that all 13 tracks have the distinctive Moby sound to them, which although indefinable is probably true for every track on every album he’s ever made (and I have them all).

I believe that it is this kind of distinctive artist “sound” that confuses people into thinking that genres evolve. If Simon Patterson turned round and made a tune with Nine Inch Nails, the chin-strokers would marvel at the rock/dance “fusion” and once again prophesize about the death of dance music as they have been doing since 1987. NIN fans would probably be horrified but secretly enjoy Patterson’s snarling basslines, whereas Patterson’s fans probably liked NIN already. “Isn’t it incredible about how trance has evolved?” people would say, “From obscure German bleepy noises to the modern mainstream, collaborating with real bands”.

Hi Trent, you wanna make a choon?

Hi Trent, you wanna make a choon?

Yet throughout this whole time, “trance” will have remained the same. Just as “purple” would remain the same, “house” would remain the same, “pizza” would remain the same, and so on, and so on.

>n the example above though, the chances of a Patterson/Reznor collab being a trance tune is pretty slim to non-existent. It would, in all probability, be another genre of music altogether that may already have a name or not. However, because of Patterson’s history from the days when he did make trance, it’s likely that trance fans and DJs would wind up playing the tune as a result, and lazy journos from the music press will probably describe it as such. The irony is though, is that had it been made by a producer with no reputation, however, it would more than likely pass them all by, and would not be referred to as trance.

OK, just promise me it won't be any of that trance shite!

OK, just promise me it won't be any of that trance shite!

Chances are that I will discuss the matter of genre in more detail in the future. I’d go into it more now only I’d probably just keep going until WordPress gave up or you died of old age. Suffice to say I do think about these things a fair bit, often whilst I’m actually mixing or am in the studio. I probably think about trance as often as I think about sex, which I suppose is quite scary when you think about it…

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