Sander Kleinenberg’s Essential Mix is the latest in a series of DJ mix albums being released by the Essential label; other contributors to the series include such big names as Carl Cox, DJ Skribble and Grandmaster Flash. For those not in the know, the concept behind a mix CD is to reproduce the experience of a DJ’s live set for the listener’s home enjoyment. The DJ selects several tracks produced by largely obscure artists and blends them together using turntables or studio equipment, thus forging a new, cohesive piece that fits neatly into a CD’s 80-minute run time. As might be expected from the emphasis on simulating the live experience, a mix CD generally follows certain formulas. A DJ plans his live set with the audience in mind, focusing on building hard, driving rhythms to a peak of intensity and then dropping out the beat, only to start the cycle over again. The synth flourishes, the vocal samples, the more delicate polyrhythms etc. are there to maintain interest and foster development, but the real focus is the basic drumbeat. When translating a live set to album form,the DJ must maintain this focus on the beat without boring the listener; how successful he is at accomplishing this task is the measure of the mix CD’s worth.
Kleinenberg’s style of choice is progressive house, which I like to think of as trance’s older, more sophisticated brother: The requisite four-to-the-floor kick drum, the synth bass squelches and the arena-sized energy level that gives rave kids wet dreams. The key difference, at least in Kleinenberg’s case, is that progressive house largely forgoes trance’s overwrought synth melodies, instead deriving its emotional weight from layered polyrhythms and rawer drum sounds. On his Essential Mix, Kleinenberg never does much to stray from this sound. If this album has any significant weakness, it is that he adheres a little too closely to the stereotypical progressive sound. The CD’s only real surprises are the gorgeous synth chords of Redanka’s “Out of the Dark” and the female vocals and breakbeat of Blackwatch and Greed’s “Gentle Rain (Jacked High Remix).” But where one might call Kleinenberg unadventurous, another might prefer consistent. His selections are always tasteful, and, even when the energy lags at some points, the beat and the production remain solid and satisfying throughout. Kleinenberg’s Essential Mix is hardly an innovative album, but it will certainly not disappoint fans of the style, and it might just be the revelation necessary to win progressive house a few new converts.