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Sunday, March 10, 2002

The state of trance

Rewinding a decade

Special to The Japan Times

Trance: It has seeped deep into this city's ambience. Aside from the clubs, where you'll likely find four or five trance events every weekend, and the massive summertime outdoor festivals, it's always in the air, and unmistakable. Wander into any Roppongi watering hole or strip club; pop into any funky Harajuku boutique catering to girls who like to show off their navel tattoos; pass the racks of garish psychedelic and generic progressive-trance compilations at Tower or HMV; or slip into one of the increasing number of head shops, and you're sure to hear it -- an adrenaline-fueled sound of relentless rhythms and pulsating, shimmering synths.

What's remarkable is that -- with next to zero media- or music-industry support -- this music grew out of a petri dish of travelers, DJs, dancers and dopers to become ubiquitous. With music and parties by the fans, for the fans, trance was (is?) the largest D.I.Y. youth subculture in Japan since punk. And -- as always, when things happen through chance, love and naivete -- the vibe has been great.

Flashback to 1992: A secret Shimbashi place under the tracks. The event: Twilight Zone, one of Tokyo's first "warehouse" raves. Fliers have been handed out only to those who look clued-in, and the drinks on offer are chemically enhanced. The sound pulsating out of the speakers sounds familiar, like U.K. acid house, but strange: more driving, more intense, more out there. The crowd shut their eyes and ride the waves of alien, cosmic sound, lost in communal bliss. Trance in Japan is born.

"Sometimes I'd take an E, sometimes I wouldn't, but I'd always be there in front of the DJ, dancing my ass off all night long. I remember I'd just be smiling and grinning, I couldn't stop. There was this really strong feeling of bliss, and it wasn't just you, it was everyone on the dance floor, all grinning and into it. I don't think you get that so much anymore." -- Yasuko, veteran trancer, on parties circa '93-'95.

It's so commonplace now that it's the easiest thing to forget, but until acid-house and trance hit the clubs, people didn't dance together. They'd dance alone, or in pairs, or even -- the height of narcissism -- in front of a mirror, but that group-high, that electric feeling of openness and unity wasn't there on the dance floors. Maybe it was just the drugs, but dancing started to feel like something more.

"When I first heard trance it was on a CD, and I was like, why are people so into this? It sounded harsh, emotionless -- I really found it boring. But when I heard it on a dance floor, you know, dancing for four or five hours straight, it was like, aaaaahh, this is perfect. You've got to dance to get it." -- Hideyo, DJ, singer, international trancer.

For several years, trance remained shrouded in a cloak of invisibility. What gave the music its mystique was that it was largely unavailable: While DJs hunted down imported 12-inch singles from the U.K. and Germany and the really hardcore hoarded DAT tapes of the psychedelic sounds circulating in Goa, for most punters it could only be heard at elusive parties.

"Trance is like wine, more of a connoisseur's music. You have to train yourself to like it. The more commercial stuff, house or cybertrance or whatever, it's easier, it's safe, you know where it's going to take you. It may be euphoric a bit, but it's not going to take you to unknown realms of awareness, whereas trance often can. -- Tanya; organizer of Vision Quest parties.

1996: DJ Tsuyoshi is at his peak, packing the crowds into London's spiritually inclined Return to The Source parties, releasing mind-bending records such as "Prana" on his own label Matsuri, and returning to Japan where he gives interviews espousing artistic independence and a psychedelic consciousness.

"At the moment a subculture becomes visible and thus gains power, there is a great tension between the enjoyment of that power and the commercialization that, simultaneously willed and despised, is bearing down like an express train." -- Jon Savage, on the rise and fall of punk, in "England's Dreaming"

1998: Matsuri releases a CD emblazoned with the words "R.I.P. Goa Trance"; shortly after, the label's Tokyo office is raided by the police in a drug bust. DJ Tsuyoshi appears in a music video waving a gun. Actor Tadanobu Asano "sings" with Tsuyoshi's new band Joujouka. Soon Tsuyoshi will be a Uniqlo poster boy and share the bill with Chaka Khan at a 30,000 yen-priced millennium party.

"I had the realization that this kind of dancing was basically a form of yoga meditation, but one that was open to anyone, and didn't require esoteric entry procedures. It was something that people could approach on almost any level, and yet be drawn into an awareness of the spiritual aspects, through a state of trance. But these days I'm bemoaning the loss of that awareness as the whole thing goes mainstream." -- Chris Case, DJ, event organizer and partygoer.

U.K. rave guru Fraser Clarke once noted the difference between the rock paradigm, in which thousands of people focus on the superego up on the stage, and the rave paradigm, in which thousands of people focus on each other. Ironically, as trance gets bigger and more commercial, the vibe is in retrograde, and you can see entire cavernous dance floors all facing one superstar DJ who, when you think about it, isn't really doing anything worth watching.

Nightmare, 2002: Tetsuya Komoro, kingpin producer of J-pop superidols Avex Trax, declares that trance -- make that "cybertrance" -- will be "the next big thing" in Japan. You might laugh and wonder where Komoro's been for the past decade, but the message is clear: Get ready for the onslaught.

Velfarre, Roppongi, on a recent Sunday night: Beefy bouncers check the bags and pockets of more than 2,000 clubgoers to make sure the club's "No Drugs" policy is adhered to. Flashlights are produced to check if people's pupils are dilating.

Two weeks earlier at Yokohama Bay Hall, the party doesn't get going till the time Velfarre closes its doors. Security is nonexistent. The vibe is a heavy one: The crowd is tanked, many younger kids too much so. Glassy-eyed and random, the casualties litter the chill-out room floor.

"The sign of a good party is that when it's over, nobody wants to leave the dance floor. Until the bath cools down, nobody wants to get out." -- Chris Case.

For those looking to taste a little of the old-school vibe, drop by the NHK side of Yoyogi Park April 6-7, where the annual Harukaze party will be held till sundown on both days.

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