How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Surrender to Psytrance
There I was, standing on the shore of a lake in Portugal barefoot on a wet sandy dance floor in the very center of a structure that looked like the inside of a psychedelic beetle. At my feet was a mound of empty water bottles and other sloppy belongings that had accumulated throughout the day, possibly throughout the whole week. As the sun set on the banks of Lake Idanha-a-Velha, the warm sunlight bore through the center of the stage like a thick, heavy laser. Bathed in the glow was Swiss psytrance DJ and producer Ajja, resplendent with long dreadlocks extending around him. My grimy toes gripped the floor as I danced and wiggled to the strange alien sounds that had always seemed cheesy to me from afar. Well, that isn’t entirely correct; it wasn’t so much that I was dancing. “You don’t actually dance to psytrance,” the visionary artist Android Jones had warned me, “psytrance dances you.” As the kinetic electronica rippled through my body I made eye contact with another rapturous trancer who smiled with glee, acknowledging our mutual stokedness. Android's partner Martha leaned over to me and, with a mixture of guilt and pride, confessed, “I feel more accepted here than I do anywhere else… like in my entire life.” I laughed, my body kept moving. I noticed I was doing some sort of zany karate. I surrendered.
Hours earlier I was still trying to wrap my head around the appeal of psytrance. I’ve always loved people who love the genre but I’ve never understood the allure of the music itself. To me it had the vibe of cacophonous space insects like something out of Starship Troopers. I had traveled halfway around the globe to attend Boom , one of the world’s foremost psytrance events, and yet I still didn’t get it. On the last day of the festival after spending most of the week with the burners on Funky Beach, contemplating visionary art or attending mind-expanding workshops, I knew I was missing something. Chatting with Android, I shared my theory that psytrance must be intentionally off-putting to shield the event against less conscious partiers. “I think that psytrance is so weird, it keeps the weekend warriors away,” I theorized proudly. Android smiled and shook his head “Have you stepped through the veil and spent more than 45 minutes in center of the Dance Temple?” he inquired. I confessed that I couldn’t imagine doing so and furthermore the festival was almost over and I had interviews to do. “We’re going in fifteen minutes,” Android said, “come with us.”
Things That Make You Go Boom!
Boom is known to be a foremost destination for psytrance enthusiasts, but it’s really more of a festival of psychedelic culture. It’s an independent gathering with no sponsorship and is also the largest festival in Portugal, one of the least wealthy of advanced Western economies. As opposed to weekend-long U.S. festivals with high ticket prices, Boom is much more affordable and has a strong social policy on tickets. Travelers from across the globe come for music, workshops, art, activist hubs, family environments, and the incredible atmosphere. Indeed, there are over 150 countries represented in the week-long intentional community. It is a favorite of some of the most popular artists of the visionary genre, with Android Jones, Daniel Popper, Amanda Sage, Carey Thompson, and Chris Dyer creating dynamic pieces specifically for the event. Speakers come from far and wide, including modern technology leaders and venerable wisdom-keepers from indigenous traditions.
Boom is famous for a rich cultural program that inspires attendees far beyond just partying. In fact, the event has built a container around the psychedelic experience as a Shamanic journey. In addition to world-class art and lectures that educate on the subject, Boom boasts one of the most sophisticated harm reduction programs in the world, Kosmicare. This is possible in part due to Portugal’s decriminalization of recreational drug use in 2001. At Boom, festival-goers can explore the psychedelic experience safely.
Boom is rightly considered one of the most well-produced festivals in the world. The physical use of space around Lake Idanha-a-Velha is itself exemplary. Rather than multiple stages each vying for attention like bombastic pods, the production works in harmony to provide options for any state of mind. There’s the chill house music vibes at Funky Beach on one end of the lake and the peaceful Being Fields with the soundtrack of babbling, chatty frogs on the other. Everything melds together seamlessly, with each space serving the function of a different vital organ. It was these qualities which drew me to Boom in the first place. At the festival’s core is its mighty Dance Temple and the electric sounds of psytrance blasting from walls of Funktion Ones.
Psytrance Dances You
When I’m dancing to bass music at a west coast festival, I feel accepted and inspired to express myself. I check out everyone’s sweet dance moves, rad costumes, and beautiful faces. Radical self-expression is the order of the day. But although I love this sexy, performative environment, I’m definitely self-conscious in it. I’m very much in my head. I’m aware of exactly how I’m moving my arms and legs as I shift energy around in my body. I notice what others are doing and I imagine how they might see me. As a single man I often anticipate the possibility of a connection. Are you getting my signals? Am I getting yours? Should I be signaling at all?
Psytance is different. As Android explained to me, it isn’t so much that you dance to psytrance, psytrance dances you. On the psytrance dance floor no one cares what you look like when you’re dancing. The only way to do it wrong is not to be present for the experience. “Part of the high is that you lose your ego and you’re connected to everyone else,” Android told me, “But it’s an individual experience too, you don’t see people grinding on the dance floor. The dance is more sacred.” The psytrance floor seemed entirely free of the loathsome specter of unwanted advances; there didn’t seem to be any romantic intimacy at all. When I caught eyes with another in that cavernous space it was always the same moment of blissful recognition, YES! I AM FEELING THIS TOO!” “I don’t know a festival on the west coast scene when I’m on the dancefloor for 4 hours or more,” Martha told me. “The trance dancers are out there for hours and hours feeling it with their whole body.” In fact, our friend Ian proudly announced that he had been dancing for 37 hours straight.
