Even while riding a wave of overwhelming success (the King and Queen of the Netherlands recently stopped by the DJ booth during his set on Kings Day), Armin Van Buuren still presents an enigma in the world of dance music. In a genre where authenticity is criticized daily, he manages to maintain a unique sound—he should; after all, he practically shaped trance for the past twenty years. But at the same time, he’s a chameleon, adapting trance to the sounds surrounding the dance community. He’s all at once a leader and a follower. On Intense, his fifth studio album, this duality shines through and illuminates the work as, if not his finest, at least his most approachable.
Opening with tribal drums fading behind famed violinist Miri Ben-Ari’s reverent scale-play and ending with a cinematic guitar ballad, Intense highlights Armin’s sleight of hand in the studio while exploring all that modern music has to offer—and perhaps taking it a step further.
In an interview last year, Armin turned heads by calling what producers like Avicii do “a trick;” a trick he especially wasn’t interested in performing. In opening tracks like “Alone,” “This Is What It Feels Like,” and “Turn This Love Around,” it appears he’s backtracking. But not without style. Taking the dance music norm and refracting it through his unique scope, he avoids his eternal fear of being a prisoner to his own sound. Generic lyric and structure, then, is overshadowed by sheer emotional power. Trance breakdowns find themselves emerging from progressive builds and pop vocals as Armin once again blurs the lines between the genres in an attempt to attack the explosive American market. But he’s not stressed about it—the songs please without a real agenda.
But later, the album manages to save face and actually reveal a purpose in “Last Stop Before Heaven.” Literally bringing us to heaven, or at least his idea of it, Armin shapes the album to his DJ ideal: Start light, go down through the darkness, and come out saved. It’s The Divine Comedy all over again and Armin’s made himself Virgil, making sure we come out better on the other side.
“Love Never Came” perhaps best accomplishes this latter half’s darker purpose. Borrowing from Above & Beyond Richard Bedford’s haunting vocals (along with a distinct style), Armin is finally able to achieve his unified vision. Progressive and trance come together but don’t seem at odds, vocals lie in the back without being an afterthought, the lyrics depress while leaving room for salvation,
“But I run from the shadow, the darkness always hides behind the sun, I’m still holding on. In silence and the emptiness, the darkness seems to leave when you’re gone, but I’m still holding on.”
Aesthetically, the beauty of the album presents itself when he brings it back from big-room synths to just a piano and a voice—displayed best in “Forever Is Ours,” arguably the most far-reaching song on the album. His finesse doesn’t lie where everything comes in, it lies where it all fades out. It’s that power to harness negative space in the album that makes his stand out after all these years. Few other producers can claim that ability (Kaskade and Above & Beyond come to mind). It’s an interesting talent, though, for a musician who’s genre is literally “dance music.” But Armin isn’t just an electronic producer—we see that on the album bookends. He’s a musician that happened to find trance.
And thank God he did, because he may be the one to bring it, finally, to the next era. Because when the album comes out as one unbreakable piece—with the gold veneer of the opening half and the dark depths of the latter half; the subtle sound of emptiness and the punch of big progressive drops, we don’t just have an album—we have a statement. Armin’s not just piggybacking on modern sounds—he’s forming a multilayered work. On the surface it’s modern dance music. Under that it’s power of production: restraint, influence, diversity. But beneath that, we find Armin’s fundamental principles: message, movement, redemption.