Amid changing tides, DJ Armin van Buuren still on top
Armin van Buuren has done surprisingly well for himself of late.
After years at the top of the electronic-music pecking order with his distinctively uplifting trance sounds, the sudden arrival of the EDM juggernaut posed a major threat to the Dutchman’s sonic empire, as the harder electro-house basslines of Swedish House Mafia and dubstep drops of Skrillex lured a new generation out of their bedrooms and onto the dance floor.
When van Buuren was knocked off pole position in DJ Mag’s Top 100 list last year after topping the chart for five of the previous six years – the crown taken from the 37-year-old by his 26-year-old countryman, Hardwell – it looked like the beginning of the end. When this year he slipped to third place, his lowest rank since 2005, many presumed the Dutchman’s days were well and truly numbered.
But AvB, as he’s known to fans, has smartly repositioned himself amid the changing tides. Last year’s This Is What it Feels Like channelled a polished EDM sound and a windswept MTV-ready video, scoring van Buuren his only US chart hit to date.
This month, he appeared on CNN’s new reality-TV DJ hunt Ones to Watch as the show’s ceremonial “DJ master”.And last week saw the CD release of the anthology Armin Anthems, neatly tying up his legacy and introducing his key themes to new young fans of the genre. It’s almost as if he was aiming to position himself as the elder statesman of all Electronic Dance Music.
That is not a bad idea when you consider that many assumed EDM would be what finally laid his beloved trance to rest. Aesthetics aside, the genres occupy the same spiritual territory – huge, euphoric, largely instrumental productions, constructed to translate to festival-sized crowds. And they share the same industry territory – before EDM, it was trance that most serious house and techno DJs regarded as frivolous immature music for the masses, lacking in sophistication.
So perhaps it is only right that AvB should position himself as EDM’s spiritual godfather. He remains trance music’s most prominent spokesman. His long-running radio show A State of Trance is a key outlet for new releases in the genre – in an interview, van Buuren once boasted to me that listeners were guaranteed to hear “70 to 80 per cent” of the tunes that mattered in trance by tuning in.
And while other superstar DJs, such as David Guetta and Calvin Harris, have built a roster of hits by working with chart R&B stars, van Buuren generally avoids celebrity collaborations, instead staying largely true to his trance roots.
But whatever his heritage in the electronic music world, there’s no denying a few heads turned when it was announced that AvB would headline the Grand Prix’s Yasalam After-Race Concerts – something no DJ has done before – taking the Friday party slot previously filled by Jamiroquai, Kanye West, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue and Jay Z.
“I could have foreseen there would be that reaction,” says Olly Wood, one half of Hollaphonic, van Buuren’s support act on the night. “It’s the reaction all the superstar DJs get – electronic music is very Marmite to a lot of people. But you can’t argue that, like the US, the Middle East has really identified with the genre.”
The promoters Flash have hinted that van Buuren’s performance won’t just be any DJ set, promising a one-off “special, customised show” including guest vocalists and musicians to help bring his electronic compositions to life for a more casual Formula 1 crowd.
Whatever your musical persuasion, there’s no denying one of the biggest musical forces on the planet is coming to town, and you’d be wise to take note.
• Armin van Buuren performs at the Yasalam After-Race Concerts at du Arena, Yas Island, on Friday. Entry is restricted to race-day ticket holders only
Updated: November 17, 2014 04:00 AM