Trance has a stigma. John 00 Fleming and Solarstone hope to slowly change that with the help of Beatport.
A broad swath of the dance music world associates trance with the commercial end of the spectrum. The very word evokes images of festival crowds with their hands in the air, singing in unison to vocal anthems as saccharine synth melodies soar overhead.
But trance’s roots do lie in the underground. It evolved from techno — and though markedly melodic, its first incarnation preserved the fearless futurism of its parent genre. This seminal trance sound still commands a diehard global following, with innovators like John 00 Fleming and Solarstone working to push it forward.
Techno’s close kinship with trance doesn’t seem to help Solarstone (real name Richard Mowatt) when submitting trance demos to techno and progressive labels, though. That all changes when he gives them a different descriptor.
“I consider the music I play and release to be trance music,” he says over video chat while traveling between US tour stops. “But if you call it that, a lot of DJs won’t even listen to it. So what I’ve been doing with all my labels is sending out promos without mentioning the word ‘trance’ at all.”
This might come as a shock to the Irish DJ and producer’s legions of loyal fans. Mowatt is often praised as one of the genre’s most enduring champions. Since it launched over a decade ago, his Pure Trance Recordings imprint has grown synonymous with a movement to reclaim the genre’s mid-‘90s philosophy. He’s fiercely outspoken on matters of music. In the trance world, this has served him well.
But his accolades seldom carry weight with techno and house label A&Rs. “Many DJs have been supporting my records and giving them great feedback,” he says, “but if I were to send them from Pure Trance, they wouldn’t even open the email. They might even unsubscribe.”
Fleming has, for some time now, courted talent buyers the same way. He is also well respected in trance, a prolific recording artist and DJ whose influential JOOF Recordings imprint turns 25 this year. For a long time, though, the Englishman has eschewed associations with the term.
“I had to change any branding that had the word ‘trance’ in it,” he recalls over video chat with the living room of his Worthing, West Sussex home in the background. “My agent told me they would see ‘trance’ and presume it’s the full-on EDM played by the superstars of the trance scene.”
This decision never sat well with Fleming. “It was really difficult. We had to go through everything and eliminate that word, which felt terrible because my heart and soul is in trance,” he recalls. “But the doors swung open once we stopped saying it.”
The stigma doesn’t usually go both ways. On the contrary, trance mega brands have increasingly welcomed techno and house crossovers. Trance label Anjunabeats has invested more and more into its house/progressive sublabel Anjunadeep as the dust settled from the EDM explosion of 2010-2013. In March, artists like Artbat and Enrico Sangiuliano performed at A State Of Trance Utrecht 2023 alongside on-brand names such as Andrew Rayel and Cosmic Gate.
And whether or not they own up to it, artists on the commercial end of techno lean on trance’s accessible synth work. Purists have lamented over Nina Kraviz rinsing tracks such as Binary Finary’s “1998” and “Back To Earth” by Yves Deruyter in her DJ sets since at least 2016. Sitting at over 32 million Spotify plays, Charlotte de Witte’s most popular release to date is her and Sangiuliano’s remix of Age Of Love’s 1990 self-titled proto-trance anthem. This perceived dilution of techno is a gripe among more selective techno fans (and a subject of heavy banter in techno meme group comment threads).
Fleming and Mowatt consider it a graver issue than mere genre semantics. They argue that industry keyholders have taken advantage of a musical legacy the two of them helped build. To make matters worse, they’re snubbing the otherwise deserving artists associated with it.
They have a plan that they hope will trigger a gradual shift in attitude, however. The two have worked closely with Beatport to introduce new genre categories: Deep, Raw, and Hypnotic Trance.
How Did We Get Here?
A little backstory is needed to explain why. The techno-trance dilemma has plenty of history, as the two subcultures have been at odds for 30 years. John 00 Fleming and Solarstone have gotten to experience the melodrama firsthand.
Fleming is the older of the two, with a DJ career dating back to the late ‘80s. “I was putting on loads of raves in the South Coast of the UK,” he says. “Big ones. It was breakbeat verging on drum and bass. Everyone played that, from Carl Cox to Fabio and Grooverider. Hardcore, breaks, jungle, all of that was evolving in the same room together.”
