Review: Why Above & Beyond’s Acoustic Release is an Important Moment in Dance Music

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The road to this has been a long one.

While not nearly as long a wait as Tony’s, and Paavo’s, and Jono’s, to finally reach this point in their career, Friday at 2:00pm was a long time coming. Finally, we were about to see the ultimate product of years of musicianship and success come together to form an hour and a half of fulfillment.

It’s strange being a journalist in dance music. Similarly to the very music we report on (and in the words of Tony), it’s a very inorganic and impersonal process. People send you emails and Facebook messages in droves: “listen to this song,” “check out this new EP,” “did Miley Cyrus do anything EDM related today so we can post it and get a ton of hits?” Of course, we enjoy doing this. There’s always a gem to find, and there is a lot of talent in this scene. However, the process is long and arduous and the hours put in take their toll, regardless of the passion we all have for it.

It wears on one after a while, because it’s the antithesis of why we’re in this industry. After all, in the words of Jonah Hill, we’re all fans first, right? That’s why we’re here, right? Right, and that’s how it should be, regardless of if that’s how it is. Reality sets in and one sentence that Kaskade said during the Grammy’s becomes worthy of a multitude of posts and hits, even though its candor is so obvious it is mind boggling how people think it’s news.

Back to Friday. 2:00pm. Lane 8’s guest mix has just concluded on ABGT 063 and it was finally time: the official release of something that will become a very pivotal moment for dance music. While many of us diehards had, of course, either gone to the L.A shows or, at the very least, probed Youtube for hours only to indulge in the grainiest of videos (me falling into the latter category, having opted to pour my funds into the equally gush-worthy ABGT050 celebrations), this was the official moment. Above & Beyond and their acoustic concert at Porchester Hall was about to air for the first time.

What Tony, Paavo, and Jono have accomplished in the realm of electronica hardly needs an introduction. Two (well, now three) albums, with another in the works, countless gigs (including one of the largest ever played, on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro), countless hits to which millions of fans cherish every word. Even in a time where dance music is exploding in ways never before seen, it had already begun to feel that these three hardly had anything more to prove. Oh, how wrong that statement is. Take the electronic aspect out of these cherished spectacles of dance music and what will you get? What will you get when you break down the sun and the moon to its simplest form? The voice, the message, the organic sound that envelopes its depressive yet beautiful message, what is it as just that? A song. It’s a song.  A song that encompasses a strain of human emotion few artists, electronic or not, have been able to reach, and here it is in our industry’s purest form: the acoustic rendition. And that, at the end of the day is the point. It’s not a club banger, it’s not a formulaic piece that falls into a genre. As Tony McGuiness has so crisply put it: it is a song. Nothing more.

So where did all of this start? Where did this “sort of strange” idea come from? Thanks to living in the age of the internet, there is a well documented occasion where all of this began. A few years ago, the trio, along with Zoe Johnston, Pete Tong, and a competition winner, took off in a hot air balloon. The reason? To sing a few of their songs acoustically. Above & Beyond had always had this ability -a rarity in dance music- since most of their songs began life in the acoustic realm before being put through a club translation. Four years later, we have come back full circle, and the dream, the goal, an achievement unlike any other, is finally realized.

Stumbling back to my earlier digressions, this is why we do this. This is why we scour the internet for new music, and this is why we give so much of our time to this, at times fruitless, path. For small moments like these, when something truly special crosses our desk and we get the privilege of putting words to paper about its beauty and its meaning. A rare gift for the writer, one that is perhaps overlooked in the current state of dance music journalism. Similar to Above & Beyond’s re-connection with their roots, this serves as a re-connection with a journalist’s lust for writing about something that is truly magical, instead of on some of the heaps of monotony that cross our paths on a daily basis.

A true avenue has opened up for electronic producers that -and while it has always being there- may not have been as clear before. Music is music by any name you wish to call it.  Imagine, the connection you get out of a dance hit in the club. Now, transform that into an intimate setting where the sound is organically produced by twenty four individual people, who come together to bring the synthesizer to literal life? A new lease on the sound, and when that sound is a compilation of a discography as noteworthy as Above & Beyond’s, it is indeed a thing worthy of your attention.

Small Moments Like These

The moving chords of “Small Moments” set the scene. And what a moment it is. We don’t know how this will turn out. No one does. What if it’s a bust? What if the ravers that so fell in love with this trio’s club ballads are simply not attracted to a more classically-oriented sound? What if the teenagers who first found dance music in a Skrillex song don’t understand what the point of it all is? What if…people hate it? Well, that’s okay, isn’t it. After all, life is a beautiful mixture of both the good and the bad, and “Small Moments” is perhaps the best representation of that. No, it’ll be alright.

