The story of breathy trance* hit “9PM (Til I Come)” begins with producer ATB bringing his girlfriend to his studio to check out his instruments. And it continues with him ignoring her and working on an awesome guitar sound until he looked at his watch three hours later and named the track. The vocals he ported in afterwards, from a TV show he was watching. The girlfriend’s response is unrecorded. (Why did he even mention her in the first place, you might ask. I’m not sure. A demonstration of the monkish dedication of the true dance auteur, perhaps?)
At any rate this origin story puts the emphasis firmly on that pitched-up guitar tone – a kind of scrubbed-chrome take on the wah-wah – and so did ATB’s immediate follow-ups. There’s a really horrible version of Adamski’s “Killer”, for instance, which he ‘makes his own’ simply by dropping that noise all over it. On “9PM” it works better – just as well, since it dominates the track. There’s a sinuosity and bounce to it that makes for a strong hook, and its clean sound compliments the huskier voice parts. Of all the dance records we’ve met – even things as minimal as “Flat Beat” – “9PM” feels most purely for the club, noises designed to cut through the acoustics of a large crowded space like light through dry ice, not linger in a listener’s mind. There’s a confidence in the power of a single sound to carry a record here, one which speaks to how dominant big, expansive trance (and its ultra-high-paid celebrity DJs) had become in European, and global, club culture.
That’s not all “9PM” has going on, though. There’s also the breakdown – an unremarkable one to my ears, of a piece with tens of other big-room dance breakdowns around at the time. But it’s the first showing on Popular of a sound that will eventually return in conquering, tyrannous form: the gradually building keyboard marches so overused in 2010s EDM. A mere formal detail here, they jump ominously out to me as a listener in 2014. One of the less memorable Number Ones in a scrappy year turns out to be the track that points most directly to the present.
*I had a Guardian column for two years, during which time I managed to rouse my readers to anger (beyond the standard grumbles) exactly once, when I innocently named ATB and other late 90s hits as trance. I’m hardly alone in this – Beatport calls it that too – but there’s a hardcore death-to-false-trance contingent out there who spent a day on Twitter calling for my immediate retirement. One asked that I promise never to write about trance music again. That pledge I have kept – until today!