In a world where mainstream electronic music has embraced a reductive nature, it’s refreshing to hear and watch The Nine Skies.
We’ve witnessed the return of many aliases: Armin van Buuren with Gaia, Ferry Corsten with Gouryella, Sander van Doorn with Purple Haze, and now Markus Schulz with Dakota. Markus Schulz has released his latest Dakota album The Nine Skies, and it’s one of his most impressive albums he has ever put out.
From beginning to end, there is passion seeping through all 18 tracks. The album blurs the line between traditional Markus Schulz tracks and Dakota tracks, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s somewhat of an anomaly to hear since other artist aliases are widening the gap from their main personas.
In Markus Schulz’s case, the latest Dakota album release reveals that he’s made it quite far on the path to self-realization as an artist, where each separate persona’s distinctive sounds have merged closer together, rather than further apart. For example, the track ”Searching” feels like it could have been included on last year’s Watch The World album.
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It’s not immediately apparent what The Nine Skies represent with an initial listen of the album.
This is entirely by design and evident when Markus Schulz revealed that The Nine Skies is a “soundtrack to some sort of self-help book; something that people who are going through dark periods and difficult times of our own can discover, help them heal and inspire them towards a happier and fulfilling sense of well-being.”
Providing an escape from everyday life feels like it’s not enough of a challenge for the appropriately named “unicorn slayer” anymore, especially after tragedies surrounding our community continue to impact our scene.
However, the live show provides additional context and clues into what the journey represents with its narration and visuals taking viewers through each of the skies. Thankfully, his full performance from Transmission Prague was recorded and will be included on the upcoming box set for The Nine Skies.
The live show component is thought-provoking, controversial, and political at times, but that is exactly the point: the set is a reflection of the scene itself. It feels like Markus Schulz is fulfilling his obligation as an artist to make us think, a rarity in the electronic music scene today.
The 18 tracks on The Nine Skies create an atmosphere and mood that is dark but refreshing.
The album flows perfectly from the atmospheric and dark beginning into exploring different realms of trance, techno, and progressive inspired tracks that we’ve fallen in love with this year. In addition, The Nine Skies updates a few sampled tracks in a way that is respectful to the original but deviates from them enough that it fits cohesively in the album and it feels fresh.
Like previous albums, Thoughts Become Things and Thoughts Become Things II, Dakota tracks tend to be more introspective than reflective, giving us insight into another side of Markus Schulz we don’t traditionally get to see.
The album as a standalone doesn’t break down The Nine Skies verbatim, but I’ve attempted to understand their meaning.
Starting off the album is “Bravo on the Go“, which is military-like in nature reflecting Markus Schulz’s army brat upbringing and features crisp techno claps that are appropriately paired with marching soldiers in the live show. The album transitions into the seductive “Follow Me“, which is part of the aptly named “Sky One: The Follower“, where we’re asked to learn how to become a good follower, a prerequisite to becoming a good leader.
One of the first nostalgic throwback tracks is ”Who Are You”, which is full of electric guitar riffs and energy; it sparks an elevation of mood on the album and has a rebellious nature. It’s part of “Sky Two: The Contemplator“, which focuses on the feeling of being an outsider the more we try to fit in.
My fellow Seattle Trance Family member, Brandi Cole, pointed out a The Who sample in the song and I had to agree with her when she said, “It’s so different and not at all what you would expect from a trance song.”
Singer Bev Wild lends her vocals for the update to Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill“. It’s part of one of the more abstract skies, “Sky Three: The Pathfinder“, which asks us to become who are supposed to be and let go of who we think we are. The atmosphere created by the heartfelt, belted vocals surround the powerful, hypnotic synths making it one of the most powerful, tear-jerking vocal trance anthems released this year.
Another delicious track featuring pounding and provocative elements on the album is “Eve’s Doorway“, part of “Sky Four: The Pleasure Seeker“. The track leads us into ”Edonismo”, which has a racing, stair-stepping synth that will get your heart racing in no time. During the live show, the track pairs perfectly with the “red pill and blue pill” speech from The Matrix.
Ending the segment is “Kismet”. It plucks at our heartstrings encouraging self-exploration and gives us the energy to make it through the next sky with its delightful and hopeful melodic nature.
”The Way It Is” is a cover of the 1986 album of the same title by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. The piano pairs beautifully with the synths. It shows how well the original was written, as it still sounds great three decades later with Markus Schulz’s production skills. The live show displays Donald Trump’s inauguration as the intro to “Sky Five: The Activist” before playing the powerful anthem inspiring the audience to change the world.
Immediately following is ”Cafe Del Mar”. The track is updated for 2017 but features an unexpected pounding drop that slowly builds back up to the epic trance melody that has stood the test of time. The original by Energy 52 came out in 1993 and is widely regarded as one of the top electronic music songs of all time. It still gets the crowd moving to this day.
”Carbonado” warps us again to the ’80s, this time featuring the theme song from the hit TV show Night Rider. There is a lot of enticing personality that flows through the track, which comes close to the charm of the classic show’s lead actor David Hasselhoff. This is the anthem to “Sky Six: The Master“, which asks us to observe the beauty of the world around us and the accomplishments of others, building our own self-confidence in the process.
“In Search of Something Better” features a tearful, uplifting build-up showcasing the sense of journey and clarity that Markus Schulz was aiming for, kicking off “Sky Seven: The Visionary“.
“Future Shock” hits on all the right notes with its techno-infused trance beat and is perfect for a dark and sweaty nightclub. Its tribal, pounding beat is part of “Sky Eight: The Prophet” and provokes us to ask the question: is a prophet seeing events in full detail, or rather, do they have precise intuition?
Standout tracks like ”The Ninth Sky” feature beautiful angelic vocals and violin strings that unexpectedly fire on all of our emotional cylinders experienced through the album. “Sky Nine: The Nirvana” is the culmination point of self-actualization and asks us to embrace our happiness obtained through becoming aware and enlightened.
While strobe lights, flashy graphics and lasers might add to most electronic music, The Nine Skies depicts the battle between light and dark purely through music.
From the opening track to its last, the latest Dakota album feels like a fully realized conceptual album that is an ode to Markus Schulz’s past, present, and future. The album is accessible to the average electronic music fan, but it is more conceptual and thought-provoking than typical EDM fluff, making it unattractive for some.
After listening to the Ferry Corsten’s excellently narrated album Blueprint earlier this year, I had expectations that the latest Dakota album might offer a similar experience. However, the album does require an unnecessary amount of digging to fully understand what the latest Dakota project has to offer. The upcoming box set will feature the live performance of The Nine Skies at Transmission Prague but isn’t slated to release until February, and it might be too late by then to spark interest to revisit the album.
Nevertheless, it is clear that there was a lot of love poured into the concept through how seamlessly the audio and visual presentation pair together.
The Nine Skies marks a major milestone in Markus Schulz’s legacy and uses timeless sounds that incorporate techno, trance, and progressive that will be appreciated in the years to come.
Make sure to experience Markus Schulz presents Dakota: The Nine Skies for yourself on your favorite streaming platform, pick up a physical copy, or preorder the box set.