Max Graham ‘Cycles 5’ Review

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by Spencer Hardwick

So I was sitting at my computer taking a break from music and journalistic related things when Sony Jacob, co-founder and one half the brains behind TranceFamily SF, messaged me asking if I would mind taking a stab at reviewing the fifth installment of the Cycles compilation album from Max Graham. Myself, being the trancehead I am, of course jumped at the opportunity. Max is far and away one of my favorite progressive artists and I could really use a small vacation from my normal listening habits. I most definitely am not afraid of 138, but I do need a break from it from time to time. Progressive is normally my go-to and secretly, I think its the style of trance I prefer the most. So, of course, the chance to get a full listen of the upcoming compilation before the general public was welcomed with open arms.
Now normally when I’m doing something like this, I like to have the music on in the background while I sit somewhere comfortably jotting down my awful, scribbled shorthand in a notebook. Then later, I’ll type up the article, using the words to recall the ideas I had. But after two separate attempts to begin my first listen through, I decided this just wouldn’t do.

You see, to me, trance is about that moment in time. If you truly love music, you know that moment. Its that moment when you feel serene and calm; you’re at home in the wall of sound. Its that moment of overwhelming bliss where everything else melts away. There’s just you and the music. A proper trance mix is that feeling constantly coming and going; its incredible. So how could I possibly begin to accurately depict that with words, but after the fact? I can’t. So I’m writing this as I listen to it. Let’s begin, shall we?

The gorgeous opening track is an intro mix from Silence Groove, called Above You. It begins with a delicate pluck and swelling bass pad in a wonderfully orchestrated soundscape. Then the lead comes in and instantly reminds me of everything I love about Antillas – Damaged or DNS Project – Shatter. This is about as good as it gets when it comes to progressive trance.

Max masterfully drops from the ambience into a super deep, groovy, driving track from Anry called Serene Sky. A deep pluck comes in and reminds me of older Andrew Bayer… or really just progressive Anjunabeats/Anjunadeep-style circa 2009 or so, but with an updated style and unique groove that I just can’t put my finger on. I genuinely hope the rest of this compilation follows this trend.

I would like to say, quickly, before I continue on with the review, that while this mix is masterful, its due in large part to the amazing producers who contributed the actual music to it as well. These are all fantastically produced tracks the really pull you in and keep you engulfed for their duration. Really awesome stuff.

Anyway, let’s continue. The third track in the mix, Illusion from Nihilum, changes the attitude a little bit. Its a little less deep, floaty trance and a little more aggressive groove. With big climbing chords and a subtle acid-thing panning across the stereo field, it says, “Hey, let’s begin our journey.” Its fantastic. This big fat bassline that comes in screams Jaytech and is just impossible to dislike.

The next track, Home by Mindset, instantly pulls you in with a large, expanding chord progression of festival house-y organ pikes. Those are beautifully offset by the sound of breaking waves and seagulls in the background. They come together during the climax of the track and really do well to mark this point in the mix. Big bassline, big thumpy kick, big pluck on the off-beat… its calming and euphoric at the same time.

The tracks begin to drive the tempo a bit more now. The next track, Offshore by Speed Limits, has this big progressive bassline that has an awesome phasing effect that seems to magnify over time. It drops into a super dark, deep, funky, progressive house thing with awesome Chicago house soul vocals delayed and reverbed all to hell. There’s horns in the background too and they accompany this funky 70’s bass riff in way that’s far more groovy than I expected. Way to catch me off guard, Max. The drop in this tune sounds like it was plucked from a Carl Cox festival set and pitched up about 10 bpm. Incredible.

This mix has definitely taken a turn towards the dark and deep side of progressive house, except its at a trance bpm. I mean like 134 maybe? That’s my guess. Its perfect.

Now playing is the Dousk remix of Valencia by Darin Epsilon. These transitions are seamless by the way; they’re long and super progressive. There’s some long sweeping vocal that also comes in over a dizzying array of masterfully placed percussion.

Out of nowhere, a big fat saw swoops in and drops into a super fuzzy bassline. Oh wow, this is just got even darker, but way more aggressive. I think this is the Metodi Hristov remix of Can You Feel It by Mindgamers. This track completely blasts out of nowhere, but doesn’t feel forced at all. This effect is intensified by the super trippy, incredibly driving breakdown which builds into one hell of a drop. This mix is absolutely incredible. I need to remind myself to pre-order this when I’m done listening.

The next transition is less jarring (in a good way,) but you can definitely feel yourself tumbling down the rabbit hole now. This new track from Re:Locate versus Robert Nickson is really something special. Looping vocals drone on about something regarding whatever opposition while a super trance-y festival pluck pulls you in. Also I think the bpm is around 136. Personally, I feel this is the perfect bpm of progressive trance. This mix exemplifies why.

Position by Aerofeel5 is one of three album exclusives, along with the previous track and the intro track. Honestly, its even more of a reason to pick this up. The highlight is a super long Markus-style progressive drop, complete with a dull, off-beat synth and deep, driving bassline. I’m starting to get a cool Coldharbour feel here. Awesome. Really, really awesome.

Oh wow, a tape stop effect comes in and is followed by a big room kick and a super fat bassline. Not a space in the frequency range is left unfilled in this Alex DiStefano remix of Balthazar & Jackrock’s Blade Dancer. The breakdown comes in and a fantastic stadium-style hypersaw dances its way in. I close my eyes and picture myself somewhere inside a stadium in Europe, moving in a crowd of 20,000 people with my hands raised above my head. The drop comes and I’m up, out of my chair at 1:30am. My girlfriend isn’t too happy, but I definitely am. Absolutely incredible. This is when things start getting really big and I’m ok with that. The production quality here is really standing out to me as well.

