How it became house-y, technoid and then got psychedelic again
Progressive:If you look up ‘progressive’ in the dictionary, it is explained as “progressive, gradually increasing, developing”. Against this background, one can maintain that every musical genre has a progressive disposition. After all, every genre follows a certain evolution. But in hardly any other context does the term belong so much to the everyday standard vocabulary as in the trance scene. When talking shop about music before a party or at a festival, it seems to describe a basic characteristic of sound. But what exactly is meant by statements like “…beautiful progressive!” or “…he also does Proggi-Sound…”? In order to get to the bottom of this question, let’s first travel to the beginnings of Progressive Trance and then look at how the genre has evolved progressively and has produced a considerable number of subgenres over the years.
The Beginnings of Progressive Trance
As we mentioned in the last issue, in the first part of our great Psytrance story, the sound of our scene in the 90s was shaped by and made for the paradisiacal palm beaches of Goa, but was mainly produced in Europe. Here an independent scene developed quite early. As did a generation of producers who had never travelled to Goa – and yet still liked psychedelic dance journeys. Andreas Binotsch, one of the founders of Medium Records (later Midijum Records) and known to most of us as DJ Bim, sums up very aptly what happened at that time: “Around the middle/end of the 90s the actual Goa Trance had passed its zenith. Musically there were no new innovations. We reached the 150 BPM mark and somehow everything sounded the same, plus the tracks were so crowded with music that the actual engine (kick and bass line) disappeared somewhere in the nowhere. Because how can it unfold without room? In Sweden a group of young musicians felt called to change our music. They reduced productions to the essential and allowed for space to unfold at a moderate speed of kick and bass line. A PLOP! became a big BANG! and that bang came to change our world.”
Perfect Stranger, a luminary with a unique characteristic in the field of progressive trance, did experience this in a similar way: “This new genre suddenly had space between the sounds, the music had room to breathe! The different producers, who mainly came from Scandinavia, each had very different ideas and production methods, there were no rules any more, so it was super exciting and fresh!”.
In 1999 two boys from Malmö presented the title ‘Knob Adjustment‘ which is based on a dryly-mixed arrangement, dominated by percussions and single sound effects and without any superficial melody extremely deep and hypnotic. They called themselves Son Kite and are undoubtedly pioneers of the progressive trance genre. In the same year their Swedish compatriot Atmos presented the minimalistic milestone “Klein Aber Doctor“, whose fat offbeat bass and creaky dark synths can still be heard at parties today. But there was a strong Progressive Trance movement in the German speaking countries at the same time as well. Just listen to the track “Chicago Coins Cinema” by Intact Instinct, also from 1999, or to the music Sebastian Krueger released with his projects Tarsis and SBK around 2000. This guy’s musical history and his various projects are the byword of what Progressive Trance was capable to do around the turn of the millennium and how diverse it was…let Mr. SBK speak for himself:
Sebastian Krüger (SBK)
“In Germany, in the 90s, besides Hamburg, it was above all the beautiful Sauerland – to be precise the Grube in Siedlinghausen – where today’s Goa scene originated. Whereas Hamburg’s scene was directly inspired from parties in Goa by Antaro, Scotty and Sangeet, quickly manifesting itself in trance-like psychedelic sound, the first parties in the Grube were more psychedelic house parties, with DJs from Cologne’s Warehouse like Paul Cooper or Massimo. Therefore my preference for progressive grooves.”
But the guys from Hamburg developed a soft spot for those progressive grooves very early on. It speaks for itself that Sebastian Krueger’s album “Treibstoff”, including the unforgettable hit ‘Morgenlatte‘, was released on Antaro’s renowned Spirit Zone label. So was the groundbreaking album ‘Blast Food’ by Spirallianz, in its own league with its technoid toughness and production brilliance. Today the two guys who presented this in 2000 belong to the absolute upper class of the techno scene with their project Extrawelt. The Shiva Chandra album Auricular was released in 2000 on Spirit Zone, too, with its fat offbeat basses, interlaced rhythms and trippy-dark sound effects, tracks like ‘Schaukelstuhl‘ opened up a separate kind of progressive trance.
Progressive Trance as a genre – with many subgenres
These three examples are proof of how diverse and different were releases at the beginning of the Progressive Trance era. While Spirit Zone always took an avant-garde approach and had a very large stylistic range, elsewhere specialized labels soon sprang up for the many facets of the young progressive genre. “Then as Goa producers into progressive, you had to open a side label,” remembers Hamburg scene veteran DJ Magical. “So that everyone is satisfied with the thing, so that everyone knows: This is Progressive, this is Goa music.”
