A brief history of timelessness

The Psy-trance music revolution

Author: Shane L. Amaya
Date: Sep 27, 2002
Views: 3299

A brief history of timelessness

The Psy-trance music revolution

by "Shane L. Amaya" <>
Editorial Production
The Santa Barbara Independent

jungle is the ancient underground of the civilized world. It is the rebel and midnight raider's war room. A hundred thousand revolutions have been hatched in the jungle before the break of day. Three hours southeast of Rio de Janeiro, on a beach among hundreds of beaches, the jungle has lent its cover to the din and flash of the next music revolution.

São Gonçalo, a thin strip of sand near Paraty, one of Brazil's oldest colonial cities, lies between a mountain jungle and the Atlantic ocean. From March 29th to April 1st, for four days under the blazing sun, and three nights under the full moon, 10,000 people, including myself, danced and tripped-out to psychedelic trance music. Celebra Brazil 2 featured thirty-plus psy-trance acts and DJs. The $60 ticket guaranteed campgrounds, showers, port-a-potties, a chill-out tent, an inescapable 100,000 watt "turbosound" system, and 72 straight hours of mind-shredding sonic psychedelia.

Brazil's remote beaches are a new staging ground for the psychedelic trance dance music culture. Trance, a form of electronica named for its unrelenting, hypnotic beat, is the most popular dance music in the world. Psy-trance is its stony uncle gone native. It hits from 135 beats per minute to as high as 150 or more. We heard some of the truest, bravest explorations of sound: densely layered storms of whirling rhythms, undulating melodies, and the latest, frenetic sounds of pitch and frequency modulators, virtual analog synthesizers, kick drums, and computerized crescendo.

Celebra, however, fittingly began with indigenous music and dances. The flutes, drums, and instruments of a simpler time blended-seamlessly-with the sounds of the future. The best of psy-trance is indeed the best of two worlds. It is a reconciliation between East and West, the sitars and the subs, Metropolis and Macedonia.

THOOM THOOM THOOM THOOM. The music boomed through the bones. The ground below the half-dome stage was always packed. Two screens looped images of twisting vortices, Buddha eyes, and 3-D animation. From sundown to sunup to sundown, we danced wildly. Those who did not jump, stomp, gyrate, or twist, swayed to the melodies like plants in an ocean. The headliners came on at dawn. Except for the beat, time stopped after the first night. I watched the biggest sun I've ever seen rise on the beach at São Gonçalo.

During the day, people cat-napped, lounged, ate, hydrated, and smoked weed on the beach. Vendors sold slices of pineapple and melon, frozen açai (tktkt), beer, water, sodas, Guarana, pizza, jewelry, shirts, and tapestries. My friends, three Japanese-Brazilian sisters, Thais, Karen, Renata and I, would float in the water until we pruned. Somehow there were always a few hundred super-human freaks still dancing in the midday heat.


Mainstream culture has always drilled the underground seeking the remedy for its restlessness, and it seldom likes what it finds: drugs, weirdos, and strange music. Psy-trance is no exception. The thing is, psy-trance can be downloaded, burned, traded, ripped, uploaded, downloaded , spun, recorded, remixed, compressed, uploaded, and downloaded. Drugs are easily bought. And everyone's weird.

Fifty years ago, electric guitars, amplifiers, and worldwide radio broadcasts made rock 'n' roll the loudest music on the planet. Today, synthesizers, subwoofers and the internet have done much the same for psy-trance. Few will admit it, but the 21st-century's rock n' roll is psychedelic trance music-the source of the source-but its revolt will not be televised. It will be downloaded directly from the underground.

Celebra 2 was Brazil's second international outdoor psy-trance party this year, of perhaps already a dozen; Portugal hosted the Boom Festival this summer; Greece Samothraki, the biggest psy-trance party ever; and Burning Man, an annual festival of spectacle in Nevada's Black Rock Desert attended by some 30,000 freaks, largely from the Bay Area, is inoperably infected with psy-trance beats. L.A. hosts regular shows, and production crews have slowly brought the parties down from the mountains, out of the desert, Pomona, salsa lounges, and Chinese banquet halls, into clubs downtown. California's biggest psychedelic scene is, appropriately, in San Francisco, where our parent's revolution began and ended-and later ended up in Goa, India, the birthplace of psy-trance.
Hi-tech hippies harnessed cutting edge technologies to galvanize their psychedelic scene-but the Internet and the mp3 have made psy-trance fans of urbanites and suburbanites alike. Erik Davis, the writer of a seminal Goa trance piece called "Sampling Paradise," called it the karmic feedback loop: "you can't drop out and plug in at the same time." Nonetheless psy-trance has ridden good vibes to worldwide popularity with its essence more or less intact.


