I had no reason to expect anything other than an amazing new record from “tronce” music legend Ilan Bluestone. Since debuting on the Anjunabeats label in 2012, he’s been an absolute mainstay of the progressive trance world, having given us lots of infectious dance anthems on his own and with collaborators. Bluestone’s first album, Scars, finally saw release in 2017 and set the bar pretty high if songs like “Frozen Ground” (feat. Giuseppe De Luca) and the heart-wrenching “Will We Remain?” (feat. Maor Levi and EL Waves) are anything to go by. His sophomore album Impulse has all of these previous collaborators and more, boasting 18 brand new cuts from Bluestone and friends and clocking in at 71 minutes—long, to be sure, but there’s nothing wrong with a lot of new music from a good musician, is there?
Well…as it turns out, this album has a fatal flaw that keeps an otherwise good collection of songs from being great. It’s not the production, since Bluestone has shown again and again how good he is at building tension, creating atmosphere, and bending electronic sounds to his will. It’s not the length, since these 18 tracks fly by at a breakneck pace. It’s not Bluestone’s limited range, since he seems to have no limits on the kinds of songs and sounds he wants to make, and it doesn’t lack for collaborators—De Luca, Levi, and Waves all return for their own songs alongside Bluestone newcomers Alex Clare (yes, the Alex Clare who did that one dubstep song for that one Microsoft ad) and Jan Burton (a regular singer on Gabriel & Dresden’s music; check out “You” and “Keep on Holding”). Impulse‘s biggest problem is one that I just can’t look past: the lyrics are absolutely atrocious.
This isn’t Bluestone’s fault by a long shot. His brand of “tronce” is about building atmosphere, and vocalists and lyrics don’t always come to the forefront like they do in pop music—they tend to blend into the electric soundscapes and energies created by the producer. Bluestone has never been afraid to experiment, playing both inside and outside the boundaries of his genre to create sounds that are all over the place, but still recognizably his. It feels more like a collection of songs than a cohesive whole (cough cough Jake Joseph’s Superjail!, still my favorite album of 2021), but it doesn’t need to be more than that to show off the artist’s skills. Most of the music here either throws out lyrics entirely to let the production shine, such as on the festival jumper “11” and the refreshingly downtempo “Santo”, or uses a compelling enough vocalist to make otherwise awkward lyrics work.
Some of the vocal highlights here include Impulse‘s first single, “Paid for Love” featuring Gid Sedgwick, who somehow turns the simple chorus “I spent enough/Gave too much/Paid for love” into the first really emotional moment on the album by sounding as if he’s ripping his own heart out of his chest, and “Hold On” featuring Maor Levi and Alex Clare, the latter of whose bluesy vocals give the otherwise awkward “Only here for 80 years/Too short to be filled with tears/Hold on, hold on” a surprising level of power. Bluestone’s longtime friend Giuseppe De Luca is featured on five songs of varying quality; at its lowest points, his words are overwritten and borderline impossible to understand, like on “Look at Me Now” and “Stardust & Madness”, where I’m singing along but I don’t know exactly what lyrics are coming out of my mouth.
I love Jan Burton’s voice, but his clunky lyrical contributions on the otherwise untouchable dance floor destroyer “Rule the World” keep the song from fully taking flight. “We don’t inquire about the rain/We don’t desire all this pain”? “No fool should rule the world/Don’t bleed or need to be told”? There’s a total of six lines in this song, and they feel like they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Burton’s other contribution, “Underneath Moonlit Canopy”, shoots a little higher for the philosophical stars but doesn’t quite reach them. Lyrics are a problem through some of the otherwise highest points here, like EL Waves’s otherwise gorgeous “Tonight” where we get the genius lyric “Tonight/We will make it through the night”, and Ellen Smith’s “Love Not Lust”, where she immediately asks her partner to touch her right after saying she doesn’t want their lust. (Thankfully her vocals serve earlier track “Stranger to Your Love” much better.)
The lyrical highlights of Impulse, in my mind, are three cuts. One is a bit of a cop-out—Giuseppe De Luca features on an electrified cover of Monaco’s “What Do You Want From Me?”, doing his best new wave impression and delivering words that no one involved in this album wrote. He sounds like he should have been singing songs in the 1980s, and that’s the highest compliment his work here can get, as he convincingly gives us “sha la la”s and a really strong hook with “Ruining eeeeeeeverything”. De Luca’s ’80s flavor shines through even further on a song he wrote the lyrics to, “Hopeless Dreamer”, which Bluestone makes sound straight out of Hotline Miami or Drive with its shameless synthwave rhythm and melody. There’s a little more room to be cheesy here, and De Luca takes it and runs with it; even at its most awkward, he’s the perfect man to deliver it. “Let me write your name across the sky/I’ll pull you to life, I’ll be your hopeless dreamer” sounds more sincere than it ever should.
The final highlight, and my absolute favorite song from the entire album, is first-time vocalist Laura Zay’s contribution to the far more experimental “Stay”. Bluestone goes straight for a drum n’ bass rhythm here, but never strays too far from his trance roots, delivering the perfect blend of in-your-face banging drums and swirling melodies. Zay’s vocal melody plays perfectly with the soundscape, giving a real emotional weight to “I will never run away, I need to stay/Holding on to the air with every breath I take”. It’s about halfway through the record, and it’s the highest point by far.
There are many things to like about Impulse, and if you like progressive trance, don’t let the awkward lyrics get you too down. It’s just really, really hard for me to overlook some of them, which breaks my heart, because Ilan Bluestone really is an electronic music talent worth celebrating. If this is your entry point to his amazing body of work, that’s great—I highly recommend you check out his debut album Scars and his 2019 EP We Are the Universe for more. For now, Impulse is an album I wish I loved more than I do, but it’s hard for me to say I’m not happy with the final product, and I can’t wait to see where Bluestone’s own impulses take him next.
Impulse is out now through Anjunabeats.