It’s a Quarter of a Century since N-Trance’s “Set You Free” Put Clubland on the Map
To this day the track raises a defiant middle finger to those who look on at the Kisstory machine with a sense of second-hand embarrassment.
Bored, restless, filled with that unmistakable stomach-shaking sense of total existential emptiness that pricks deep into your core on a daily basis? We've got a game for you! Find your nearest service station, grab an AA 2017 Great Britain and Ireland Road Atlas and a pair of scissors, and systematically remove everything south of Birmingham. Then, procure a biro and scrawl some scantily-clad dancers over towns like Sowerby Bridge, Stockport, and South Shields—congratulations, you've mapped out the part of the United Kingdom that thrives on thudding Eurodance and untrammelled euphoria. Welcome to Clubland.
I mean, you can take the credit, but it was really Matt Cadman and Cris Nutall that discovered this land. Back in 1991, they formed All Around the World, a subsidiary of Universal that continues to release floor-filling electro-pop to this very day. A decade after AATW bounced into cultural consciousness, the Clubland compilation albums started appearing. Soon after that, the TV channel emerged in tandem with the arena-sized live events, that brought the roster's biggest names—Cascada! Ultrabeat! DJ Sammy!—to the screaming masses.
Before all that, before Clubland became a brand as reputable as Kelloggs, Dunn's River, or Go Compare, one year into All Around the World's nascent existence, one 12" changed the game forever. A country had been founded, a nation erected, an empire thrust into being. This was that record.
It was 1992, and Britain was peaking hard on rave. It's the year that rave culture flowed into the mainstream, catalysed by a potent dose of optimism. The same year gave us Baby D's "Let Me Be Your Fantasy" and Liquid's "Sweet Harmony," but where these crossover tracks stuck a little closer to their acid house origins, N-Trance's soon-to-be-era-defining-anthem was unashamedly poppy and wildly euphoric.
"Set You Free" sounds like that mythical first pill. It sounds like the chemically-induced expulsion of your inner self to a stranger in a smoking area. In its own way, an admirable way, a naive way, it sounds like every other trite cliche you trot out about the power of pingers because those cliches are for better or worse are accurate—they purport to an essential truth. "Set You Free" still to this day raises a defiant middle finger up to those who look on at the Kisstory machine with a sense of second-hand embarrassment.
The intro—all thunder, rain, and ghostly piano—is a kind of nostalgia-pop petrichor, but the track will always be remembered for it's haunting vocal, courtesy of the queen of Clubland, Kelly Llorena. She glides over the track like a fluttering White Dove. She's to Clubland what Barbara Tucker is to US Garage or Robert Owens is to house; a Midas touch of a voice, turning bargain basement floorfillers into sought-after classics. Slap her name on a poster in 2017 alongside Scooter and Darren Styles and the event'll be a guaranteed sell-out.
The mad thing is, Llorena was only 16 when she recorded the vocals back in in 1992. She remembers "Kevin [O'Toole, N-Trance co-founder] and Dale [Longworth, the other half of the duo] coming into her college and asking if anyone sung, and everyone replying "Kelly sings!''" before "heading to Kev's bedroom studio and doing a vocal demo." For Kelly, her vocals "captured that childhood moment in time. It was just me and five lads in a transit van going up to Belfast or Glasgow every week, playing the song for petrol money." Sure, it might be darkness that kickstarts the record, but as Llorena herself puts it peoples' faces "light up, and they're transported back to where they were." Scroll through the YouTube comments and you can see that it's so true; like all of the greatest dance tracks, memories, locations, smells and chemicals are indelibly attached to its waveforms.
Even though the lyrics took 20 minutes to smash out, there's something quite moving about them. The opening line "I hold you baby/feel your heartbeat close to me," sounds like the most intimate pinings of a lover, but it's actually based on O' Toole hugging a random stranger on a night out at the Hacienda "They used to pass round pints of water, and a woman came up to me and I felt her heartbeat through her top," he remembers. "The songs created a diary of what was happening at the time." Link that and the later lyric of "when we touch each other/in a state of ecstasy," and it perfectly captures the peak of mainstream rave, of loved-up nights and tunes as serotonergic as the pills. As corny and obvious as that sounds. Obviously.
Despite being an underground smash, "Set You Free" took three years to rocket into the mainstream, eventually hitting the number two slot in the UK charts. By then, rave as we knew it was dying. The N-Trance record, then, can be seen as a kind of unintentional last gasp of a sound and a lifestyle that had been co-opted by the shadowy forces at major record labels. O'Toole had always wanted it to be a big hit, but more than that, it was meant to be a song that, "DJs can't mix in. When we used to go to the Hacienda, the song you remembered on the way home was always the last one played, and we wanted to create that."
A quarter of a century on, and it's still remembered as vividly as ever. Without it, Clubland wouldn't have been a thing; and that's pretty crazy considering that it's still going strong. From Essex to Aberdeen, the whole scene still has bureau-de-change levels of currency, and soundtracks thousands of people's big Saturday nights out. And they've got a 16 year old college student to thank.