A musical obituary (in memoriam Joakim Hjørne aka Flowjob) – Part I

A while ago I proclaimed 1998 as the birth year of Progressive Trance and called for celebrating the twentieth anniversary in 2018. I hope that you have done this for me a lot during this time! At the moment of the Corona lockdowns I regret a little not to have been outside more for dancing during the last years because such a crisis makes us aware in particular of human vulnerability and finitude.

And as if it couldn’t have come worse at the end of the year 2020, Joakim Hjørne aka Flowjob, a great musician who could make the sun rise with his tracks died – much to early. I was incredibly saddened by this, because on the first of January I was listening to his music and was about to choose one of his tracks for a new musical analysis, when I went to his Facebook page to find out about his sudden death a day before. Unfortunately, I did not know him personally but only through his music, which has accompanied me since 2003 (Fluff me tender, Various – FX on iboga records). I’ve never really been a fan of a person who is in the public eye, but when a musician’s work moves and touches me in such a way, it just brings me closer to this person. Thus, 2020 marks an incredible low point for me.

This I would like to take as an opportunity to look back on Flowjob’s twenty years of extensive musical work in the field of Progressive Psytrance. He himself describes his music in an interview with beat.com.au: „I always try to bring warmth and motion in my tracks that I often feel is missing in trance or techno music. Even though its trance and party music, I think there is room for melancholic feeling. But I do like pure fresh party tunes too. […] I like warm and huge trance vibes and also fresh and funky house and techno – I guess you can hear that on the tunes I make. For those who listened to early trance you can hear that I love the planetary vibe and pureness of early Eat Static music. I don’t think that I will change that in the near future.“ And he didn’t. Until his last album Beatpolar of 2020, he has remained true to his style. He has produced eight albums since 2006 (the first two with his then partner Mads Tinggaard, who left the duo in 2009 for health reasons). In addition, there are several singles and EPs, so you can say that his musical output was enormous. In a PM sent to his friend Yannis Jaia and then posted on his Facebook, he makes a flaming plea for the perpetual raison d’être of the music album, condemning the sole and constant releaseing of singles as „true comercialism in its truest form.“

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But what made his music so warm, emotional (It is to say that emotional responses to music can never be explained by the music alone) and groovy in musical terms? What makes a typical Flowjob track? I will now try to work this out on the basis of musical examples from for me outstanding pieces, which were created in the course of his musical work. And I would like to ask you to listen fully to the tracks and pay your last respect to a great musician, because he really produced a lot of finest music to delight his audience. This is part I of my analytical reflections on his music.

In addition to the analysis of compositional form, the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic analysis of the individual musical building blocks as well as synthesis can be a valuable part of the analysis, contributing to the understanding of the piece. That is, if I can recreate a piece musically and sonically exactly like the original, then I have pretty much understood what the artist was doing. I can send one thing in advance – I can’t do it fully here. As soon as several sounds, their reverbs and delays come together, which you have not heard sounding alone before in detail in an intro or in a break, it becomes very difficult to reproduce them or to recreate the resulting groove (for me so far). But therein perhaps lies the special charm in a track (for another producer :)), when you can listen to it over and over again, because it never gets boring and you keep asking yourself, „I wonder how he did that at this or that point?“ However, an exact replica is perhaps not even necessary, because we only want to get to know and appreciate the compositional principles. Back to the the music

Already in the first track I know – Fluff me tender – the preference for puns is noticeable in the title (not to mention the artist name itself :)). Certainly it is a composition of Flowjob and Elvis Presleys Love me tender. Also something that can be followed like a red thread until the last album (e.g. the title Soularsystem). In one of the few interviews available online Joackim revealed that he shared this passion with his wife.

On the album Support Normality, released in 2006 on Iboga Records, Run Baby Run is the first style-defining hit, which already bears many typical Flowjob characteristics: arpeggio festoons and riffs with chanching bass notes, billowing jazzy house chords, swinging grooves, athmospheric voices and of course melodies. In short: finest morning psygressive stuff. (B.t.w. 2006 was a really incredible year regarding music releases: Vibrasphere – Archipelago, FREq – Gosub 20). Lets have a closer look!

The piece is written in B minor, has 132 bpm and a total length of 337 bars or 10:11 minutes. The whole structure is quite straightforward. The intro is veeeeery long (123 bars / around 03:24 min), followed by part A, a break, part A‘ and the outro. Basically, at that time the pieces were not yet so interspersed with breaks and drops like modern Psytrance today. It follows more of a constant flow ;).

From the beginning to bar 85, we hear a B minor7 chord that gets its motion from a modulated band filter. This is immediately accompanied by a two-tone and a three-tone repetetive melodic motiv, which can always be heard alternately through volume changes.

