At Armin van Buuren’s Friday night show at the Forum, two of the bigger trends in dance music of the last few years converged. Arena-ready EDM, meet the ongoing '90s revival.
For decades the Dutch trance-music artist had been one of those stalwart producers who play to hundreds of thousands of fans at European mega-festivals while scrapping it out in American nightclubs like L.A.'s Avalon and Vanguard.
His sound is an exultant brand of hypnotic, melody-driven dance music built on synth arpeggios and big ambient washes. Van Buuren kept a devoted (if somewhat underground) audience stateside with his broadcast DJ show “A State of Trance,” even as other dance-music strains like big beat and, later, EDM, bubbled up in the American pop consciousness.
As young fans age out of the first wave of this new American electronica scene, they’re looking back to recent-retro sounds for a new fix. Chicago house and '70s disco have benefited from this -- so why not '90s trance?
Van Buuren, like his countryman Tiesto before him, kept at it and adapted long enough to capitalize on dance music’s latest American ascent. Thousands of teens and early twentysomethings reared on recent American EDM culture went looking for a revived sound with today's big stage productions on Friday at the Forum. They found both.
Van Buuren is a master of the long-form rave, and this set (billed as “Armin Van Buuren Presents Armin Only: Intense”) gave him more than enough room to stretch his legs as a DJ, even if this reviewer conked out after about three and a half hours. Friday’s set found Van Buuren playing music that’s fundamentally functional (for dancing, not watching). But he found ways to make it fit the arena-rock legacy of the Fabulous Forum in the renovated venue’s first EDM set.
A 7 p.m. Friday start time is a hard sell for a young EDM crowd, and the audience for the first hour or so of Van Buuren’s set was notably sparse. Van Buuren seemed as if he expected this, playing much of his early set inside an opaque white sphere while spacey projections oscillated behind him.
After an hour of warmup, the room had filled and the sphere finally lifted. Van Buuren has mastered the subtle rock-star moves that DJs need on big American EDM tours like this -- messianic arms-up poses, emerging from a hidden riser to play piano on a song. A spoken-word overture declared that “Intense, for me, is…being in sync with the heart of the universe. The birth of my children…intense.”
His melodic style plays well in a setting like this. Newer cuts like “Don’t Want To Fight Love Away” and “Beautiful Life” (which each featured the singer Cindy Alma) have always belonged on arena stages with sizzling pyrotechnics. As teenaged American fans find new styles beyond the skull-cracking hard house and bro-step that have dominated EDM, Van Buuren’s earnest yet expertly executed trance feels a logical next step.
His stage plotting was the only thing that felt a little behind the times. Advances in dance music visuals have opened up so many opportunities for experiments in going huge or tasteful minimalism. Van Buuren didn’t try anything too progressive with his projection-mapped backgrounds, yet he had a passel of dancers in full-body neon morphsuits that couldn’t help but recall Green Man from “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
The latter end of his set turned away from these pop-show gestures toward older, more orthodox trance sounds. It’s to his credit that the crowd not only didn’t flag here, but seemed to perk up at the opportunity for more serious raving. Van Buuren has an incredibly deep catalog for these new fans to unpack. Now that he’s had a taste of the arena life, he’ll see that fans really just want the music, played loud and for a very long time. Just like they would have in the '90s.