Trance Across America

No jagged little pills necessary: "Trance Messiah" Christopher Lawrence can be enjoyed without entering altered states

No jagged little pills necessary: "Trance Messiah" Christopher Lawrence can be enjoyed without entering altered states

"What the hell is this all about?" I mutter to my friends as we survey the queue outside the Quest. I nearly trip over the guardrail that's corralling a sizable crowd of ravers as they shudder along the side of the building.

"They're only letting in a few people at a time," one kid manages to tell me through chattering teeth, his arm around a girl wearing pants and a backless tank top and not much more. After butting my way through the crowd to the locked entrance, the bouncer opens the door and waves in only a handful of people before closing it again. "Are you on the list?" he asks, and I nod. Sure, I feel for a moment like some snooty VIP, ready at any time to whip out my "I'm with the DJ" card. But I am on the list tonight, and besides, it's really cold. Walking in, I pity the backless-tank-top girl and other fans left to endure the 30-below wind chill. But, as my brainfreeze begins to subside, I remember that we're all here to see America's best trance DJ. Surely, I think, they'll thaw out once they get inside.

Christened the "Trance Messiah" by DJ mags worldwide, Christopher Lawrence always brings in the numbers, as illustrated by this February 16 gig at the Quest for promoter Mile High's Sugar 2001. Like many other musical subgenres, trance can either be one's sole reason for living or one's sole reason to double up on earplugs. According to Mixer, however, Lawrence can "make a trance fan out of anyone," and as the turnout proved, he has managed to draw support from even the harshest of trance critics.

Take me, for instance. Many hard-house and techno junkies find trance a bit difficult to swallow--that is, unless it's with (ahem) a pill of some sort, as trance's epic sounds have a knack for adding to mind-altered states. The music lacks a strong bpm backbone; compared with competing genres, it makes for better chill-out music than dance-floor anthem. At Sugar 2001, though, techno heads were dancing with trance lovers and junglists alongside house fanatics. If, as many DJs say, dancing is the most flattering way to show support, then Lawrence was unquestionably affirmed by the dance-floor populace, who were as snugly crammed together as a value-pack of wiggly Oscar Mayer wieners.

Lawrence's two-hour peak set was a pleasant surprise. The typical trance sound, hitherto mastered by U.K. DJs of old, usually relies upon a high-pitched, synth-heavy melody, sometimes accompanied by breathy vocals. Unlike techno, its basslines are more subdued and steady and are intended to send the listener into a trance (hence the name). Defying this stereotype, Lawrence picked up where Mile High forerunner DJ Jack Trash left off at 1:00 a.m., adjusting adeptly to the high-energy mood Trash cultivated with his gritty tech-house assemblage. With some old-school acidic beats and crunchy basslines, Lawrence sent hands flying in the air, and he didn't adhere to the typical trance tricks until the night wound down.

With United States of Trance (Moonshine), his recently released continuous-mix compilation, Lawrence put himself up against big guns from across the pond like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha, while patriotically planting the Stars and Stripes on the dance map. In an interview a few days before his Minneapolis show, Lawrence tells me his musical style was influenced most by DJ Dan, Jeno, and Barry Weaver, all of whose styles can be detected on Lawrence's latest. "They most impressed me by their attention to detail, impeccable programming, and ability to hold long mixes," he explains. Lawrence uses a more involved rolling bassline than most trance DJs and melodies that could blow down the often cheesy competition.

Trance is arguably the first dance-music subgenre that has managed to mingle with ears of mainstream/pop music lovers, with Oakenfold's Perfecto Presents Another World (Perfecto) hitting the Billboard's Top 20 Independent Albums chart. Lawrence's CD has also done well, selling nearly 2,000 units per week since its release in January. Lawrence attributes the attractiveness of trance to its borrowing power, from other dance genres. Then again, maybe its popularity is rooted in something more elemental: "We're starting to hear more heavy, deep basslines," he notes.

Though many of those basslines run underneath United States, the album as a whole falls short of representing the range Lawrence speaks of and exhibits live. A conspicuous problem is the disc's lack of material that Lawrence produced himself: "Cruise Control" is the only track of 12 for which he gets credit. Rays of light are peak tunes like Prizm & Eclipse's "Genesis," and Tom Wilson Presents Technocat 2000's "Trauma." DJ Merlyn's "Wales" is the acme of the CD, holding its own next to any techno track with a pumping, bulky bassline and a catchy melody that sounds like the sped-up ring of a phone. Tracks like this offer a prime example of the Christopher Lawrence style--trance with guts.