Two-tone sequence
Three-tone sequence

A galloping percussive sound, very much enriched with a flanger effect, comes to the fore from bar 17 and slowly fades out until bar 25. A heavily echoed female voice is heard from bar 25 and a defining arpeggio-„festoon“ for this piece is heard from bar 30 [00:50] and then fades in further.

Arpeggio-„festoon“ (approimation)

I make a jump to bar 73 (02:14), where a little nice melody could be heard. Before that some speech samples and other effect samples are interspersed. These presented elements will recur throughout the piece and hold it together.

Little melody

This is what my approximation sounds like in the intro including the little melody from 02:14. Well, a little special sauce recarding the sounds is still missing, but it gives us a good understanding of the harmonic and melodic action in the piece.

If you add all used tones in these melodic pattern together you get a harmonic B minor scale (H, Cis, D, E, Fis, A [G is missing]). And this is the reason why we perceive pieces as warm and emotional. Because they move in a tone scale that is familiar to us (harmonic minor) and thus pilot us back into a safe harbor after an intense night. Quite the opposite of an Arabic scale like Halluconigen used in LSD.

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From bar 79 on, the intro is rhythmically condensed and increased by further riffs and patterns, so that the track finally picks up intensity at bar 113 (03:24) with the use of kick and bass. Then, while roasting out and creating these additional patterns, I kept getting lost and just couldn’t get that unique groove in Part A due to the layered patterns. I will look into this again at a later date. Any help on this is appreciated!

What can be heard very clearly, however, is that from part A‘ onwards, different 16th bass notes are played (B, E, D).

Bass-notes in Part A and A‘

The „effect“ of the different bass tones with constant riffs above them is surely very familiar to most of us from pop and rock and gives me a very homey and comfortable feeling (You can listen e.g. to Don Henley – Boys of Summer or U2 – With or without you).

From bar 159 [04:52] in Part A, we move back into familiar territory. It becomes easier to reproduce again with the introduction of a new melodic riff in the break, which was continued in the following part A‘. Listen again to my approximation here with the mentioned melodic phrase during part A‘.

From this melodic phrase you can see very well what can make a piece real groovy respectively gives the piece its special groove.

Groovy melodic riff from Part A‘

Of course, it is possible to quantize all notes, by which is meant to place all notes exactly on the grid, which usually gives a track a driving, rigid character (which is often desired). However, if you want to give the track a special swinging rhythm – as was done here – you can create a very unique groove by moving the notes. The notes circled in blue are on the grid and the notes circled in green are slightly behind it.

So much for a first insight into Flowjob’s compositional work. Run Baby Run is a wonderfully created work with a variety of its own rhythmic and melodic riffs that steadily rise and fall again and pull the listener and dancer into its flow. The whole thing was enriched with a colorful bouquet of various spherical voice and guitar samples and effect sounds.

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Thank you very much for your interest. If you liked the analysis and want to read further musical essays and more about psytrance from me, please subscribe to my newsletter. Stay tuned if you don’t want to miss my part II about Flowjob’s musical work.

Analysing composition in time: Astrix – Sahara (2018)

Most of the Youtube howto videos related to Psytrance deal with the making of genre specific sounds like kick and bass, lead or arpeggio and a lot of diverse fx sounds. After a while you have acquired one of the basic building blocks for the composition of such sounds, but the question of the distribution of these sounds on the timeline follows – the composition in time. If in a song in Pop and Rock the compositional building blocks are almost always the same through lyrics oriented parts like verse, bridge and chorus, we meet since House and Techno a free form – so also in Psytrance. And here lies the true art of composing: to captivate the listener and the dancers over a period of a few minutes before a DJ spans a wide arc by mixing all these tracks together to take them on a longer journey. Of course, these tracks can also stand for themselves, but they are usually part of a „sound continuum“ mixed together by a DJ and tied to one purpose – dance music for a club or an open-air festival.

So, how does composing exactly works in Psytrance? I would say that there is no universal recipe. It’s a game with the attention of the listener by skilfully stringing together flow and break, continuity and surprise, rise and fall. But to learn from the best artists on the scene, I chose the title Sahara from Astrix to take a closer look. For Astrix no further introduction is required here, because with his album Eye to Eye (2002) he catapulted himself to the foremost front of the Psytrance top acts and has not relinquished this position since. And so, of course, due to the countless live performances and the experienced response to his tracks, he was able to adapt and optimize the form of his pieces again and again. So, first things first. Let’s listen to the track.

Due to the fact that nowadays Psytrance is usually composed in pattern and loops with a digital audio workstation like Steinberg Cubase, Logic Pro or Ableton Live (and others) it helps to reimport the audio file back into such a program to have a better overview of the piece.

