A brief history of goa trance


This article serves a few different purposes: It documents my own understanding of the origins of this specific music genre, highlights some of my favorite tracks, albums and labels, and it attempts to explain the virtues of the genre to those who are new to it. I have had to make many large omissions, and if you’re familiar with the genre you may disagree with with some of my choices regarding what to mention. Additionally, what drew me into this music might not be what everyone else heard and what I find to be it’s most characteristic attributes may seem irrelevant to others.

There’s many hugely influential releases that aren’t given even a passing mention, but anyone interested enough to keep digging beyond this article will inevitable find them. In writing this I’ve realized I’d need a 300 page book to cover everything; That is not a project I have time for right now unfortunately, but I hope to find that time some day or that someone else does.

If you just want to hear some recommended tracks in the genre, jump down to 1993 and start hitting the Youtube links from there on down. I’ve linked out to Youtube rather than embedding since there are so many, and it pretty much kills the browser having 30+ youtube embeds on the same page.

Goa trance

As a music genre name, “goa trance” didn’t gain proper traction until late 1994 or early 1995, after battling it out with monikers like “psychedelic trance” (which turned to “psy-trance” and is commonly used to label what the genre later evolved into) and “psychotropic trance”, in retrospect a more apt label, suggested by (among others, surely) Swedish DJ and Goa traveller Richard Ahlberg. Naming disputes aside, the sound had at that point already been evolving for over a decade.

In around 1983, a few people started bringing tapes of european electronic dance oriented music to the melting pot of adventurous outsiders, hippies, party freaks and new age spiritualists converging on the beaches of Goa, an eastern coastal region of India, each winter. Initially met with a lot of resistance from the old timers, accustomed to more traditional psychedelic rock or even acoustic music, the home made edits of B sides and early underground dance music soon became the sound signature of the all night beach parties. Electronic music was nothing new to this type of crowd, of course: Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and other early ambient pioneers were already household names in many hippie circles. The change was the introduction of the dance beat.

The appeal in partying to electronic music was that it provided suitably alien sounds for the drug fueled alien moods, so some people even laboriously edited out the singing to keep things strictly electronic. Driving rhythms, thick atmospheres and kaleidoscopic minor key melodies were in high demand, as well as anything weird and otherworldly. It wasn’t sexualized dance music like house before it; It wasn’t music for socialization, or, as Goa Gil famously put it “it’s not just a disco under the coconut trees”. Rather, it was ritualistic and introspective, music made for tripped out marathon dancing under the stars. That said, it’s easy to retrospectively pick a historical narrative that fits into what goa trance became; Many Goa travellers from the 80’s and very early 90’s are in agreement that ‘anything goes’ was a more pervasive musical philosophy than these moods in particular. But they are what became goa trance, which is my focus here.

The elements that makes music hypnotic, and thus trance inducing, has been known since man first beat a drum: a straight rhythm with no swing or shuffle, a focus on repetition and composition where tonal and melodic elements are centered around a single base note or drone rather than a chord or chord sequence. But when you bring psychedelia to the table, the definition becomes more difficult and subject to personal preference. Suddenly unexpected sounds, weirder textures, shifts in mood and breakdowns are favored. This juxtaposition of the somewhat contradictory requirements for “trance” and “psychedelia” have been fundamental for the psychedelic trance music movement throughout its history.

The beginning

An early hit in the Goa scene was Anne Clark’s “Our Darkness” from 1984, which towards the end of the track contains pretty much all the elements that made up what was to be called goa trance 10 years later.

The very characteristic hypnotic bassline riff of this song was an obvious inspiration to (or copied rather blatantly by, and to great success) The KLF four years later in their “What Time Is Love (Pure Trance)”.
For me personally, this was the track that got me interested in electronic music; The mood that the track’s phrygian mode provides was the same thing I had sought in metal, but with these fantastic alien textures and none of the distracting vocals. Ronald “Raja Ram” Rothfield, who thanks to his involvement in The Infinity Project and TIP Records has been at the forefront of the genre, has mentioned hearing this track in Goa as being a defining moment in his decision to pursue electronic music, having previously played in jazzy prog rock band Quintessence. The artwork of the early Quintessence releases could just as well have been for goa trance records, showing one of several ways in which the electronic generation sought the same eastern spiritualism and iconography as their 1960’s and 70’s predecessors of the first hippie wave.

