dinsdag 31 augustus 2010

Review: Armin van Buuren - Mirage

In retrospect Armin’s 2008 album Imagine clearly marked a turning point in his career. After reaching the number 1 spot in the DJ Mag competition in late 2007 he obviously smelled the big money and like Tiesto and Guetta did before him he decided to branch out to the immensely huge amount of people populating the area between the real underground dancefloors and the pop charts, leaving his long term fans in complete confusion.

A strategy that obviously worked out fine in terms of his bank account, but also at times made him the laughing stock of an ever increasing part of his former loyal crowd. Three years later the results are clear. Walk into any Armin gig and you will see a lost soul doing 50 Jesus poses and gay heart signs per hour to a massive crowd of people you have never seen before, who think that and endless stream of completely unoriginal and generic deggadegga crap makes for the perfect trance gig and that the 27th mashup with ‘In and out of love’ at the end is the best tune ever conceived by mankind.

Unfortunately old fools like myself can cry wolf and stand on our heads all we want. The new Armin has emerged and he’s here to stay. The new Armin that is no longer a real DJ but an act, like a pop band. Traveling the world day in day out doing the exact same live set, with the exact same tunes and the exact same moves to the exact same crowd, whether it be in California, Tokyo or Appelscha. Crowds consisting of endless amounts of people who adore him like some God like being, worship the ground he walks on and will eat anything he serves them, no matter if it’s interesting and new or recycled for the umptieth time.

When artists get this popular a new album is more than anything a chance to show the world a new direction. You might run the risk of being completely misunderstood at first, but might prove to have made history later. The alternative is to stay with the tried and trusted formula of mixing some danceable stuff with a good dose of fluffy tralala trance, which will pretty much guarantee continuation of current popularity, fame and money. Soooo… let’s see what he chose to do and press play:

01. Desiderium 207
Well this is one awesome opening track. Susana doing Enya. As usual with her tracks it’s either hit or miss and this is a total hit in my book. Very well executed and such a surprise. I love unexpected opening tracks on dance albums and this is as good as it gets. Desiderium is Latin for ‘desire’ (well obviously :D), but I can’t place the 207. Maybe Susana fancies buying a Peugeot 207 from her cut?


02. Mirage
Desiderium slowly transforms into this second track, one of the Mirage tracks Armin has been slipping into his live sets during the summer and definitely one of the highlights of this album. It showcases those typical Armin style buildups and breakdowns, the real classical strings fit excellent and the guitar parts Eller did actually border on hardrock. Nice :) We’re off to a great start here.


03. This light between us
But just like on Imagine after a good start almost immediately Armin completely derails and starts cranking out useless pop tunes. Here’s the first one. Simple breakbeat arrangement, big, echoy over the top vocals. Yawn. Could just as well be a Tiesto production and that is not exactly a compliment these days.


04. Not giving up on love
Already out as a second single before the album came out, with this track Armin hits a new low, right down there with Tiesto and Guetta, who have turned making the same style fluffy top 40 aimed tralala crap into an art form. Will undoubtedly win him another million new fans but it’s quite clear why he had remixes made for his sets. It’s just too embarrassing to play live. Never thought I’d see the day when a Dash Berlin remix actually beats the original. A few weeks after the single release he came up with a remix of his own as well, which actually sounds better than this original mix, but still is one of his weakest productions of the year. So yes ladies and gentlemen, we have a new ‘Going wrong’ and I’m afraid Armin is gonna torture us with this is his sets for the next 2 years straight, including at least 15 different mashups using the vocals.


05. I don’t own you
After hearing the previews this was one of the tracks that I found disappointing but hearing it in full made me change my mind. Pretty decent track actually, not exactly groundbreaking in terms of structure but the arrangements are nice and the minimal application of vocal bits are the cherry on the cake, like they were in ‘Face to face’ and ‘Rain’ on the Imagine album. The perfect way to use vocals in trance in my opinion.


06. Full focus
When this track came out as a forerunner single it gave many of us high hopes for this album. Great drive, cool electro bleeps and fits in the blueprint of his two recent Gaia tracks and remixes, which I also really like. So more of these please.


07. Take a moment
But after picking up with two nice tracks for a second time we get pushed off a cliff. What a plain right horrible track this is. The contrast to Full focus could not be any bigger and I cannot for the life of me imagine that Josh Gabriel was involved with this childish piece of crap. Even Roger Shah, who is the undisputed king of cheesy tunes, would probably be embarrassed by this. Absolutely horrible, worst track on the album.


