- Every year DJ Magazine releases its Top 100 listing as voted by dance music fans. There always that grumbling that it’s not important but we all wait for the results and then we spend months debating about those results. Why is Tiesto number 1 again? Why are Sasha and John Digweed not at the top? Why didn’t James Zabiela get into the top 10? Why are there not more techno DJs placed higher? A lot of questions, a lot of debate, a lot of argument. One DJ who deserves his number three placing is Armin van Buuren. He has gradually risen to this position in such a relative short time because of two simple reasons: sheer talent and continuous hard work. No doubt there will be some that question his placing because he’s a trance DJ. Anyone who says he has no talent as a DJ, or for that matter as a musician, was not in Sydney on the October long weekend in 2002 when he headlined Godskitchen. That night he owned the club, the people and the city. I’ve seen almost every DJ that I’ve wanted to see, from the Sasha’s to the Tiesto’s to the Sven Vath’s of the DJ set. But I’ve never seen any of those held in such respect, treated literally as a God, held in such close proximity, as Armin was that night. Ever! Anyone who was at that event witnessed the trance set of the year. The people from cynical progressive fans to die hard trance fans. But for those two and a half hours, during which Armin played his records, we united as one and embraced him as our own. Who can forget how he turned the volume down during his encore track, his own remix of Iio’s ‘Rapture’, only to hear the sounds of the Sydney crowd singing the chorus with our hands raised in the air. To this day, I still believe the reason he returns to Australia; especially Sydney so often is because of that night. One of the best nights I, as a clubber and trance fan, have ever experienced. Having experienced a number of his live sets, an Armin van Buuren compilation is something that I always look for to hearing.
The concept behind ‘Universal Religion Chapter 1’ is an honest attempt to express how music can unify people for a few hours. It doesn’t matter what genre of dance music we dance to, whether it’s trance, progressive, breaks or house, because for those few hours time can stand still. In that instance, there are no wars, no differences, no prejudices, and above all no hate. Because for that one moment, as Faithless have sung in the past, ‘… we become one…’. I commend Armin for his effort however to successfully experience this concept, you really have to be in a club feeling the music, seeing your surroundings and sharing it with people you care about. In some respect, it is the symbiotic relationship between sight and sound that enhances the clubbing experience. It is this experience that is often very hard, if not impossible, to transfer to a CD format.
‘Universal Religion’ opens with the guitar riffs of Mark Otten’s Lightscape mix of ‘Mushroom Therapy’. With its fluid like melody giving it an ethereal quality, it’s quite a standout for an opening track. The tempo increases with Lolo’s ‘Extended Horizon’ which finds itself in typical uplifting trance territory with it’s atmospheric break down flowing into an abundance of melodic riffs. This sound and feel is continued in Scarab’s ‘Vagabond’ which has a beautiful main melody. The mix then moves into a slightly tougher percussive area with Midway’s ‘Amazon’ which then gradually changes in a melodic tempo. With Armin van Buuren’s Universal Religion remix of Motorcycle’s ‘As The Rush Comes’ a moodier trance sound is touched on but without losing any of the uplifting quality that is featured throughout this compilation. A standout track with it’s rolling beat and gorgeous vocals that only enhance this track. This has been specially remixed by AVB for this compilation and I can see this particular remix working in large stadium sized events. This is followed by Mr Sam vs Tim Coltrane presents The Tribute’s ‘One More Day’. This particular track is more banging in sound and is enhanced by the acid style bass. We move back to a more melodic atmosphere with the guitar sampled riffs of Envio’s ‘Touched By The Sun’ and then onto a deeper bass sound with Electrique Boutique featuring Taz’s ‘Heal (12” Instrumental Mix)’. This is another track that I can see working in a large festival style event because of its fuller sounding melody giving an overall big room feel. Up next is Filo & Peri’s ‘Elevation’ which begins with a soaring feeling that breaks into piano melody which is quite lovely to hear but not unheard before. The halting bass of M.I.K.E.’s ‘Turn Out The Lights’ can be heard as the tempo drops slightly. Somewhat dark in nature but it eventually develops into a richer bass sound which only adds to the tension of this track. This is the most individual tune on this compilation and one that most definitely hasn’t graduated from the class of 1999 thought processes. The next track is one by Armin van Buuren himself and is taken from his debut artist album ‘76’. ‘Song For The Ocean (Instrumental)’ takes a while to get to where it’s going but the patient increase in melody and tension leads to a satisfying outcome. This is probably one of my favourite AVB tracks. The dubby bass of Laura Turner’s ‘Soul Deep (Signum Dub)’ closes this chapter in what will be a continuing compilation series. The breakdown in the track is quite atmospheric with a richer melody kicking in which is maintained until the end.
I have no doubt that this will appeal to most trance fans because it is easy to listen to and is mixed exceptionally well. However, from my perspective, it simply sounds too familiar and therefore much too easy for someone such as Armin van Buuren. Being ranked so highly amongst dance music fans, it’s now safe to say that he’s become a ‘superstar’ DJ. As such, he is in the best possible position to start pushing new sounds. He’s reached the point where he can afford to start moving in a new direction, start incorporating new sounds, simply start experimenting with something other than just uplifting trance. While I respect that as a DJ and producer his love lies in this genre, I believe he has the talent to do much more. Because to be frank, while this is a great sounding compilation, for me, it just sounds a little bit bland and I know that he’s more than capable of something electric. To be specific, there has been so much effort made to make sure each track falls in the ‘uplifting’ category, that as a whole, it generally all sounds the same. As a result, this does not come anywhere near capturing one of his live sets especially his diversity.
On a more positive aspect, it is a masterful attempt at trying to convey that unified feeling in a CD format. Anyone that hasn’t experienced uplifting trance will find ‘Universal Religion’ very appealing. There are truly some exhilarating moments especially when listening to Motorcycle’s ‘As The Rush Comes’ or hearing M.I.K.E.’s ‘Turn Out The Lights’. As is always expected and delivered, Armin’s mixing is perfect and as such, he has no faults on a technical level. There are those who say trance DJs have a very average approach to mixing. They’ve never heard an Armin van Buuren compilation or experience his live sets.
As an avid Armin van Buuren supporter, I now want more from him. There is no disputing his talent as both a DJ and a musician. He has that but even more so, he has the charisma to hold and control a crowd in the palm of his hand. There is also no disputing that he knows how to play uplifting trance. However, I think if he is to grow as a dance music artist, he needs to step outside his comfort zone. I know what he can do with trance; I want to hear what he can do with other genres. It won’t always work but even the failures will be an experience from which he can learn and thus, develop as a DJ. I know he can do this. I just know. With this in mind, I look very much forward to seeing which direction Armin van Buuren will take in the future and, as always, I look forward to his future releases.
1. Mark Otten – Mushroom Therapy (Lightscape Mix)
2. Lolo – Extended Horizon
3. Scarab – Vagabond
4. Midway – Amazon
5. Motorcycle – As The Rush Comes (Armin van Buuren’s Universal Religion Remix)
6. Mr Sam vs Tim Coltrane presents The Tribute – One More Day
7. Envio – Touched By The Sun
8. Electrique Boutique featuring Taz – Heal (12” Instrumental Mix)
9. Filo & Peri – Elevation
10. M.I.K.E. – Turn Out The Lights
11. Armin van Buuren – Song For The Ocean (Instrumental)
12. Laura Turner – Soul Deep (Signum Dub)