The basic riff that started with Anne Clark actually lived on in yet another incarnation in 1993 as Genetic – “Trancemission” and the original track was then remixed by goa trance superstars Total Eclipse in 1997, 13 years after the original release.

Another track that had a big influence early on was the mysterious, ritualistic “Exit 23″ by Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia, whose unmistakable voice sample “return to the source” later became the name of Londons premier goa trance club. A year later, the new beat flavored track “Sundown” by Danish act The Overlords became a hit. These examples of early Goa dance music are all quite different and at the time no one would have claimed they were all the same genre. We had not arrived at goa trance yet.

Each season the travelers would bring new music to play at the beach parties, and eventually some started producing their own instead of editing others’. The musicians came from all corners of the world: USA, England, France, Japan, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Denmark and Israel. Some of these countries had a strong underground hippie counterculture movement while a country like Israel, normally not a music superpower, happened to become a big name since in 1988 Goa and India was opened up as one of the approved destination for the vacation most people go on after their 3 year mandatory military service. Those seeking the opposite of war and weapons found the beach hippies. An early Israeli track is MG-3 – “Morning Glory”.

In recent years old recordings from people willing to bring a VHS camcorder to India have surfaced. So to set the mood a little bit, here’s some footage from a party in March 1992 (Notice The Overlords – “Sundown” at 7:52 for example).

The making of a genre

As the cast of characters was so global, the music gained influences from all corners, but with the common goal of heightening the beach (or jungle) party experience. While trance started to become its own genre in european clubs in the early nineties (before then it was all just called techno), this was not necessarily the same music played on the Goan beaches. Here the music had influences from rock, EBM, industrial, new wave, psychedelia, acid house, Berlin school synthesizer music and more, selected for the very specific environment that the goa parties presented. While the ingredients were known, the outcome was increasingly new and unique, evolving down a path separate from the european and north american dance music scenes.

A number of labels that had already been around for a while started releasing music spawned from the goa movement: Harthouse, Trigger and Tunnel in Germany, Magick Eye and Pod Communication in the UK and more. An argument can be made that Germany’s Gaia Tonträger was the first goa trance label. In fact, their inagural release is called Goa EP, by S.M.I.L.E. where DJ Sangeet, a big name in the scene, was one of the members.

1993, a pivotal year

It wasn’t until 1993 that the goa trance explosion begun properly, when several labels were formed to release the music that was previously strewn across less specialized labels if it was released at all: We now had Phantasm and Dragonfly in the UK, Psy-Harmonics in Australia and Trans’Pact in France. This exposed the music to people outside of the freak traveler circuit, which triggered a whole new and much faster cycle of musical evolution that the scene had seen in the 10 years prior.

By this time British duo Eat Static had already been releasing music for a couple of years. In fact, East Static is an offshoot of instrumental psychedelic rock band Ozric Tentacles, and both acts were intimately connected to the Goa scene but never fully adhered to what was to become its most distinct sound aesthetic.

Another 1993 milestone is Juno Reactor’s debut album “Transmissions”, often referred to as the first goa trance album. Sven Väth’s “Accident In Paradise” came the year prior and had distinct goan influences but is much too multifaceted to be called a goa trance record, but the Third Eye or Eat Static albums above could arguably lay claim to being first. Transmissions contained several very high profile tracks. Here’s “High Energy Protons”, which is characteristic for the genre thanks to the key, eerie moods, voice samples, dramatic shifts, driving EBM-esque bassline and liberal sprinkling of synth effects. Juno Reactor was initially formed with frenchman Stephane Holweck, and they had previously had the Electrotête project together, releasing tracks like Anjuna Dawn, named after its namesake Goa beach, and I Love You, a huge rave scene hit in 1991. Holweck had lived in the same building as Jimmy Cauty of The KLF in London and was in other projects with Killing Joke bassist Youth who would go on to form Dragonfly Records. He would also go on to form Total Eclipse. These men were all key players in the dawn of the genre.

Another track from the first compilation released on Dragonfly Records, the hugely influential “Project II Trance”, that deserves mention is The Infinity Project – “Feeling Weird”.