Stereo wave in a DAW with form parts

If you zoom to the end of the track, you can see that at a speed of 145 bpm, the track has 320 bars at a total length of 8:48 min whereby the intro already has an epic length of 1:46 min. – respectively 64 bars. This one inevitably reminds with its chord progression of Pink Floyds Shine on you crazy little Diamonds, with which already a nice recourse to one of the roots of Psytrance – Psychedelic Rock – has succeeded. Some genre typical fx sounds are heard before a nice sampled violin melody gives the intro a world music character. A synth arpeggio line fades in before we get down to business on bar 65.

Now 16 bars of scene A (bar 65 – 81) follows (Why I call individual structural elements a scene can be found in the glossary). The foundation of kick and bass play driving 16th notes and the arpeggio from the intro is accompanied by a second one. On every third count of every second bar you can hear a finger cymbal. After the first eight bars downlifter fx sounds already prepare for the first break.

During break 1 (bar 81 – 89), kick and bass are continued with increasing high-pass filter for six bars accompanied by scream samples and uplifting sound fx, before two bars of a vocal passage sample and a drum flam transferrs to the next scene B. The continuation of one or more elements (here: kick and bass) of the previous part into the next, serves to connect both.

Like scene A scene B (bar 89 -105) has a lenght of 16 bars. Kick and bass stays the same, but additional offbeat hihats and snare drive the track forward. While the main character – the arpeggio – in scene A rather generates a flow of sound, the staccato chords played in scene B create a nice contrast to the first scene, bringing variety. After four bars some long synth sounds appear before a downlifter prepares the next break 2 (bar 105 – 109) of four bars. The staccato chords continue.

The next twentyfour bars could be seen as scene B‘ (109 – 133), because the formative figure of chords played staccato is continued. The offbeat hihat is more open and louder and another arpeggio slowly fades in accompanied by some fx sounds. The last four bars are trimmed by a highpass filter. If we had a vertical contrast with scene A and B, the layering of staccato sounds and arpeggios leads to a horizontal contrast.

A previously unheard rhythmic acid-synth pattern leads through the twelve-bar break 3 (bar 133 – 145) and gets an additional layer by a traditional Bulgarian women’s choir. With the cut-off filter opening wider and wider, the acid-synth pattern is repeated for another twelve bars within scene C (bar 145 – 157). Additional spoken vocals can be heard. The last four bars of the part are high-pass filtered again.

In designing the next two scenes, Astrix again uses the technique of contrasting. While in scene D (bar 157 – 172) a flow is created by means of a continuous arpeggio figure. This flow is again broken with individually distributed sounds in scene E (bar 174 – 190). And again a contrast takes place through a fade in of another arpeggio. Both parts are almost equally long. Scene D has 15 bars and Scene E has 16, separated by the two-bar vocal sample (break 4, bar 172 – 174) we already know from break 1.

The following break 5 (bar 190 – 240) spans 50 bars and can be divided into three subparts. After the abrupt reduction of kick and bass, it seems as if the track simply fades out, but this leads to a complete dissolution of the rhthm due to the overlay of the metre-less midle east string instrument sample playing (bar 190 – 210). Then a long riser builds up (bar 210 – 233) consisting of a new arpeggio, low-pass filtered kick, snare drum and some fx sound to end in the legendary quote by Timothy Leary. A delay effect provides the transition by steadily repeating the last two words „drop out“ and inserting them in as an element in the next part.

In a larger context, the following two scenes could be seen as a compromised reduced repetition of the first three scenes (scene A, B and B‘). However, because no other elements are repeated except the kick and bass, scene F (bar 240 – 260) can be declared as independent. The next scene (bar 260 – 284) is a repetition of scene B‘, because not only the striking staccato string chords, but also the contrasting arpeggio comes into play here again and also the lenght of 24 bars stays the same.

I regard the remaining bars as Outro (bar 284 – 219), which was divided into three subparts. The spoken columns of numbers 540540616109014 comes from a transmission of a number station, but from my point of view this seems to have nothing to do with the track (This information was sent to me by a friendly reader of this article. Thanks Warren!).

All in all a wonderful composition that simply has everything. The length of the scenes and breaks are very different and variable and follow a musical flow. Before completely new figures are introduced, existing ones are viewed in a different light by contrasting them. This allows the producer to be economical with the material. The transition from one part to the next takes place with convincing continuity. By setting reference points (vocal sample during two breaks, repetition of a beginning part at the end), the piece is tied together very well. Last but not least, Astrix can be credited with a successful selection of samples that give the piece a nice touch of world music. With a reference to Pink Floyd and Timothy Leary, he clearly positions his music within the psychedelic culture.