In the Ruhr area distributor Nova Tekk became active, which made sure that vinyls and CDs with the new sound also went on the shelves of record stores. As the leading A&R (the one responsible for finding and selecting new artists) Alexander Ligowski was an extremely important character around 2000.
He remembers: “Back then we were all sound researchers and so it was only logical from that point of view that every facet got a corresponding label. With Arne from Spirallianz / Midimiliz I initiated D.Drum to give the cinematic bombast sound of The Delta a home. On the other hand, Liquid Audio Soundz had more reduced, more house-y sounds, but still progressive trance to the point.”
By the way, these specialized labels also developed a new visual identity, which clearly stood out from the Goa and Psychedelic Trance releases of the 90s: Progressive Trance covers no longer depicted Indian deities and exploding fractal storms, but modern, streamlined graphic designs, illustrations and even artistic photographs.
The great Progressive House wave
We have already mentioned the keyword House here several times. Anyone thinking of white leather handbags, high heels and ironed shirts stuck in their trousers was proven wrong at the beginning of the 2000s at the latest. Because the fat, cheerful and sexy bass lines of House combined with a solid dose of tribal percussions and a few edifying synthie chords fit wonderfully on a sunny dance floor full of pleasure-seeking hippies. In this manner, D-Nox on his afternoon sets on the VuuV partially played the same records, which he had played in the trendy Tribehouse Neuss shortly before – and he was one of the highlights of the festival with this sound. The same applies to the appearances of the German-New Zealand duo Krueger & Coyle. Or, to name a few more examples of the big Progressive House wave around 2004, the sets of the Portuguese Pena, Tobias & Daniel or Anne Joy & La Niña from Germany as well as the sound of the British scene veteran James Monro at that time. In this Progressive House had a very wide range: Partly it was very melodic and in this way quite trance-like, but partly also very pop with remixes of great hits. So it’s no wonder that this trend, despite its short-term popularity, eventually became a controversial topic among psychedelic purists.
Tech Trance and Psychedelic Techno
“At that time Markus Maichel and Arne Schaffhausen just released their first The Delta Release. The track ‘As A Child I Could Walk On The Ceiling‘ was by far the most awesome I’d heard so far, because it had this earthy thick and driving groove and managed to turn a dance floor into a closed film set without fast melodies or acid screws. Mega!”, SBK remembers. Even though the album “Scizoeffective” released in 2000 sounds quite Goa from today’s point of view, it is also considered to be one of the first milestones of a subgenre of progressive trance, characterized by a cool, industrial hardness and technoid brute force: Tech trance or psychedelic techno. The cult label Spirit Zone also took up this sound with the release of Blast Food, the first Spirallianz album. But after a relatively short boom this genre returned to the underground, where it enjoyed a continuous but mass un-compatible existence. However, this has changed lately. If you take a look at the program on the Alchemy Circle of the Boom you will notice a massive increase in tech trance artists. Adam, co-founder of the traditional psychedelic techno label Digital Diamonds and known for his projects Alic and Adamson, summarizes the current state of the scene as follows:
Adam / Digital Diamonds
“I am very pleased that psychedelic techno is gaining more and more cultural relevance. In the beginning the term Tech trance was often used, but eventually Psytech/ Psychedelic techno has become established. When I play at parties I often observe that more and more ‘old-school’ Goas, but also more and more ‘new-school’ trancers or people from outside the Psy-scene get inspired by Psytechno. I think it was just time for something new, fresh, off the beaten track. That’s why it’s wonderful to see how versatile psychedelic techno can be: It can be brutal, dark, minimalistic, but also sexy or funky. Great as well are the many combinations and stylistic crossovers that make this sound accessible to a wider audience, which you can’t necessarily find at Psy-events. Psychedelic techno is expanding more and more. The collaborative character of this genre is also very cool: Many labels and acts don’t work ‘against each other’ and don’t see themselves as competitors, but rather as ‘part of the whole’ or part of the psychedelic techno movement. We support each other instead of infighting because we all love the sound so much and we stand 100% behind what we do. Within the last 10 years, many new and really good labels have emerged besides our label Digital Diamonds, as our friends from Techgnosis Records, Soupherb Records, Bassic Records and Subios Records.”