Lastly, any attempt to chronicle goa trance in 1993 is incomplete without a mention of Blue Planet Corporation’s debut EP.

1994—The cat is out of the bag

The BPM had been going up since the New Wave days and settled in the 140-145 bpm region for the most part. In combination with the drum machines and synths favored, liberal use of resonance, the use of delays and reverbs and of course the many genre specific compositional techniques that evolved all made this is the year that the genre’s sound fully became its own distinct aesthetic.

Goa trance is music that takes itself quite seriously, for the most part. A notable exception is Green Nuns of the Revolution’s “Afterburner EP”, 1995, named for the aftermath of eating at the indian restaurant next to their studio. The track names are “Two Vindaloos & An Onion Bhagee” and then on the flip, “Ring Of Fire”. I personally like music that is a little bit pretentious, because that means it’s trying; But this is also what has left goa trance open to ridicule and scorn from those that aren’t on board with all of its associated new age, pseudo-spiritual baggage.

Once the music was commercially available the party scene exploded all over Europe, Japan and Australia, and in adopting the beach parties to other environments or even indoor venues more mutations and adoptations inevitably occured. As the party season in India was in the winter, when the weather was less scorching, having European parties in the summer made sense. In 1992 the German Voov Experience festival was held for the first time, and here’s some footage from its second year, 1993.

Major DJ’s started adopting the sound and a huge array of new labels we formed: Flying Rhino, TIP, Symbiosis, Inter 1 and Celtic in the UK, Spirit Zone, Polytox and Nephilim in Germany, Trip Trap in Japan, Trust In Trance in Israel, Step 2 House in France, and many more. Influential compilations were “Digital Alchemy” on Concept In Dance, which included the first incarnation of Man With No Name’s very accessible monster hit “Sugar Rush”, and TIP Records “Yellow” (vinyl released in december of 1994, CD in 1995) with Space Tribe’s debut track “Machine Elf”, enginered by Simon Posford.

One of the most influential people in the genre is Simon Posford. While his first release is from 1993 and recorded when he was just 21 years old, the opening track on Project II Trance “The Quickening”, released under his one-off moniker Gumbo, the major breakthrough came as Hallucinogen the year after with the track “LSD” (The first iteration of this track was actually recorded in 93 too.)
Posford almost immediately became one of the most successful artist of the scene with album releases as Hallucinogen in 1995 and 1997, Frequent collaborations with The Infinity Project and a huge range of engineering and remix work. His days as a studio engineer set his productions apart with all manners of sonic trickery, perfectly suited for the psychedelic trance crowd. One of the genre’s true milestones is Slinky Wizard’s “The Wizard” engineered by Posford, which was the inagural release on Flying Rhino Records and featured on the very popular Order Odonata compilation on Dragonfly where “LSD” also appeared.  Today Posford is probably most known as the main man behind Shpongle, where The Infinity Project’s Raja Ram acts as more of a muse and occasional collaborator.

Tsuyoshi Suzuki and Takehiro Tokuda from Japan together with Nick Taylor from Australia released an album as Blissed in 1993, another as Taiyo in 1994 (after Tokuda left) and later the same year changed their name to Prana. With big hits like the tribal infused “Indigo” they became a major name. Tsuyoshi formed the very successful label Matsuri Productions the year after.

Next to Hallucinogen, Man With No Name might be the most successful name coming out of the UK. After many years of more technoid and house oriented productions he found a more melodic and accessible sound that reached the broader masses with an enormous amount of compilation appearances in 1995. Along with some of the Israeli acts he represents the more commercially viable end of the goa trance spectrum. Here’s “Teleport” from 1994.

I’ve already mentioned Total Eclipse, and 1994 was their true breakthrough year with the debut album following in early 1995. Some notable tracks from 1994 are “Transparent Mind” and “Aliens”.

Somewhat related to Total Eclipse in sonic aesthetics were Danish band Koxbox. They too began early, with the first release to their name released in 1992. With very elaborate production and keeping the melodies a bit more obscured in the overall arrangement they are considered one of the most psychedelic acts in the genre. One half of Koxbox, Frank E, would later start the even more intricately produced side project Psychopod (subsequently Saiko-Pod) with Koxbox producer Ian Ion, who was previously in proto-goa favorites The Overlords.