Roots of Progressive Psytrance: Magnetrixx

With my article 20 Years of Progressive Psytrance last year I already gave an introduction into the history of Progressive Psytrance, which I will continue this year with a text about an important producer of the development phase. Wherever there is something to read about the origin of Progressive Psytrance, of course Atmos is referred to. From the German point of view Stefan Lewin or better known as Magnetrixx should not be left unmentioned. With his three albums Trittschall (2001), Phase Shift (2003) and Wired (2005) he had a significant influence on this subgenre during its genesis. I am a really lucky mushroom (as the German psyfraggle would say :), because I was able to get in touch with Stefan and he took the time to answer my questions e.g. what actually happened to this exceptional talent after leaving the Psytrance scene and many more.

„Imagination is more important than knowledge“ (Einstein). This quote applies only too well to Stefan Lewin, who didn`t need a profound musical nor an electrotechnical education to achieve a considerable success not only with the creation of his music, but also today with the production of electronic musical instruments. There was never a lack of musical inspiration, because all the other family members played classical or jazzy music on their home piano. But as a child of the eighties it was almost impossible to escape the electronic sounds of Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode or Jean Michel Jarre, which Stefan interpreted on the piano as well as his favorite classic composers Chopin, Schubert, Rachmaninoff or Liszt.

Just as strong as his multifaceted musical interest was his passion for electronic tinkering and physical processes. Stefan was particularly fascinated by magnetism (I then found it superfluous to ask him how he later came to his stage name). The X in the name of Psytrance artists was then copied in the following years by an infinite number of people (But who am I going to tell? :) Unfortunately, his passions were held back by the lack of availability of electronic music equipment or electronic components at all, because Stefan lived in the eastern part of Berlin. If one had no relations to West Germany, with whose help here and there various goods were smuggled to East Germany, then most citizens of East Germany only had unhindered access to electronic (consumer) goods after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A wonderful craft curiosity from Stefan Lewin: A sequencer in a paint bucket that drives his Korg MS-20

Like Ananda Shanti Das, Magnetrixx also started composing music with a nerdy tracker program and then worked with the most popular digital audio workstations like Fruity Loops, Cubase, Reason and Ableton Live. Continuous sound sources over the years have been Native Instruments Reaktor and a Korg MS-20, which sounds he recorded for further cutting and processing, underlining his passion for tinkering respectively composing sound. Stefan pointed to his deep interest in granular synthesis which can be found in many of his tracks – consecutive microscopic snippets of human origin.

The statement of Magnetrixx that Psytrance was well known to him since the end of the nineties with the labels Dragonfly, Flying Rhino or Tip Records extends my thesis that Progressive Trance was a further development of Trance in general as well of Psytrance, because this style had been established for years and escaped the „underground“ in 1995 at the latest. I’ll try to put it this way: The Psytrance listeners had experienced the psychedelic power in the already existing style extensively and recognized the potential in the new one. And many who were fascinated by Psytrance in a certain way, but for whom the sometimes quite fast and shrill music was still somewhat incomprehensible, were convinced by the slower and more minimalistic approach, whose melodic and harmonic turns were already best known. And so it is Progressive Psytrance! Meanwhile, also through the exchange with Stefan, I have come to the conclusion that the term Progressive was a bad choice, because one always tries to interpret this term musically in one way or another – and fails.

Recently I read something from the author Mason Curry, who examined the habits of great creative personalities. One of the points was: They didn’t have too many parties. And so did Stefan. He was at the parties and festivals where he was booked as Magnetrixx. He liked to be on stage as a live act, enjoyed to travel around the globe and to get to know different people, but he much preferred the time making music in the studio – to the point where everyone played the same sound. And if any sound is somewhat successful, then every organizer wants to have this sound on his party, even if it is not available in high quality in sufficient quantity. Normally this process heralds the end of a hype, but it should only really take off with Vini Vici in 2015, after Armin van Buuren played one of their tracks in his radio show.

When everyone wants one thing and screams „Here“ loudly because fame and money lure, one or the other turns away and prefers to do something else. With the return to analog sounds in electronic music, Stefan started to tinker again to realize his very own ideas, just as he had done with Reaktor in the digital realm before. Together with his business partner Martin, he founded his company Audiophile Circuits League in 2017, which manufactures its own Eurorack modules for modular systems. Their „System 1“, a lavishly equipped modular stereo synthesizer, has consistently received excellent reviews in the music press. If you don’t feel like working night shifts on weekends anymore and Russian hacker sites offer all your tracks for free download, this is certainly an excellent perspective.

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to my favourite Magnetrixx track (beware! taste is always subjective!) which combines many of the features that make it a Magnetrixx track. It has a few hooklines that simply have a high recognition value. A dense and sometimes „wobbly“ groove through many percussion instruments and – I love this crystal clear chord fanned out upwards :)

I would like to thank Stefan Lewin so much for his time and wish him only the best for his new profession. Hope me meet sometime!