Countless dance music variants did indeed mutate from the UK acid house revolution of the late ‘80s. What people called techno at the time originated in the Black music communities of Detroit a few years earlier, though. Forerunners of the style, like Blake Baxter and Eddie Fowlkes, explored its jazzy, melodic side. Outfits like Underground Resistance offered a darker interpretation that emphasized percussion and artful noise.
“I loved techno, but it felt a little minimal and aggressive to me,” says Fleming. “Then people like Laurent Garnier started playing a more melodic version of it that had all these pieces that put people in a trance.”
Meanwhile, in Germany, all manner of electronic music gained a devout following among youths during the country’s 1990 reunification — a watershed moment for the West as a whole. In the 2008 documentary We Call It Techno!, Groove Magazine founder Thomas Koch cites DJ Dag and the late Torsten Fenslau (of Eurodance group Culture Beat) as key characters in trance’s origin story. He explains that the two DJs laid the foundation for trance music by delivering early Sunday morning DJ sets at Frankfurt nightclub Dorian Gray around 1992-1993.
Party organizer Alex Azary clarifies that before it was a genre, trance was “a description of a condition” revelers began to associate with those surreal wee hours at the club. The music selection played a role, of course. In a given set, Dag and Fenslau might have mixed more melodic Detroit techno records with new beat cuts from Belgium or deep house from Chicago. Soon enough, these influences congealed into a sound all its own.
Early trance recordings include Quench’s 1993 single “Dreams” and Cygnus X’s 1994 hit “The Orange Theme.” The filtered sawtooths and atmospheric pads that once differentiated these tracks later became hallmarks of the genre. There were far fewer rules in the beginning, however. Early trance was still brimming with techno’s stripped-back idiosyncrasy.
Mowatt got serious about his own career in dance music during this period. “When I first started Solar Stone [originally two words, and three members] in the mid-’90s, trance was the new sound,” he says. “I was writing and producing this music, and I was signed to the key label at the time, HOOJ Choons.”
Then came a setback. “I was recording this album. By the time it was half done and I started submitting new singles to the label, trance had already become uncool and they started pushing progressive house,” Mowatt recounts. “Over 20 years ago, this had already started. You had DJ Sammy, you had ‘Castles in the Sky,’ and HOOJ Choons wanted no part of it.”
Superstars like Tiësto and Armin van Buuren soared on the mainstream success of what trance had evolved into after the turn of the millennium. Mowatt remained steadfast in his commitment to express what the genre meant to him. This required him to live more modestly.
“Trance got commercialized. It was popping onto the charts by accident,” says Fleming, by then a fixture of Goa trance parties by Godskitchen and Gatecrasher. “It was on national radio, national TV shows, everywhere. At that point, the underground wing of any genre starts pushing forward to something new and fresh. Trance wasn’t doing that. Around 2005, there were other musical developments, and trance artists tried to copy those.”
Next came the commercial decadence of the EDM boom, which steered even more artists away from golden-era trance. “Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of other artists who were playing and producing trance, but it was really, really hard for us,” Mowatt remembers. “I was on my ass, I had broken up with my wife, and I didn’t really have much money or many gigs.”
Mowatt decided to take a leap of faith. “I was really questioning everything, and I thought, ‘I just wanna make one more album,’” he recalls. “I made one of the kind of music I loved, and that was it.”
Pure released on trance fixture Black Hole Recordings to resounding praise in 2012. The 13-track effort included collaborations with genre folk heroes such as Aly & Fila and Giuseppe Ottaviani.
Its success motivated Mowatt to take things a step further. “I started the Pure Trance movement because I wasn’t really receiving much music in my promo box that I considered to be trance,” he says. “It was trance mixed with other genres — we called it ‘trouse’ at the time. I wanted to go back to my roots and make music that was what I considered to be 100% pure trance.”
Mowatt continues: “If people liked it, great. If they didn’t, I didn’t care because my career was pretty much over anyway. And then, it just turned out that there were millions of other people in the world who shared my feelings, who loved trance music. It was really important to them, and they wanted to be proud of this music. They wanted it to thrive.”
Pure Trance quickly grew to encompass a record label, event series, and radio show. Most importantly, it stood for a sentiment shared by many. It didn’t take long for others in the industry to recognize that there was a market waiting to be tapped. In 2015, Insomniac — the largest rave promoter in the US — announced the debut of an LA festival called Dreamstate geared toward more discerning trance fans. Tickets sold out within hours.
