The myth surrounding electronic dance music, or its more popular initialism EDM, is limiting to say the least. Although intended to be used as a catch-all term for popular electronic genres like disco, synth-pop, electro and their multitude of sub-genres, it is widely considered to be the stuff of hazy nightclubs and percussive dance beats, a manifestation of millennial rave culture. One would hardly expect dance music to come from a place of meaningfulness or emotion; and yet, throughout the span of his almost three decade-long career, Ray Guell has consistently proved that he really can do it all: create unbelievably catchy discotheque beats laden with snappy synth textures, and combine them with lyrics and themes that are meaningful, emotional and far from skin-deep.
With Defined, his most recent studio album, the collaboration between Guell and popular American music producer Giuseppe D is a treat to witness. The ostensible blend of Guiseppe’s creativity and musicianship and Guell’s penchant for artistic, unique sound and lyricism has made it clear that Defined is not an album we will forget soon. According to Guell, “Recording and writing music is a very vulnerable place to be, but with him I felt safe and I was able to explore different artistic choices. I knew and trusted that he would not let me sound bad.” And it seems that Guell’s efforts have more than paid off; In just the first week of its release, Defined was in the top 10 of the Top Dance Albums on iTunes, and peaked at #13 and #12 in France and Germany, respectively.
But this is certainly not Guell’s first experience with chart-toppers. “Love Will Come”, which was released in 2008, and “Love Is the Answer”, released in 2010, ranked 22 and 32 on the US Billboard Dance Club Songs chart. Even then, Guell was inclined to explore themes of love, heartbreak and disillusionment, which perhaps is what demarcates his work from the deluge of other electronic music. This is not surprising; freestyle music, which is Guell’s primary domain, has a history of underlying despondence and heartbreak. With its roots in New York in the 80’s, one of its most popular inflections was the theme of heartbreak set against an urban backdrop like NYC, which captures the soul of Guell’s discography.
But what makes this new album so different from his other works is that Guell is now more honest and raw than ever. In more ways than one, Defined is undoubtedly a labor of love, a distillation of the last 8 years of Guell’s life, allowing his fans to trace his journey from episodes of loss, heartbreak, to even his struggles with mental health. With Giuseppe D’s encouragement, Guell seems to shine brighter than ever, with synthy beats that make you dance and lyrics that speak to your soul.
Perhaps the best example of this vulnerability can be seen in Haunting visions, the 12th track of the album, which Guell wrote while trying to cope with the loss of his father. Still reeling from a depressive episode following this, he found solace in channeling his grief into writing a song which could capture his emotions. According to Guell, he had initially no intention of including the song in his album, but later decided that it should be a part if he wanted the album to be as authentic and heartfelt as possible. With its eerie, almost foreboding melody, it is an accurate reflection of its name. And yet the emotive lyrics and imagery make it one of the most unforgettable tracks on the album.
The first track on the album was, incidentally, also the first project which Guell and Giuseppe D collaborated on. Toe-tappingly catchy, with a synth-popesque melody, its uplifting tone is almost symbolic to Guell’s state of mind while creating it. Explaining how the song and the subsequent collaboration with Giuseppe D was almost his stepping stone into creating Defined, Guell explained, “ I don’t remember much about why I wrote these lyrics, but this was the first time Giuseppe and I actually connected on a very personal level. This was a bit before my breakdown but little did I know what was coming for me around the corner. Disillusioned from the music industry and life at that point, I decided to dive in and get back to creating music. I remember having a heart-to-heart with him about my thoughts and somehow these lyrics came to be.”. And without a doubt, the plaintive romantic feel was the perfect start to a versatile and meaningful new album.
Defined also features a rendition of My World is Empty Without You, the pop-soul ballad by Diana Ross and The Supremes from 1966. The song held a special place in Guell’s heart, and he collaborated with Company B, an American Latin-freestyle trifecta who rose to prominence in the 80’s, creating a fitting parallel with the original version. Guell explained that Company B was an obvious choice for him, as he had been a fan since the band’s inception in 1986, and was now close friends with the band members.
Coincidently, as Ray releases the single and remix EP for My World is Empty Without You on Valentine’s Day this month, it is also an homage to Mary Wilson, one of the original members of The Supremes who recently passed away.
Although Defined can currently be streamed on all major music platforms, there are some new releases scheduled to release in February 2021, including a single which is slated for release on the 12th. But if it’s predecessors are anything to go by, it is almost certain to be another treasure for fans of Dance music-just the right amount of snappy and sentimental.