Asia 2001, originally just one of many monikers used by Gilbert Thévenet who was behind almost every artist alias on Trans’Pact, saw its first release this year. “Curalyne (Mental Mix)” is archetypical goa trance: Swirling, mysterious, liquid and with a distinct ethnic, tribal tinge.

1995-1996—Goa trance peaks

There is no point in trying to chronicle everything that happened at this point unless the objective is to write a book; There are simply too many new artists, labels, fanzines, festivals and subgenres happening. Some major players in the genre didn’t have their breakthrough until 1995 though, so I will focus on these.

French duo Transwave, who notably never went to Goa and were thus children of the european side of the scene, had their debut on Trans’Pact in 1994 but became famous in 1995 with several high profile live performances in Paris and London, the “Cycles Of Life / Quasar” EP on Symbiosis and one of my favourite tracks of all time, “Rezwalker”, on Matsuri. They also released an album in 1995, “Hypnorhythm” on Step 2 House, while and “Helium” on Matsuri and “Psychotropic” on Distance in followed 1996, making them one of the most productive artists in the genres heyday.

Commercialization of the genre also hit its peak: A tsunami of compilations flooded the market as 1995 saw the debut of the Tantrance and Pulse series of compilations from German powerhouse label Sub Terranean, Rumour Records snatched the “Goa Trance” name for their series (they already had a very succesful one called simply “Trance”), Distance launched the enormously popular “Distance to Goa” series selling tens of thousands of copies, and all major labels released compilations including TIP’s “Orange” and “Blue”, Flying Rhino’s “Boyd In The Void”, Transient’s “Transient 2″, Return to the Source’s “Deep Trance & Ritual Beats” and the self-titled compilation from Tokyo Tekno Tribe.

Astral Projection had huge hits with “Let There Be Light” and more prominently “Mahadeva” in 1995 and became Israel’s biggest name in the genre, but didn’t release their debut album “Trust In Trance” until 1996. The first really big hit album in the Israeli scene was instead Indoor’s “Progressive Trance” where practically every track was a hit. Here’s “The Key”.

They also released four tracks as “Sound Pollution” and I rank the oddly titled “Where” as one of the high points in the genre; The super spooky phrygian mode, the subtle and trippy buildup, the kaleidoscopic patterns and near psychotic peak all make for a true journey of a track.

Koxbox’s debut “Forever After” is another high point for the genre, evolving their morphing, psychedelic tripscapes even further. It’s worth hearing in its entirety, but a high point is “Tribal Oscillation”.

Planet B.E.N.’s debut album Trippy Future Garden came out in 1996 but the 2003 re-release (as a bonus CD with the album “Test”) claims the tracks were recorded 1991-1994. While this seems far fetched—he was far ahead of his time even if this was all recorded in 1995—it’s a truly remarkable album. I recommend digesting the whole thing from start to finish, but “Ant Invasion” could be its finest moment.

Perhaps the most musically accomplished goa trance album of 1995, amidst very hard competition from the above and Hallucinogen’s “LSD” on Dragonfly, is Juno Reactor’s “Beyond the Infinite” on Blue Room Released, a label with serious financial backing from loudspeaker manufacturer Bowers & Wilkins through its offshoot Blue Room Loudspeakers. “Magnetic” is one of many fantastic tracks.

Blue Room also released Total Eclipse’s debut album “Delta Aquarids” with the stormer “Can’t Do That”.

For me personally, 1996 is heavily associated with releases like MFG’s debut album “The Prophecy” and Koyote Records debut compilation “Strange Vibrations”, both released in the fall of that year.

Viva italia

Many of the artists mentioned above could be said to epitomize goa trance, but to me the italian four man group Etnica, also releasing as Pleiadians and with an additional two members as Crop Circles, stand head and shoulders above everyone else. Their debut EP was released in 1994 but didn’t yet show their trademark sound. The 1995 debut album on Germany’s High Society, “The Juggeling Alchemists Under The Black Light”, is a mixture of less intense european style trance with the their inimitable trademark style that came to define the genre. Here’s the relatively soothing “Infinite Dream”.

