A trance classic turns 20.
Sometimes the biggest track is also the best. "Xpander" is a tune that almost every dance music fan of a certain age knows. It was on the radio, appeared on compilations and featured in the third edition of Wipeout, a video game series known for embracing electronic music. Named after the Oberheim Xpander synthesizer, the 11-minute original captures everything that was great about Sasha at the top of his game.
It was hard to find a DJ more universally loved than Sasha in 1999. Five years earlier, Mixmag crowned him the "Son of God," a nickname that actually stuck. By the end of that decade, he'd put together some of the best mix CDs of all time, including the San Francisco entry in the Global Underground series and Northern Exposure, made with his long-time musical partner John Digweed. The duo were also residents at New York's Twilo, then one of the most important nightclubs in the world. In 1999, their heady, melodic trance sound was at its height, bolstered by the release of "Xpander," a track seen by many as the style's pinnacle.
Sasha produced "Xpander" with Charlie May from the trance group Spooky, who would afterwards become his right-hand man in the studio. "'Xpander' had been around in one form or another as a Spooky track for a while," May told me over email. "We used to perform a breakbeat version live during the early '90s, but we could never make it stick in the studio. It got put to one side and only survived as a short piece of audio on a DAT tape. There was no hard disk recording of it, no saved patch, no backup. Even the original synth we used had been sold. Sasha was at my house one day and asked, 'What else have you got?'"
"Xpander" still sounds like the future. Every element shimmers. The sounds are rich and full. New melodies and synths weave themselves into the tapestry, capturing the dizzy rush of late-'90s progressive house and trance. In this era, trance producers approached music like jam bands. Motifs appear in different configurations, the tracks careening through breakdowns and reprises. Classic trance tunes often stretched past ten minutes, with more tangents than you generally get from house or techno. It was ultra-detailed music that sounds like it took months to make, every single note, bleep and beat polished to a sheen.
Part of that, May explained, is "team effort." In addition to May and Sasha, there was John Hourihane, who installed new mixing desks, along with Flipper Dalton and Cheeky Paul, who helped with sound design and production. These were the kind of resources a superstar DJ like Sasha could get in those days, a whole crew of people helping you perfect your track.
"I remember that being a difficult record to mix down," Sasha told Point Blank Music School. "We actually went through about two or three different engineers to try to get it right, and they still didn't get it right. In the end, me and Charlie mixed it down on our own."
It was worth the extra effort. "Xpander" instantly became a fan favourite, used as the centrepiece of Sasha's genre-defining mix, Global Underground 013: Ibiza. Sasha remains one of the top DJs in the world, these days pushing a more conventional, trance-inflected techno sound. But "Xpander" remains his crowning achievement. It's the pinnacle of trance. 20 years later, it hasn't been topped.