The trip to the darker side: “Zenonesque” – Dark Progressive
Every now and then there are artists and labels who go for such an independent and revolutionary sound that their name becomes the byword of this sound. In the greater Progressive Trance area, Neelix is an example. And the label Zenon Records, which founded by the Australian producer Sensient very soon developed a very special groove aesthetic: very minimalistic arrangements, marked by intricate, nested rhythms, combined with samples and sounds that seem extremely psychedelic not so much because of their sequence as because of their inherent psychoacoustics, production quality and timbre. As a rule, the whole thing has a rather dark, nocturnal vibe. Certain productions are reminiscent of minimalist Progressive Trance releases of the first hours, multiplied by today’s production techniques. The label Zenon continued this style with such consistency and continuous quality that this subgenre is still described as zenonesque. However, in the course of the years, several other labels have also distinguished themselves with this sound, so that the name Dark Progressive has established itself.
How Progressive and Psytrance re-conciliated
Matthias Sperlich aka DJ Cubixx
As our historical summary shows, Progressive Trance quickly branched into several subgenres. Some of which were very far away from the original idea of psychedelic trance music, on which Progressive Trance is based.
Matthias from IONO Records remembers: “In 2005, some of the labels that had released Progressive Trance so far changed their sound to Progressive House. Many Progressive Psytrance fans didn’t have a source for new music any more and many talented artists didn’t have a label any more – that’s where IONO Music came in. I signed many of these artists to IONO and actually took a lot from those labels’ catalogues who had changed their sound. Many of the artists had just about started and we developed together, with their sound – and with that the label grew again.”
Quite early a strong demand arose for a trance style that is progressive but has a clear psychedelic line. In retrospect, IONO Music is one of the labels that has raised the flag for this kind of progressive and was thus pioneering for one of the most recent developments: Progressive Psytrance or Psy Prog.
“Nowadays Progressive sound has changed a lot”, says DJ Magical, who was one of the protagonists of the minimalistic, offbeat-heavy Progressive scene in Hamburg at the beginning of 2000,“Everything now has triplets and a lot of effect sounds. Many do remixes of commercial stuff. Really danceable… sometimes there are more breaks in it than anything else. Now it slowly starts again that, as I think of it, psychedelic progressive trance is made, so below around a 16th bassline, above progressive sound.”
Only a few are as consistently successful with this kind of sound as is Ace Ventura. The Israeli producer already stated in 2015 in an interview with the magazine “Lucy’s Rausch“: “A few years ago Progressive was about 135 BPM and typical Psytrance about 145 BPM. But times are changing…For me 138 – 140 BPM is the perfect pace. This is energetic and not too lame, but then not too fast either. Apparently this hits the nerve of Progressive Trance and Psytrance freaks equally, it is just exactly between these two directions.“
10x Progressive Trance from the early days of the genre
(by Roberdo Raval, Music journalist and Ex-Progressive Trance DJ)
Krüger & Coyle – Randy Expander (ACDC 2004)
When the two played on the Alternative Floor of the VooV, long serving Goa veterans and 18-year-old youngsters agreed: Trancey produced Progressive House is just great!
Freq – Strange Attractors (Iboga 2004)
A large part of what was and still is played after this album under the label Progressive Trance sounds like a footnote to this work.
Marcus Langer – Es Schneit Auch Sonntags (Earregular 2003)
Earregular was a great label that released wonderfully thick vinyls with a wonderfully trancy sound between progressive house and techno.
Lando – Minimal Mission (Liquid Audio Soundz 2001)
The name of the album says it all. Tracks like “LSD Suchmaschine” consist almost exclusively of rhythm, which was really revolutionary for a “Trance” album.
S:O:N:U:S – Alice Is Amazed (Jumjam 2003)
An example of the “Hamburg Sound” of that time. Ultra dry offbeat arrangement, very minimalistic and with a cheerful, almost poppy melody.
Cass & Slide – Opera (Fire 2000)
An example of what was traded in Germany as “UK Trance”. Great artists, great label, stylistically as diverse as no other label at that time, on a very high level.
Kooler – Open (Dragonfly 2004)
Sebastian Mullaert… then as now one of the greats when it comes to hypnotic dance music. Kooler was a very housy project.
Reefer Decree – Curved Air (Iboga 2002)
The lead synth in this track and how it evolves over the 8 minutes is just groundbreaking. The whole track oscillates around this one sound.
Hopefiend – Out of Reach (Flying Rhino 2001)
Produced with surgical precision. An example of minimalistic-progressive ecstasy. And probably the most creative record cover in my collection.
Emou – Summer Is Old (Space Safari Remix) (Freeform 2002)
Poppy, but good. For a while vocals in progressive trance were really fun.