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Thursday, Sept. 14, 2006

The last weekend of summer to rave about

Staff writer

For Japan's trance music fans, this weekend is the last big outdoor romp of summer.

News photo
Psychedelic godfather Raja Ram, 65 (above), rewards the sodden faithful with a closing performance that coincided with the only brief sunshine of Solstice Music Festival 2006 in Niigata in July. At left, more than 3,000 people reveled at The Beach 2006 in August on Mikawa Island in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. JEFF OGRISSEG PHOTOS
News photo

Tens of thousands of people will spend Saturday, Sunday and into Respect for the Aged Day on Monday stomping to this form of electronic dance music, with its thumping basslines, anthemic melodies and emotional riffs, at one of at least a dozen open-air events across Japan.

Progressive trance organizer Mind Games' Labyrinth 2006 ( www.mindgames.jp/ ) in Gunma Prefecture has already sold all of its 1,300 advance-only tickets. The more tribal Earth Energy event by Earthcore Japan and Psy16 ( www.psy16.com/ ) in Yamanashi Prefecture is inspired by, but not yet associated with, the global "Earthdance 2006" movement being staged this weekend at 250 events in 50 countries.

The biggest party of all is likely to be The Gathering 2006, put on by Vision Quest Tokyo. Clear skies could easily draw 10,000 people to the PalCall ski resort in Tsumagoi-mura, Gunma Prefecture, making the event Japan's largest psy-trance open-air of 2006.

The Gathering started out eight summers ago in 1998, when a young Canadian woman, Tania Miller, and Israeli music producers Mimon Biton and Shimon Biton, with help from Israeli trance legend Miko (aka California Sunshine), decided to blast open their own space in Japan's seemingly infinite music market.

The first Gathering, held at the Kodama No Mori campground in Nagano Prefecture, gave 2,500 people their biggest dose to date of the newest full-on trance coming out of Europe and Israel. Attendance rose each year as the events satisfied what early 1990s trance-party pioneers Return to the Source described as a seemingly innate human need for all-night dance rituals.

A scene that emerged on the beaches of Goa state in southwestern India in the early 1980s, when DJ Goa Gil tired of spinning the psychedelic rock of The Doors and Pink Floyd for his hippie fans and switched to experimental electronic music from Europe, grew so big in Japan that this country has become the No. 1 market in CD sales for the music genre worldwide. Now Goa Gil, age 55, tours here for parties at least twice a year. The Goa scene is long dead, but its party model, where everything is a visual, including the music, is hauled out every weekend. Even parties for more subtle progressive trance, with its never-ending buildups, use this acid-test format.

People in the industry estimate that there are about 80,000 casual or hard-core trance fans in Japan. Compared, for example, to the Fuji Rock Festival's estimated 130,000 attendees at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture, The Gathering might seem puny, but for these "gatherings" it's the biggest of the puny.

Despite an abundance of parties and major improvements in CD distributions, trance music sales, although thriving, are barely more than ankle-high next to pop and rock. Very few trance artists have sold more than 30,000 copies of anything. Internet file-sharing has actually helped, because it exposes more people to the genre, and because trance MP3s generally sound dreadful when decompressed to make a CD (MP3s only sound good in your MP3 player). The iPod effect reinforces this as pay sites serve up more trance all the time.

Attendance numbers at parties here spiked in 2002, led off by a swell of 30,000 people over two days crowding into Tokyo's Yoyogi Park for the free, spring Harukaze Festival.

The specter of such large crowds rattled people in authority, and 2003 turned into a whiplash year that saw the permit-tied cancelations of that event and the Solstice Music Festival, which still hasn't fully recovered. SMF 2006 drew fewer than 4,000, largely due to three days and two nights of wicked rain. Vision Quest also had snags in 2003, but switched venues in time to sell around 9,000 tickets.

The hard-core draw for The Gathering is around 7,000 people, at least that's how many went last year despite rumors of a typhoon and constant rain.

The event aims to bring to Japan as many of the world's biggest psychedelic trance live acts and DJs as possible, and the best sound and lighting, for a monster production that will keep people talking (and buying CDs) all winter long. To stage an event of this scale, Vision Quest has emerged from the underground to operate as both an event producer and a record label, which means their events no longer fit the customary definition of a trance party -- they've become concerts. This is widely lamented by those who believe psychedelic trance should stay underground, and avoid emulating corporate culture. But the flipside is that Vision Quest has packed the weekend with 17 A-list live acts and 10 DJs -- including Japan's Ami -- adding up to nearly 40 hours of music.

Live acts returning for 2006 are Skazi (Chemical Crew), Infected Mushroom (BNE Records), Astrix (Hommega Productions), Psycraft (Hommega), Melicia (Phonokol Records) and Dali, (Hommega), all from Israel, plus Dino Psaras (Vision Quest, U.K.), Shanti (VQ, Ibiza), S.U.N. Project (VQ, Germany), and Alternative Control (VQ, Serbia). New to the lineup are Israel's Delirious (Hommega), Pixel (Hommega), Pop Stream (VQ), Void (Chemical Crew) and Domestic (Hommega), as well as Cyrus The Virus (VQ, Netherlands) and Eskimo (Phantasm Records, U.K.).

A thorough discussion of just the acts above could go on for pages, but might not mean a thing if you have never heard, or heard of, psychedelic trance. What's important is that: Infected Mushroom, Skazi and Astrix are all bringing spanking new live shows; Domestic (Ido Ophir) and Eskimo (Junya Mindfield) will both release their screamy-hot new CDs just before the weekend; and you can find a ton of samples at the Vision Quest Web site ( www.visionquest-tokyo.com/ ) to satisfy your curiosity.

"The Gathering 2006" will be held Saturday to Monday at the PalCall ski resort in Tsumagoi-mura, Gunma Prefecture. Advance tickets: 12,000 yen; 15,000 yen at the gate. Parking: 4,000 yen per vehicle. Shuttle buses operate between JR Karuizawa Station and the venue. By car from Tokyo, take the Kanetsu Expressway to the Joshinetsu Expressway, exit at Uedasugadaira and follow Route 144 north for about 40 km.

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