08. Feels so good
Another utterly boring Eurodance track, promoting infidelity. This belongs on a Sugarbabes album or something teeny bop like that. Total blegh.


09. Virtual friend
This is obviously Mirage’s ‘Fine without you’, except better. It’s one of the tracks that marks Armin’s desire to make diverse albums and in that way adds to the incoherence that characterizes them. But on the other hand it’s a very Armin-ish track with a rollercoaster flow and in that sense I can appreciate it. Unfortunately the vocals don’t do the track any good. The lyrics are really moody and as such fit rather well, but the way they are mixed in (too loud) and timed (too early) make the end result rather meh. I know I say this often, but this time it’s more applicable than ever: an instrumental version of this track would be much better.


10. Drowning
This one I find rather okay. At least it’s a lot better than all the vocal goop we heard so far. The rhythm and flow reminds me of the Dutch band Total Touch, also because the singer has a similar voice. The vocals are actually very well executed and contrary to ‘Virtual friend’ they really complement the track. Third Armin track this year with the siren style buildup/breakdown but he still gets away with it. Unfortunately the rather unexpected album edit ending really hurts here.


11. Down to love
Another okay track here. Loads of Gaia sounds in this one, which is a good thing in my book. Once again I would probably prefer an instrumental version, but the vocals are quite minimalistic, which makes them okay.


12. Coming home
If you listen closely you will hear that this track is a mixture of recycled sound bits from ‘Imagine’, ‘Face to face’ and ‘Intricacy’ from the previous album. And since those are actually my three favorite tracks on there one would expect this to be top. Unfortunately I didn’t find it great at all, because the main structure of the song is the standard blueprint of current uber boring generic uplifting trance. The clever re-engineering of successful Imagine sounds cannot hide that.

What I totally don’t get though is why the intro of ‘Take a moment’ wasn’t used in this track instead. I mean it’s clearly the sound of somebody arriving in his car, walking the path to the front door, opening it and dropping the keys on the table, in other words somebody coming home. That intro has nothing to do with the track it is used in now, and would have made total sense in this one. Oh well.


13. These silent hearts
Many DJ’s rave about this BT guy but to be honest I still fail to see what all the fuss is about. He did some cool stuff, but for me not everything he comes up with is pure gold, like so many seem to think. This track is a good example of that as well. It has a nice main melody and some very cool classic trance elements and as such I think I actually prefer it over Coming home, but the vocals are just total meh. Track has great remix potential though. Cut out the vocals entirely, fix the generic bits and it could be an awesome end of set banger. But this version doesn’t do it for me.


14. Orbion
Now this is a great track again, definitely one of my favorites on the album. Structure wise rather similar to Full focus, but more trancy. This is the 2010 Armin the way I like to hear him most.


15. Minack
I don’t know anybody who wasn’t over the moon when word came out that Armin was doing another collab with Ferry. Even more surprising is the outcome, an initially very weird tune but once you get into it one of the best ones on the album. It’s also very, very, very clearly a Ferry production, actually I have a hard time discovering any bits that Armin might have made. Maybe he came up with that weird rhythm shift, because that is actually very un-Ferry-ish.


16. Youtopia
This one is a bit of a grower. At first it sounds as out of place as the other pop tracks on the album but on second listen it turns out to be a really nice pop track. Great melody, nice lyrics and the overall feeling is just very loving. And in that way I guess it works well as an end track, because it leaves you with a smile.


So there you have the 16 tracks that make up the regular CD version of Mirage. Now originally this was the part where I would be ranting about Armada ripping off their CD buying customers by releasing bonus tracks only as a part of the full iTunes download album, but to my surprise I found out that 2 weeks before the release date Free Record Shop announced the release of a limited edition 2CD version that includes all the bonus tracks. So thumbs up for that, although it won’t necessarily do people abroad any good.

At this point I still wondered why Armin didn’t make Mirage a double album to begin with. Apparently he made enough tracks to fill 2 CD’s. Personally I love double albums, actually some of my favorite albums of all time are doubles, like Prince’s ‘Sign of the times’, Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘Faces’ and Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Out of the blue’.