The party at Space 550, a two-story techno club in one of San Francisco's warehouse districts, goes from 10 at night to 6 in the morning. Simon, one of my best friends, and I, drive there directly after work once a month for the biggest regular psy-trance party in the state. Thump Radio, a weekly electronic music show broadcast on KUSF, throws the party at Space 550 on every second Friday. The headlining acts we go to see don't spin until two or three in the morning-after we have already danced for three or four hours straight.
A party just last weekend-Infected Mushroom live-marked three years of Thump Radio shows in San Francisco. I have been listening to psychedelic trance for almost five. It is the soundtrack of all my days: I play it at work, in my car, and at home. Psy-trance has transformed my life.

Aeon, a friend since seventh grade, first infected me. He now lives in Santa Cruz and spins psy-trance at parties all over the Bay Area. He has fuzzy, thick, luxurious brown curly hair he has coerced, with the help of six or seven rubber bands, to form the knotted ponytail that hangs halfway down his back. He glides when he walks. When he spins, he bobs up and down to the beat, shakes his head when the synths sizzle, and pumps his fist when the kick drum kicks in.
Chris infected Aeon while they were both enrolled in a popular class on electronic music production at City College. Chris was infected at a listening booth at Morninglory in 1997. He was blown away by the classic rock melodies, pop synthesizers, and the intensity and "ass-kicking spirit" of what was then called Goa Trance. His hair is gelled and spiked. He wears blue eye-shadow, tight black pants and shirts, and a big white furry coat. Girls always stop to pet him. He wiggles like Axl Rose-but with glowsticks-on the dance floor.
I infected Simon at a psy-trance show in Pomona two years ago. It struck a strong chord in him. Now he cannot imagine anything more thrilling, challenging, or captivating to dance to than psychedelic trance music. And Simon dances to everything: swing, funk, hip-hop, elevator music, the barking of dogs, you name it. He sweats buckets when he dances-a kind of old-school '80s street theme, complete with hand-clapping, spinning, floor-slapping, and flashy gold-striped shoes.

Psy-trance is powerfully infectious music. The Thump shows, since they take place at a popular club, draw serious heads, neo-hippies and space tribe freaks, unwitting Friday night clubbers looking for any place to dance (including girls in high heels), boys in baseball caps, an Asian competitive dancing contingent, poppers, droppers, gangstaz, and even candy ravers, from all over the city.
At Thump, psy-trance pummels the main floor; house and techno DJs spin in a small room off to the side, and upstairs, chill-out beats bounce off sofas, bean bags, massage tables, and crashed-out party people. The demographics may be broad early in the evening, but by 4 a.m. the majority of people still dancing are true heads. The main floor is black light lit and decorated with tapestries of glowing psychedelic mandalas. Above the main stage, shifting, kaleidoscopic fractals play on a giant screen.

An act like Infected Mushroom, like any popular performer, will play songs off their latest dics but mixed with live effects, titillating unreleased tracks, and remixes of old favorites. DJs are glorified fans, but for this reason a DJ set is often more satisfying than a set from a live act. Variety is the spice of mixes, and taste is everything.

Tracks at peak hours are sometimes dark, evil, and grinding, and while they may not lead to the sudden revelation that all life is a dream, they are freeing. "If you stand in the center of the dance floor at around 2:30-3:00 a.m. during a good psy-trance party," Chris says, "it almost feels like the world is ending."


The psychedelic revolution never ended. It went on the lam by backpack and dreadlock to the other side of the world. Goa trance pioneer Goa Gil followed the hippie wagon trail East from Haight Street to a cave, hauling tape decks and Fender PAs to western Indian beaches like the shot and cannon of Old World explorers. Twenty years later, Goa's beach parties would host thousands as the mecca of an international trance dance music culture.

There is no doubt that much of early Goa trance music was made for heavily tripping hippies, and still is. Group names like Cosmic Navigators, and track names like "Arabian Knights on Mescaline," betray the influence of drug experimentation on producers of psychedelic music. As in the '60s, the scene has its drugs and its drugstore cowboys, its brain dead drop-outs and its washed-up wraiths, its mumbo jumbo, and its monster jams.