I really can’t believe I’m only a half hour through this mix.

Oh nice, here comes Mark Sherry’s remix of Max Graham’s awesome tune, The Evil I.D. Wait, so that means the last track was Max Graham vs. Maarten De Jong’s Lekker? Sorry guys, but a proper mix will do that. Hard to tell where one song ends and another begins. Anyway, its been awesome up until now and I’m sure it will continue down that path.

The Evil I.D. is easily one of my favorite tunes from 2013 and Mark Sherry really smashed the remix, though I wouldn’t expect much less from either producer. Mark Sherry managed to make this track darker and heavier, somehow. He never really lets the melody evolve completely; the entire time he teases you with various gated and affected portions of it. Its a perfect tech remix of an already fairly techy-styled tune.

This next track is also from Max, entitled Purple. And wow, let me try to describe this melody to you… sorry I can’t, other than to say this is absolutely everything I love and want in trance. It could definitely be among my favorites on this album. Absolutely brilliant.

Next up is Paper Flower from Alexey Ryasnyansky. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t heard most of the names on this list, but I’m pretty convinced I should change that. This track is gorgeous. It features a big, fat kick with opera vocals accompanied by extremely subtle and effective backing percussion. It quietly slips into the breakdown with a gorgeous grand piano playing along with some beautiful atmospheric strings. The strings begin to swell in large, sweeping motions along with the voices. Then, a gorgeously 16-bit-ish saw lead introduces itself and you are instantly snatched down the rabbit hole. The “ARMADA MUSIC PROMO COPY” voiceover comes on just as I think to myself, “You know this sounds like the quintessential Armada-esque orchestrance that I really love to hear.” Well-timed guys.

This mix is such a journey, I really didn’t think we were headed here, but I’m far from disappointed.

The driving bassline in the next track belongs to Simon Templar in a track called Phenomenal. Something is strangely dissonant and eerie about this track, but in a really awesome way. The sound design here really is… phenomenal. There’s a big bass pad that has just enough texture to let you know its there while some large, swelling pads and voices swoop in, carrying you away. This is a fantastic example of how to build and create tension with minimal use of percussion. There’s no Vengeance fills here. Just really awesome sound design.

The next track (I think this is the next track at least) is called For The Moment by Solid Stone. It has a very Jaytech-y styled bassline that’s impossibly groovy. This is markedly cheerful, given the vibe up until now. The melody that comes in is as infectious as it is euphoric. It all comes together in a drop that really pushes this mix into a more uplifting direction. It kind of reminds me of New Vibe by Jaytech. Yeah, its that good.

This next tune is the one I’ve been most looking forward to. It is Vanishing Point by Chris Agnelli. I’ll be honest, I love Agnelli and Nelson, and this track is just as awesome as I was hoping it’d be. Do you love the album, Tri-State? Of course you do. This track reminds me why. And there’s this little arpeggiated counter-melody after the drop that is such an awesome detail. Masterfully done, Chris.

I’m actually really sad to find myself at the end of this mix. The closing track is another one from Solid Stone called Essence. Its really breathtaking, honestly. It comes in with a nice driving, calming bassline and a soft piano pluck that arps back and forth. It all eases into the breakdown, where you hear the piano progression in its entirety, beautifully layered above some atmospheric pads. This is the song that plays at sunrise. You know, the one where you just kind of stand there in the crowd at the show. You get that feeling… the one you all share that ensures you all know there’s no place else in the world you’d rather be at that moment. Then the drop comes and you can’t but help but start moving, but really, you’re more focused on the fact that you know its coming to an end. The piano slowly slows down and everything trails off.

Wow, so that was it. Overall, this mix was perfect. I really don’t think you can ask anything more from a progressive mix. It told a story, a true journey through sound. Every time I thought I knew where it was headed, Max threw in a curveball and steered it in a different, but warmly welcomed direction. The mixing was flawless and the tracks were masterfully selected. Each was fantastically produced and moved the experience forward in an enjoyable, meaningful way.

I highly suggest that if you are a fan of progressive music of any style, that you go to iTunes right now and pre-order this album. You will not be disappointed. This definitely among one of my favorite progressive mixes now and I will be playing it on repeat for the foreseeable future. Honestly though, I kind of expected all this going in. Max is a master of progressive in my eyes. Cycles 5 only reinforces that opinion.

I’d like to thank Armada Music, TheDJList, and TranceFamily SF for allowing me the opportunity to share my thoughts on this release. Its been a pleasure. I hope you all enjoy this as much as I have.

Pre-order on iTunes: bit.ly/Cycles5_iT

Tracklist
01. Silence Groove – Above You (Intro Mix)
02. Anry – Serene Sky
03. Nihilum – Illusion
04. Mindset – Home
05. Speed Limits – Offshore
06. Darin Epsilon – Valencia (Dousk Remix)
07. Mindgamers – Can You Feel It (Metodi Hristov Remix)
08. Re:Locate vs Robert Nickson – Recognition
09. Aerofeel5 – Position
10. Balthazar & Jackrock – Blade Dancer (Alex Di Stefano Remix)
11. Max Graham vs Maarten De Jong – Lekker
12. Max Graham – The Evil I.D. (Mark Sherry Remix)
13. Max Graham – Purple
14. Alexey Ryasnyansky – Paper Flower
15. Simon Templar – Phenomenal
16. Solid Stone – For The Moment
17. Chris Agnelli – Vanishing Point
18. Solid Stone – Essence

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