“Kumba Mela”, released on Matsuri in 1995, showcases their very intricate arrangements, hinting that several of the tracks on the album were quite dated by the time it was released.

Another leap of progress can be heard on “Tribute”, their debut release on Blue Room, which had been circulated in the DAT trading scene as a more primitive version titled “Tribute to Goa” since late 1993 or so. Their very characteristic use of melodies that climb up and down through the scale is quite prominent here.

Their other moniker, Pleiadians, was supposedly first used by member Carlo Paterno for a solo track (also entitled “Pleiadians”, 1995) but immediately became an alias for the full group. A personal favorite is the vinyl version of “Zeta Reticuli” (1996), which is longer and has a more organic flow to it than the shorter CD version. “Time Dilation”, a slower track with a truly monstrous buildup.
I also have to mention their absolutely magnificent remix of Blue Planet Corporation’s “Antidote” (1996).

Their second album as Etnica, in my opinion THE goa trance album, “Alien Protein”, was released on Blue Room in the spring of 1996. It contained the incredibly powerful “Starship 101″, also released on a 12″ a short time prior, a track that is perhaps the very apex of mid nineties goa trance.

1997 and beyond: Psy-trance

By 1997 British dance music press had gotten over its crush on goa trance and started to shun it. Transwave split up, record distribution company Flying Records got into severe financial trouble and eventually went belly-up, taking several labels with it, the music evolved extremely fast over these few years. Play me a track I haven’t heard (if such a track exists at this point) and I can probably tell you what year it’s from with very good precision; that’s how much things evolved year-over-year. The drive to always move on, forward, onward, led to mixed results. Some of the experimentation gave us very interesting new sounds like the cybernetic “Monomanic” by Deflo, released on the Matsuri compilation “Let It RIP”, whose liner notes read “RIP Goa Trance”. To many though, myself included, the things that drew us in to the genre from the beginning was starting to disappear. We also started to see a second generation of musicians that unlike their predecessors had goa trance as their main influence. The genre inbreeding had begun and the “goa trance” moniker was starting to get abandoned in favor of “psy-trance”.

To me it seems Pleiadians “I.F.O.”, the debut album under this moniker and released just a year after the second Etnica album, was the end of melodic goa trance: It’s incredibly complex and intense, best highlighted by the track “Electra”. While regarded as untouchable and holy by many goa trancers I’ll willingly admit that unless I’m in exactly the right mood, “I.F.O.” can be over the top and it struggles to reach the same compositional refinement as some of their earlier releases had.

After this album it was as though the arms race was over. The BPM’s crept a bit higher still with the likes of Dimension 5 – “Iron Sun Remix” and Darshan – “Mind Merge”, but “I.F.O.” was so maximal and such a symbol of where goa trance was heading that a counter reaction was inevitable.

This is where I’d like to say “enter X-Dream”, but the truth is they had been around since 1993, always slightly to a more techno, less hippy side of goa trance. Their releases on Tunnel, TIP in 1996 and the ever progressive Blue Room in 1997 contained hints of what was to come, but with the release of the single “Radiohead” off of their subsequent album “Radio”, it was very clear that the fluoro clad, dreadlock haired hippies would have to stand aside for something entirely new.

Many labels were already pulling in a more minimal, less melodic direction both in terms of music and visual aesthetics; Flying Rhino’s “Black Rhino” compilation contained the screechy, gritty “Not For Children” by Alienated, TIP Records’ “3D” compilation had Orichalcum’s restrained and understated “The Egg”, Spirit Zone spearheaded the german progressive wave with releases by Tarsis, Ouija and Shiva Chandra and smaller labels like BTM, Spiral Trax, Aquatec and Nephilim also joined this movement. A bit of a transitional album is Sweden’s Battle of the Future Buddhas debut album “Twin Sharkfins” from 1998 which has the gritty darkness of the post-goa era but retains the melody driven composition of the previous years.

Goa trance never disappeared entirely, but around the turn of the millennium it was exceptionallyhard to find. Eventually it got its revival though, perhaps best signified by the release of Filteria’s debut album “Sky Input” in 2004. The whole neo-goa movement is the topic of a whole other post.

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