But this time around the promise of psy-trance is purely the music. And for me and many others, the music is drugs enough. Goa Gil, one of the few well-known American psy-trance DJs, helped establish Goa trance as the most exciting form of electronic music on the planet with his legendary full moon parties and marathon-18 hour plus-DJ sets. It was his goal to redefine aboriginal rites of communion with god, darkness, and the holograph for the 21st century with trance dance. The early Goa trance sound was often nothing more than a kick drum, a melody, and a spaced-out sci-fi movie sample. But those producers mixed futuristic techno, gay disco, electronic rock, industrial metal, and the synth pop sounds of bands like Depeche Mode and New Order-sans the vocals-to help create what is now called international trance dance. The Goan beach party is the rave's direct ancestor. Even the worst Goa tracks offered something the latest, trite trends in techno never had-emotional content. By the mid-1990s, producers like Germany's X-Dream gave psy-trance a dark, gothic ambience; Kox Box, of Scandinavia, gave it a cool, bubbling snap; England's Hallucinogen turned the wheel of Goa trance towards the outer-limits of experimental music; and Astral Projection pumped it full of energy and forged the world's largest psy-trance scene in the desert of Israel. The ground-breaking albums of producers like Astral Projection, Simon Posford, Juno Reactor, Raja Ram, and the Tip Record artists, and other original Goa trance trancers, defined psychedelic trance dance in the late 1990s. The music of psy-trance's biggest act, Israel's Infected Mushroom, features-besides three-dimensional soundscapes, sickening synth attacks, and deranged denouements-power guitars, classical and saloon-style pianos, hallucinogenic harpsichords, and the classic Infected kick drum.
It's all done on computers, of course, with software and VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plug-ins that simulate every instrument known to man, and then some. Many groups use both virtual and analog equipment. If carefully collected albums are the pride and prize of the psy-trance DJ, new noises, both created and sampled, are the stock in trade of psy-trance producers. Simon Posford sampled Raja Ram's snoring to produce one of the spine-tingling sounds on the second Shpongle album. After ten years in the jungle, psy-trance is beginning to catch mass culture's musical ear. DJs are realizing that where drum n' bass, soft trance, and house end-psy-trance only begins. Slowly, psy-trance is crossing over. One trend, the "full on" style innovated by French label 3D Vision, incorporates a sassy, up-tempo beat that many DJs hope will turn house music heathens into hardcore psy-trance heads. Israel's Dark Soho blends in metal for some of the most brutal tracks around. And at his most recent left coast appearance, Tim Schuldt played electric guitar during his live show for a fresh young crowd of "gravers"-gothic ravers-lured to the party by Schuldt's dark, heavy trance sound. Still, while soft trance DJs like megastars Oakenfeld, Sasha, and Digweed earn five figures for a short set, sell hundreds of thousands of records, fly first-class and play to stadiums, psy acts like GMS, Logic Bomb, and Talamasca headline for a couple thousand dollars a night, sell a few thousand copies of their records, and stay in the same bulldozed campgrounds or cheap hotels as everyone else. It's what keeps parties on exotic beaches from becoming boring bourgeois holidays. As Goa Gil is fond of saying in seemingly every interview of him printed, taped, or posted on the web, psy-trance is "not just a disco under the coconut trees... it's an initiation."


In the Mysticism of Sound, Hazrat Inayat Khan, a 19th-century Sufi teacher, describes a "sound of the abstract" that fills all space, that is always "within, around and about man". "It sounds like thunder, the roaring of the sea, the jingling of the bells, the running water, the buzzing of the bees, the twittering of sparrows, the vina, the whistle...." And psychedelic trance (tktk all one sentence?).

The Sufi word for the sound of the Abstract suggests intoxication. Those who hear it become filled with joy, exaltation, and freedom: they are "relieved from all worries, anxieties, sorrows, fears and disease... the soul of the listener becomes the all-pervading consciousness." Simply put: dancers feel the most alive when they're dancing, and like the tolling of church bells, psy-trance leads devotees to reflections of the inner life. If the face of rave music is the face of a teenager sucking on a neon pacifier, the face of psy-trance is the graven face of the painted shaman staring, wild-eyed, into the great abyss.
Psy-trance tracks are voyages into unfamiliar territory: for some it is the psyche, for others the soul, consciousness, outer space, or the depths of sound. DJs who have stayed psychedelic since the '60s, who have seen, weathered and spun it all, hit the decks as if they were witch doctors performing sacred magic. In a way they are: trippy technoshamans see psy-trance as a kind of cathartic reconnective therapy. Psy-trance has brought subjective experience to Western science. At long last. But it has no answers: it is only a way, for some, to find them.

Modern technology has been stolen by a worldwide counterculture cult of neo-hippies bent on bringing the fire back to their outback pagan dancing circles. And why not? Technology has helped us discover what has never been found: it is also useful for uncovering what has recently been lost. If psy-trance promotes any one idea, it is this: infinite excursions. Psy-trance belongs, in essence, to the genre of exploration-and to the perspectives it awards to those not too busy to go on trips.

It is hard to imagine that some day psychedelic trance could pipe from car radios, elevators, or occupy even the number ten spot on MTV's Total Request Line. For psychedelic music to become mainstream-and retain its spirit-people will have to change the way they think. It's happened before. But it won't happen overnight.
In the meantime, psychedelic trance still rocks electronic music's deepest underground. The party's still the worth the drive, and the music still worth downloading. One thing is certain: the underground's underground is already out there somewhere, thumping in an urban basement, rocking from backwater bar, streaming over a teen's T-1-or beating from within the jungle's darkest heart.

no comments yet

Please log in to add a comment.
add Comments!
For loged in users a comment form appears here.