One of my favorite pop songs of the moment isn’t really pop, and it isn’t much of a song, either. Called ”Caz,” it can be found on the album Bytes, credited to Black Dog Productions. ”Caz” starts with some warp-factor-12 electronic noodlings, which then lead into springy noises that sound like two robots playing shufflepuck in a Muzak factory. It might be mere computer-age discord if it weren’t for a splash of warm synthesizer chords that add what amounts to a pop hook. If androids took a bath, it would sound like ”Caz.”
To add to the confusion, Black Dog Productions isn’t a band. It’s an umbrella name for a group of computer-dweeb producers who churn out a seemingly nonstop stream of this music, known as trance-ambient. There is a slight distinction between the spacier ambient and the more subtly rhythmic trance, but both are nearly identical offshoots of techno, that whooshing, electronic style of hyperactive club beats.
Hard-core techno, which is made by ”bands” whose names are easily confused with their song titles (is it ”X-Statik” by Rapture or the other way around?), has been compared with being trapped inside a video game. Ambient and trance, on the other hand, are the sound of a Game Boy as its batteries wind down. Imagine grabbing a cardboard tube and bouncing it against your knee to produce a hollow boing. Add a metronomic pulse, a few squirming synthesizers, and you have trance-ambient. Ideal for the exercise bike or as accompaniment to cleaning the tub, it’s the chill-out soundtrack for an audience turned off by the mainstreaming of techno, yet still wanting to stay plugged in. Spaced-out — the final frontier.
Trance-ambient has its roots in the ’70s space pop of Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, and Pink Floyd, as well as the minimalist contemporary classical drones of Philip Glass. Yet an equally pertinent analogy would be anyone who records for Windham Hill, because trance-ambient is essentially New Age music for the next generation. Like New Age, it is built around keyboards and almost always instrumental, save for disembodied voices mixed in with the electronics. (A spooky example is the incorporation of a Karen Carpenter snippet in W.F.O.’s eerie ”No-One in the World,” on the essential trance primer Excursions in Ambience: The Second Orbit, on Astralwerks/Caroline.) The similarity with New Age doesn’t end with the music. One trance-ambient hotbed, England’s Warp Records, packages albums in covers with the same clean, boxes-within-boxes designs of Windham Hill product — music as designer furniture.
Like any style of music, trance-ambient has a seemingly infinite number of subgenres. You can space out to the ethereal, arrhythmic zone-outs of the Orb’s U.F.Orb (Big Life/Mercury) or Moby’s Ambient (Instinct). Those who want a little more punch and a bit more beat — though not too much — can check out four collections on Instinct, a leading distributor of techno and trance-ambient: ESP: The Techno Trance Compilation; the two-CD Chill Out! (which features the mellow sides of dance heavyweights like the KLF and Meat Beat Manifesto); the colder, harder Dragonfly/Project II: Trance; and Technosonic Vol. 3: A Journey Into Trance. The latter, with its Donna Summer- gone-underground tracks, is the closest trance-ambient has come to disco lite.
Warp Records’ Artificial Intelligence (Warp/Wax Trax/TVT) is a first-rate sampler that includes such interchangeable ”groups” as Polygon Window and the Dice Man, who intersperse their spare computer squiggles and burps with fluttering percussion. Beware of commercial trance-ambient, though: On its second album, United Kingdoms (Sire/Giant), Ultramarine crams its burblings with too many gimmicks, like ersatz Gregorian choirs and tribal voices. Such touches make you pay attention to the music, and where trance-ambient is concerned, that is a bad thing.
What distinguishes even the weakest or most derivative trance-ambient from techno is, believe it or not, emotion. Techno haters deride the music as monotonous, headache-inducing computer drivel, and often they’re right. But electronic music is rarely as wistful and elegiac as it is on such gently throbbing trance-ambient tracks as Moby’s ”Heaven” (on Ambient); it sounds as if the machines themselves were crying. In a world where daily drudgery sometimes can make anyone feel like a computerized drone, trance-ambient reminds us that automatons have feelings too.