If aware of the arc of the careers of UK trance masters Above & Beyond, the trio releasing an album of their greatest hits performed in an acoustic style would not be shocking at all; in fact, it would be expected. For nearly two decades Paavo Siljamäki, Tony McGuinness, and Jono Grant have excelled at expanding the notion that music – regardless of genre – is the trio’s best creative canvas. From exploring trance as DJs with albums Tri-State and Group Therapy, adding vocalists to the equation for side project OceanLab, and now adding a 15-piece orchestra to the mix for their January 28-released acoustic album, the group has always set a progressive expectation. Insofar as the execution on this acoustic release, it expands, rather than sets the standard for what Above & Beyond can do musically. Acoustic re-casts these classic dance songs traditional pop songs in an era where dance has fully embraced pop standards. In doing so, it showcases that as much as you want to believe that EDM is different than everything else, that great songs are great songs, dance being as intriguing of a creative form as any other genre.
The acoustic reworking of “Sun and Moon” is great. Positioned in the middle of the album, the 2011-released single is the best known of the producers’ singles by mainstream ears. However, the key to listening to this album is to regard it as a journey. As well, understanding the broad creative space that trance as a genre provides is important, too. A 15-piece orchestra replicating songs with such profound gravitas aided by minimalism and tempo is only going to cause both of those notions to be heightened. Thus, while this is a collection of 12 songs, the parts, though great, certainly pale in comparison to considering the album as a whole.
Of course, given that this performance was created for the modern era, the vocals on this album are not as much comparable to arias or chansons d’amour, but rather singer/songwriter stylings and rhythm and blues. As a track for OceanLab, opener “Miracle” feels like it captures the rapturous moment when someone exalts after a sudden change in fortune. For Acoustic, “Miracle” doesn’t feel out of time with late ’60s-era Laura Nyro. While yes, similar to detractors of trance, some would hear such a description and immediately dismiss this style as ham-handed schmaltz. However, the comfortable ease of the vocal, when blended with a lone guitar and the ethereal feel of violins, is certainly executed well from a musical standpoint. Similar statements can be made for the Gary Wright “Dream Weaver”-esque celestial qualities of “Good For Me” and the Billy Vera and The Beaters “At This Moment” meets Let It Be-era Beatles qualities of new single “Making Plans.” Though hackneyed to some, the sound will likely be considered a perfect harmony by so many more.
However, this album is not merely just an 8-track flashback. Other songs certainly provide other comforting and familiar feelings for what is likely an unfamiliar style for a mainstream partier who is late to the dance. If a fan of UK-based soul stirrers like Laura Mvula or Emeli Sande, the re-workings of OceanLab’s “Satellite/Stealing Time,” and “On a Good Day” and Above & Beyond’s “Love is Not Enough” feel like they’re right in line with where those two vocalists have excelled. “Love is Not Enough” as an original has a classic era Gladys Knight and the Pips or current era Kylie Minogue disco-stomper feel that when placed into this realm makes perfect sense to still retain its clearly soulful core. As well, “Alone Tonight” and “Can’t Sleep” have that unmistakable Bob Rock-era Bon Jovi production feel of soaring balladry emanating from a slightly sanitized, yet once grimy core. If one were to look at trance as an offshoot of house in a similar vein, the comparison for Acoustic is a logical extrapolation.
The true winners on this album are “Good For Me” and “Sirens of the Sea.” Both a great productions that in being re-constructed don’t entirely borrow from tropes we know as listeners, but are still tremendous pop songs by a classic, yet timeless definition. Listening to this album requires pre-supposing that these songs were meant to be crafted into pop songs meant to lure a wider audience into dance music. Thus, so much of this album sounds so aurally comfortable for the most mainstream of ears. However, from the moment that the harp plays on the first few bars of “Good For Me,” there’s a moment where ears both familiar and unfamiliar with Above & Beyond are allowed to unite. Between the interplay between the lead vocal, the melody and what feels like an aural feather bed of violins. As well, “Sirens of the Sea” has a folky-yet-off kilter quality to it created by a single violin note that runs throughout that holds the listener and sucks them in, in a manner similar to the sirens in the mythical age of Odysseus.
It’s a wise notion to assume that dance music is going absolutely nowhere anytime soon. Thus, when faced with moments like Above & Beyond releasing an acoustic album, there’s a great moment to relax, sit back, listen and appreciate the sheer musicality you’re likely missing while waiting for the drop. Like the “Sun and Moon,” this album succeeds at providing everything for everyone.