The Pure Trance story is certainly one of triumph in the face of insurmountable odds. But Mowatt and Fleming still can’t help but feel that trance continues to be widely misunderstood even today.
Lost in Translation
“When trance started to become mainstream after 1999-2000, they turned it into this Eurodance sound,” says Mowatt. “It was a million miles away from what John and I are doing now. And yet, in the music media, that cheesy Eurodance thing is still what they refer to as trance music.”
“A lot of people from the techno world and progressive house world seem to be operating under the illusion that that’s what trance is,” he goes on. “What John and I are playing is much, much closer to what those artists are playing. A lot of records categorized as progressive house and melodic techno are really trance records.”
Last year, Fleming reached out to Beatport to raise his and Mowatt’s concerns. The download store’s team heard him out and agreed to help come up with a solution. Together, they arrived at a new genre page: Trance (Raw / Deep / Hypnotic).
It started with Deep Trance, which Beatport initially rolled out as a subgenre of the main Trance genre early in the year. Specialist trance DJs and producers embraced the addition with open arms. They also asked for more specificity, however.
“Beatport put out a questionnaire to many of the labels,” said Fleming. “They asked people to check boxes and give suggestions for what they liked, and it was a mixture of hypnotic, deep and raw. If it was just deep, I think we would have missed out on the other areas of trance. It resonated with me when it came back; it really made sense.”
Writing for Beatportal, Beatport’s editorial arm, Daniel Sokolovskiy, specifies Deep Trance as falling between 120-128 BPM with lush pads and atmospheres. Hypnotic Trance is more repetitive, with fewer breakdowns and tougher elements, and Raw Trance varies widely in tempo, marked by classic synth sounds and freeform structure.
Fleming and Mowatt think this clarity has been sorely needed in the trance community. In time, they’re hopeful that it will also trigger a shift in attitudes around the genre among techno and house enthusiasts.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider Beatport’s controversial Progressive House genre category as a case study. Writing for Insomniac, DJ duo Gabriel & Dresden explain the category’s curious shift away from the layered variant of house commonly associated with Leftfield or Sasha & Digweed.
In the mid-2000s, Beatport gave uploaders free rein to pick genre tags of their choosing. Artists like Eric Prydz, Steve Angello, and deadmau5 filed their main stage-ready fare under progressive house. Before those invested in the genre realized it, the nascent EDM generation of fans recognized a completely different definition. By the early 2010s, the testosterone-fueled festival house sound played by the likes of Martin Garrix and Steve Aoki was commonly referred to as progressive house (to their credit, Beatport made a significant push to recategorize a lot of these tracks as Big Room in 2016).
If the advent of Deep, Hynotic and Raw Trance yields a similar result, the dance music world won’t likely notice right away. But the timing bodes well. Trance has re-emerged as a topic of discussion in 2023, with outlets like Pitchfork substantiating their declaration that “Trance is Back” with new music by TDJ and Fred Again. New Statesman goes even bolder, asking, “Is techno about to die?” because of Calvin Harris’ March single with Ellie Goulding, “Miracle.” Even controversial tech house darling John Summit is singing trance’s praises over Twitter.
Whether or not you consider these examples trance, a new generation of music fans has added the term to their vocabulary. When the purists among them seek out more sophisticated sounds, Beatport’s new categories might offer a convenient point of entry.
As convoluted as all of this might sound to the passive listener, it’s fairly straightforward to Fleming. “The best way I can sum it up is by thinking back to 18-year-old me, and what I wanted going out,” he says. “You want to dance, you want to get projected into the future, you want to hear music you’ve never heard before, surrounded by people smiling in this beautiful environment.”
He goes on: “It’s not just for us. The big, commercial hitters, it’s for them as well. Trance as a whole will benefit from this. Their roots are in deep trance, and now they get to make the music they used to make years ago. They miss it, I know they do, because I know them well and speak to them. They built their careers to the point that they play big festival stages all the time, but they miss where their roots are.”
At the very least, Solarstone and John 00 Fleming seem to feel more comfortable using the T word openly again. Whatever else may lie in store for Beatport’s new trance pages is harder to predict, but they’re off to an encouraging start.