Boundaries between genres in dance music are as hard to pin down as boundaries between neighborhoods in San Francisco, but Andy Schneider has found his niche. He calls it vintage progressive house, and he's made it the lodestar for his “obsessive mission to curate and preserve a moment of the past.” Vintage progressive house, if you're wondering, is “all about tuneful melodies, big resonant drums, intricate textures, and, if you listen closely enough, a good amount of sound design subtlety.”
To Schneider, a self-appointed “electronica-naysayer,” listening closely is what it's all about. “What allowed this style to be so successful was, in my opinion, how well it worked as normal music,” he says. “That is, there was enough happening in terms of structure, depth, songcraft, emotion, etc., that it appealed to armchair listeners who weren't all hopped up on whatsits. Whereas you'd be able to walk into most clubs at any point of the DJ's set and get all there is to get out of the music, this style requires that you devote your attention from start to finish. If the DJ is good, it'll be well worth the effort.”
This February, Schneider — who can also be seen and heard around town playing hand percussion for live dance sets under the name DJ Ammo — kicked off Regressions, a monthly broadcast on the electronic music station Proton Radio, in the hopes of introducing (or reintroducing) listeners to vintage progressive house with, he says, “the sober, critical headphone clubber like myself in mind.” The listeners seemed all too pleased with the favor; his first mix, a sort of live audition for Proton residency, aired in December and charted as the station's most popular set of the day.
The Regressions mixes sprawling blends of tuneful melodrama and propulsive percolations with a few nods to less housey motifs (a dubstep wobble here, a trip-hop chanteuse there), run for two hours, which, Schneider explains, is ideal for a DJ looking to create a long-form narrative without having to sweat the room's energy level. “Most of what I'm hearing from dance music lately is a bit more forgiving when it comes to placement, which is great if you want to keep the party grooving throughout the night,” he says, “but the programming challenge isn't there in the same way. It's easy to throw down some fat electro basslines and squashed kicks, and it's a lot of fun to get down to. To create a constantly evolving continuum of energy and emotion is the challenge and the reward of this style. If you pull it off, it's an awesome ride, but one wrong track placement and you're back to square one.”
By most accounts, progressive house originated in Europe in the early '90s, chiefly thanks to U.K. DJs like Sasha and John Digweed (the latter of whom also has a show on Proton), whose Northern Exposure compilation remains the style's volume of reference. In its pre-vintage days it departed from the conventions of house music, most notably in its emphasis on dynamic peaks and valleys — the buildup, the climax, the cooldown — and its embrace of lush melodies, arguably inherited from trance music. Schneider's take isn't heavy-handed in applying the “vintage” prefix, but it's still easy to distinguish from the genre's current beneficiaries like Deadmau5 and Boys Noize: It's not dated, but it's plainly not what's happening right now.
So why resurrect it? Early progressive house hit the mainstream in the late '90s and lost its scenester cred, whether because it became too popular or because shinier styles stole the spotlight. “Dance music is a constantly changing, hypertrendy beast, and once something new comes along, everyone gravitates to it to stay cutting-edge,” Schneider explains. “I've also heard interesting theories about how dance music stylistically correlates with the popularity of certain drugs: Ecstasy and acid were popular during progressive house's heyday, since they lend themselves well to uplifting melodies and euphoric climaxes; today, cocaine, ketamine, and GHB have displaced the euphorics and entheogenics, and I've been told their more transient highs are more suitable to today's techno, minimal, and tech house trends.”
Before that fall from grace, though, progressive house brought the appeal of dance music to a previously unsympathetic audience: “It blew up with me and my friends because it was the first time we heard dance music that appealed to use in a danceless way,” Schneider recalls. The aim of Regressions, then, is to pay tribute to, preserve, and perchance replicate that moment where something new — relatively speaking, anyway — becomes worth engaging with and discovering. If that amounts to taking the club culture out of the equation, so much the better, as far as Schneider is concerned: “The greater cause is to bring back this notion of interesting, subtle, sober-friendly nightlife music, just the same way I discovered it in the first place: listening.”