Annie Drury kills it | Purchase ‘Miracles’

Taking the place of the seemingly irreplaceable Justine Suissa, the singer for Above & Beyond’s Oceanlab monicker, she is, at worst, second only to Zoe Johnston in the connection to Above & Beyond’s early vocal-heavy success. “Miracle” is morphed into a bubbly and happy affair that helps to settle us in from the introduction. The translation is unreal. It’s gorgeous, and it does just what I outlined earlier: it makes a song. A song that isn’t anything. It’s not electronic, it’s not rock, it’s not classical, it’s not alternative, it’s just enjoyable.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing this performance to a friend that isn’t the world’s biggest Above & Beyond, and also happens to be particularly…verbose and final with her tastes in music. It’s not everyday that she -or any other musically knowledgeable individual- takes the word of others on what’s good, however, “It’s going to be boring, I can tell you that much” quickly transformed into “this is great.” Once more, the strength of the original production took hold, disallowing the acoustic version to be anything less than mesmerizing, no matter of the tastes of the listener.  It’s one of the many almost profound qualities of Above & Beyond: this innate ability to connect to any audience, to any listener. And while the process of creating dance music can indeed feel impersonal, this trio has the ability to make it all very personal. This feeling easily holds through “You Got To Go,” for which, lucky for us fans, Zoe Johnston does provide the vocals. Keeping very true to her original cadence and flow, not much can be said expect that it’s quality stuff.

My love is like footsteps in the snow, baby | Purchase ‘Satellite’ and ‘Stealing Time’ 

Intimate yanks at the heart become common for those of us that have been with these three for a while. “Satellite” very seriously begins to take you away. You’re half a world away, but in my mind I whisper every single word you say. And before you sleep at night, you pray to me, your lucky star, your singing satellite.  Tony McGuinness has never been a stranger to emotional lyricism, and his ballad about Jono Grant’s long distance relationship is bursting with it, never more prevalently than here.

Alex Vargas… | Purchase ‘Thing Called Love’

Who would have thought that Richard Bedford could so forcefully and authoritatively be replaced, by a twenty five year old at that? This is no slight to Richard, who is a legend in his own right, but rather a nod to Vargas’ incredible performance. His smoky yet pronounced belting of “Stealing Time” will serve as his introduction to the world of dance music. He continues in “A Thing Called Love.” Rockstar vibes emanate in his rising pitch through the chorus, and it’s a thing called love, that we all forget. Again, it is the message that shines, and that is the beauty of it. Take out the 4×4 beat, take out the synthesizer work, and what you have left is the message, the strength of Above & Beyond. “Can’t Sleep” continues the performance, assuredly in similar fashion. Albeit perhaps the weakest performance technically (potentially due to person notions that they could have replaced it with a stronger track), Drury performs it admirably, but almost certainly leaves some of her passion on the table.

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring | Purchase ‘Sun and Moon’

Alex Vargas returns with perhaps the song that will be critiqued the most. Of course, we’ve been hearing high quality rips of his “Sun & Moon” for months now, as it has been the finale of most Above & Beyond sets since ABGT 050, replacing their original version. Hearing it here only solidifies Above & Beyond’s choice to incorporate this man into their next album. The extra verse is just as strong as the now very familiar original. Vargas’ nonchalance is actually a mesmerizing addition to the show as a whole, especially this song. His ability to enrapture the heart and soul of “Sun & Moon” is applause-worthy, and boy does he get one at the end of it.

At this point, it’s quite clear that this is something any fan of dance music needs to listen to. Quite obviously, any Above & Beyond fan will be thrilled with this release and will cherish it for years to come. It will be mentioned again when we look back at the best of 2014, and it will be a crowning achievement on an already decorated career arc. Tony, Paavo, and Jono are set to release another album later in the year, with this one swaying back towards the club with regards to its sound direction. Regardless of the sounds they explore there, we will always have this album to remind ourselves what these three can really do when there are no boundaries or limitations.  The only thing I’d like to dive into before wrapping this up what’s new on this acoustic album, and that of course means “Making Plans.”

A Plan for the Future | Purchase ‘Making Plans’

“Making Plans” has an interesting story to it, and if for those of you have listened to the Youtube recordings of the L.A shows know that this is indeed a song that hits close to home for Mr. McGuinness. Long time proponents of singing about the many facets of love -where to find it in “A Thing Called Love,” when it goes awry in “Alchemy” and how grievously endless its holds may be in “Sun & Moon” or “Alone Tonight” – Above & Beyond continue that formula in “Making Plans.”

The song is about Tony’s own personal experience with taking his own advice – the advice given out in “A Thing Called Love,” specifically, to always take your chances. After all, it’s a wasted love we all regret. What’s interesting about “Making Plans” is that at the time of this recording, a club version did not exist (and still doesn’t, for all we know). We get to see how an Above & Beyond production starts its life. This is a version of a song that will most likely be turned into a club track on the upcoming album, yet here it stands in its original acoustic drapes.

The album of this acoustic performance releases today, a Tuesday. A seemingly unremarkable day, yet, one that should stand over time as quite an important one in dance music history. After all, three men have done something very unique. Something that should last and something that should serve as a landmark for future musicians, prodigies, and superstar DJs of dance music. Limitations of genre, of instrumentation, of format can and should be thrown out the window. They don’t exist. Making music that forges a connection with your  fans is all that should matter, and if it just so happens to be a club banger, that’s fine. And if it’s an acoustic performance with a twenty four piece band? Well, that’s just fine too.

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