Anyway, let’s listen to those bonus tracks:

17. Breathe in deep
This track is a total carbon copy of Gaia 'Aisha', except now with vocals. Ripping off other people’s tunes is the hip thing to do nowadays in trance, but Armin brings it to the next level and simply rips off his own tune. I like the ahhh ahhhh Enya style vocal arrangement, and I like 'Aisha', but the useless and poppy vocals kinda ruin it and it wasn’t very original to begin with.


18. Take me where I wanna go
OMG! If you agreed with me that ‘Take a moment’ was the lowpoint of this project than you haven’t heard this one. I never would have expected this but Armin actually managed to make an even cheesier VanVelzen track than 'Broken tonight'. He deserves a Golden Gnome Award for that, because that is quite an achievement. Uber boring track with mega fail vocal. As the Dutch would say: Mag ik een teiltje?


19. I surrender
Yawnnnnn. Another very uninspired and boring track and the umtieth variation on the standard tralala uplifting theme.


20. Love too hard
This is what you get when you try to hard to be a pop star. Terrible.


21. Virtual friend (acoustic mix)
I think the vocals come out much better in this acoustic version. Nice to listen to but completely out of place on this album. Better save it for ‘Mirage Unplugged’, which could be a great idea to milk some more sales out of the project in 2012 after the sales of all the album versions, all the singles and ‘Mirage Remixed’ have died out.

Not rated/10

My main beef with this album is that I was expecting a lot more in terms of collabs and stand out tunes. Armin is always ranting in interviews that his #1 status opens doors to working with big artists that otherwise would never be accessible for him, but I still wonder what artists he actually means by that. Ana Criado? The world famous Laura V? Superstar Chris Jones? VanVelzen perhaps? Working with the guy who was the neighbor of the guy whose nephew served coffee in the studio where Robbie Williams once worked is not all that special imo. Okay I might be exaggerating here regarding Guy Chambers, but my point is when you keep saying stuff like that I expect collaborations with Seal to actually happen. Or with Jean-Michel Jarre. Or Quicy Jones. Or Nile Rogers. Or Giorgio Moroder. Or Underworld. Or Daft Punk. Or Chris Martin. Or Robbie Williams himself for that matter. I think Armin is too easily impressed when working for example with someone like BT, when in reality it's BT who should be impressed by getting a chance to work with Armin and getting exposure he could never dream of achieving just by himself.

So... is Mirage Imagine Part II? Well, yes and no. Yes in terms of unimpressive collaborations but in many ways I find it to be more similar to Markus Schulz’ recent artist album. It has the exact same completely incoherent mix of hit and miss tracks, with no buildup or flow as a whole, and it is very obviously designed to please as wide an audience as possible. So in that sense the average rating of 6.4 that I came up with doesn’t really surprise me to be honest. Mind you that rating is based on the official 16 tracks, because that is how Armin defined the album to be released on CD worldwide. And judging by the awful quality of the bonus tracks I think in hindsight he made a very wise decision there.

As with Markus’ album, cramming 16 tracks into 80 minutes means having to resort to album edits, which sortof reduces the consumer value of this release for the die hard fans, since most of them prefer full length versions and now will have to wait and see if those ever even get released. On the other hand, had Armin gone for a 10 track selection out of the 16 he had left (like he did on Imagine), then I’m quite sure he would have axed some of the tracks that I like the most in favor of the ones I dislike. So because of the album edits Mirage actually offers more good tracks than Imagine, notwithstanding that the not-so-good tracks actually hit an absolute new low. And since the problem with Imagine was that Armin kept releasing it’s cheesy vocal tracks as singles and playing them in his sets till the cows came home while in comparison never ever playing the good ones, I’m afraid we are up for more of the same in the upcoming 2 years.


After a few weeks I have slightly altered my opinion about some of the tracks, so time for a little update.

09. Virtual friend
I’m still finding the vocals equally meh, but the base track itself is getting cooler by the day. Many people have already noticed, this production just oozes Gabriel & Dresden and that is always a compliment, especially since they weren’t involved at all. Still points deducted for the vocal, but nevertheless going up to 7/10.

10. Drowning
This track is getting tiresome really fast. I’m downgrading it to 5/10.

13. These silent hearts
Another grower. I’m sticking with my original comments, but I’ve heard this on a big club system now and it sounded pretty tight. It also really brought atmosphere to the party. Gonna upgrade this one to 7/10.