One of the first things you notice about a psytrance floor is that people give each other a lot of space to move. The Dance Temple at this year’s Boom was by far the largest structure ever attempted by the Do LaB, producers of California’s Lightning in a Bottle , who were guest designers this year. Most festivals have a mainstage that presents a spectacle for consumption. The headliner is the draw and the space is designed to focus on framing them for their fans. However, when the Dance Temple turns on, it’s like opening a portal to another world. At the opening ceremony there were elders from around the world praying in all directions. Rather than an ego or face, the Dance Temple is Boom’s heartbeat.
In the Dance Temple everything is designed around the sonic experience itself. The placement of the speakers overrides any aesthetic decision. In fact, Tony Andrews, the creator of the Funktion One, uses Boom as a laboratory to prototype audio technology and experiment with new bass frequencies. Android calls Tony the “Modern Nicola Tesla of Sound.” An affable British fellow in his 50s, Tony says he can “only recoil in horror at the average quality of electronic audio.” After analyzing musical instruments to determine where they get their richness of sound, Tony decided to create a sound system based on wood and paper rather than metal. The result is something so clean that you can stand right in front of a Funktion One bass and it feels like it goes right through you.
The Shamanic Cycle
“The Boom Shaman” by Daniel Popper with projection mapping by Wayne Ellis. Photo by: Jakob Kolar
The popular Israeli electric duo Infected Mushroom call psytrance: “basically the musical version of LSD.” A friend I met at Boom told me earlier in the week that dancing to psytrance on acid was like stacking a psychedelic experience on top of a psychedelic experience. I should add, however that although the name and origin of the music comes from entheogenic experimentation, I don’t believe a mind-altering substance is necessary to step into the state of trance. The experience doesn’t have to be psychedelic per se to be shamanic.
A complete psytrance experience follows a cycle which allows trancers to do deep psycho-spiritual work during the course of the session. It begins with Full On, the celebratory style of trance that is most popular. That’s what Android, Martha and I were dancing to with world renowned DJs Ajja and Tristain. As the sun sets, pystrance typically moves into Twilight and the sound becomes darker. Twilight then turns into Forest, which is faster and has a tendency for more complicated and almost menacing sounds. It’s in Forest that you hear evil robot aliens and invading intergalactic insects. While this style is more aggressive, it allows the trancer to shake and work through more complex emotional experiences. At Boom, the psytrance usually stops at Forest but the journey can continue into Hi Tech which is much faster, at 190 BPM. As the light returns, high tech slows down and there is a transition to the sunrise DJs who take the edge off and bring back peaceful, melodic tones, which feel loving and expansive. When the sun has risen, the cycle is complete and the Full On celebratory trance takes over once again.
While I only stayed for a single, four-hour session of Full On, I felt how psytrance could facilitate a complete shamanic journey. It has long been subjectively reported, and recently scientifically corroborated, that LSD facilitates a turning off in the brain rather than a turning on. A recent study at Imperial College London by Amanda Fielding of the Beckley Foundation demonstrated that LSD limits blood flow to the default mode network, theorized to be the seat of the ego. With limited activity in this network, areas of the brain start to communicate with each other that don’t typically connect. This creates the widely reported aspects of the psychedelic experience like hallucinations and synesthesia. At larger doses, it can facility a full ego dissolution. I personally ascribe to the perspective of the Zendo Project, Kosmicare and other psychedelic first aid theorists that there are no bad trips, only challenging revelations. That being said, losing one’s ego can be a terrifying thing.
The thing about psytrance though, is that the music creates a structure that makes you feel safe and secure while all this is going on. While I moved like an automaton in the afternoon sun, the insistent driving beat held my mind in a comforting trance. Sci-fi samples zapped my hyperactive thoughts into submission. There was no fear of getting lost in an acid-induced mind-fuck because the music kept pushing me toward deeper and deeper waves of surrender. I could feel blockages inside me release as the innate intelligence of my body began to override the stilted programming of my mind. Not only did I understand why people actually liked psytrance, I could see why some actually considered it a religious experience.
Visualize World Peace
Before my experience, I thought it was hyperbolic for Android to say that he’d never seen anything as close to world peace as the Dance Temple at Boom. But as I kept letting go and accepting my small space in the frenzied mass, I felt real oneness with the international cohort of tattooed and dreadlocked trancers around me. Android dubbed this the “Hive of Stokedness,” a horde of unity into which I was slowly dissolving. In those moments I felt a sense of belonging that required nothing more than surrendering to the shared experience of trance.
Afterwards, as we relaxed on the shore of the lake to decompress and integrate our experience, Android was beaming with the type of inspiration that makes him one of the leading artists in the festival world. “The thing that happens on the psytrance dance floor that is so fundamentally different is that when it clicks, it’s almost like you’ve entered into a secret society,” he told me. “There’s a feeling your entire body gets where you’re getting initiated. It’s not abstract anymore. It’s like when you first ‘get’ yoga or meditation. There is this huge deep thing that existed long before you and will exist after you and now you’re a part of it along with everyone else. You realize there’s this higher degree of intelligence that’s been waiting for you this whole time.”
And to think I always thought it was cheesy bug music.