At the time of this review writing, I have no reviewed the first two 4 Strings albums, so I don't really have any grounds for comparison for you at the moment. What I can ensure you though is that while "Mainline" is not a stark departure from the style of its predecessors, there are indeed some distinguishing changes. Of particular note is the departure of the established "voice" of 4 Strings, Vanesse van Hemmert, in early 2005. The combination of Carlo Resoort's production prowess and van Hemmert's trance-fitting vocal style had made the duo a worldwide dancefloor sensation with now-classic tracks such as "Take Me Away (Into The Night)", "Let It Rain", and "Diving". But with the legendary voice absent, how was the producer to keep on going, maintaining the fanbase in the process? There are two ways of trying this; Mr. Resoort has attempted both, and they are evident on this album and in the releases following the split. First is the easiest method: go without a vocalist and stick to instrumental trance. This was the case with many of the songs on this album, five of which were also released as separate vinyl singles. It works. The second method is also obvious: hire a new vocalist. There are several featured here, most prominently being Tina Cousins, who has had a lot of experience in the dance scene both as a solo artist and in co-operation with other dance producers. Either way, 4 Strings lives on...
The album starts off with a typical 4 Strings instrumental track called Desire. And they didn't stiff us with this one -- it's over seven minutes long, although perhaps unnecessarily so. It could have been cut to a more acceptable three minutes. After two and a half minutes of build-up, we are met with the main synth, which always sounds warm and sunny, and suitable for coastal listening. The main melody is nice enough, very reminiscent of 4 Strings music past, but unfortunately it is, by itself, quite brief and is repeated over and over before going for another session of building up and climaxing with the melody. Nothing in particular stands out here, causing me to wonder why they opted to introduce the album with this timid entry. The next track, Sunrise, is just as wise and is under three and a half minutes in length,as it should be. This song follows the same structure as the previous tune, even with the same warm synth and petite melody. The only difference is the appearance of vocals from Vanessa van Hemmert in her final performance with 4 Strings. The vocals add a little character to the song, and prevent it from being dispensible due to its similarity to "Desire".
Diamonds is, in my opinion, one of the stronger tracks on the album, although for me, this tune holds the opposite problem of being too short. It is a vocal rework of "Jewel", one of the 4 Strings vinyl releases which was initially an instrumental song. Tina Cousins provides some decent vocals for this one. Even though the song features that same aforementioned sunny synth sound, it is cascaded over a more gritty background synth and creates a rough yet ultimately attractive yield. It is also shown that 4 Strings relies heavily on short melodies instead of dragging them on as some modern trance tunes tend to attempt. Yet the following track, the title track Mainline, breaks this trend a little bit, developing a more standard-length melodic output. Clocking in at over eight minutes, this pounder is also one of my favourites, even if it does sound repetitive after a while (the melody is consequently shuffled a bit during the second choral interlude). In a surprising occurrence, the build-up is actually worth listening to as well with a melodic undertone all its own, making the three-minute wait bearable. Curious also uses the vocals of Tina Cousins, but takes her in a much more pop-oriented direction. Following a synth-pop vibe, this short trip is somewhat catchy (and consequently became another CD single), but the effect wears off somewhat quickly as there is little variety in this song. It also just doesn't sound like 4 Strings at all. Weird.
The next track, Hurricane, is more of a hybrid of the likes of "Desire" and "Mainline", with a longer, and slightly arpeggiated, melody but maintaining the happy-go-lucky 4 Strings signature sound though with a slightly rougher primary synth. It may seem equally repetitive as "Mainline", but it's still decent nonetheless. Then the 4 Strings classic, Take Me Away, is given the renewal treatment by Ron Van Den Beuken, who has become famous under aliases such as Clokx, The Mystery, and Floyd, as well as more recently under his own name with such hits as "Timeless (Keep On Movin')" and "Endless". Unfortunately, not much is added here to enhance the original, except that the main synth from the original version has been filtered so that it has that more abrasive timbre we'd come to expect from Ron Van Den Beuken. To be honest, this wasn't really necessary to be placed upon this album, except to remind fans that the old tunes of 4 Strings history have not been yet forgotten.
Normally, if an artist or group has already released a number of vinyls and/or singles prior to an album, and they plan on placing those tracks on the album, they will space them out, dispersing them among original material. However, such is not the case here -- the first half of "Mainline" takes up their already-released vinyl pressings, the second half consisting of all-new music. Unfortunately, we can also see a decline in the quality; much here is admittedly filler. The next track, Colorblind, may be the most interesting of that filler; it's a vocal track that has a very gritty bassline (and eventual accompanying gritty main synth), delving away a bit from the established smoothness of the first half of the album. Still, it's not half-bad, though it may not be single material, as all previous tracks had been. In Your Room takes a slightly more jungle approach with snappy beats and a more shuffly straightforward melodic tone, but doesn't quite have that kick that makes a song memorable, even with the slightly more angelic vocal touch. Breathing New Air won't bring the level of quality back up either -- the male vocals are easily forgotten, and while the song is full of power, nothing distinguishes this as a 4 Strings track as opposed to any other random artist's work. Even the instrumental aspect doesn't bring any particularly melodic design to it.
Treasure Box is an instrumental track that actually does leak some of the 4 Strings charm, though with less of a punchy synth to accompany the melody. Still, the build-up is definitely reminiscent of that of "Hurricane" or the aforementioned "Jewel", which works in favour of the track, and the melody is genuinely the work of the producer Carlo Resoort, as it too bleeds with memories of classic songs. Certainly, this was worth keeping on the album. But Mr. Resoort is also showing off here the full capacity of his production value, with a 2006 remix of the track Silmarillia by Carlos, one of his aliases. Featuring a quaint pan flute (computer-generated, no doubt), this is simply an upgrade from the 1997 version with more modern-sounding synths (but the same pan flute). If you liked it then (though you probably have not even heard it before), then you'll still like it now. But technically, it's not by 4 Strings, so it shouldn't be here, even if it IS touted as a 4 Strings 2006 Remix!
Next up is a trio of songs I tend never to remember. (Sorry to be so blunt, but...) Madness!, actually written with an exclamation mark, is NOT as crazy at the title adheres to. In fact, it's a very tame song by 4 Strings standards; the main melody is hidden by such a weak bass synth that it's like there isn't one at all. It just ends up being a five-minute yawnfest. Frankly, this could very well be the weakest track on the album. The next song, Waiting, is a little more pleasing but not by much. The familiar (at least to me) vocal style of Jan Loechel is not as strong as in other songs he's performed in by other artists. The verses are backed by a weird high-pitched arpeggiation that doesn't seem to belong, but the chorus instrumentation is slightly funky, though still not as memorable as many 4 Strings tracks. And the last song, Reach Out, is a decent attempt at vocal trance, but unfortunately the hook falls short of attracting the ear. It's odd how the album would end with this song, as it is clearly weaker than many in the first half. Why end with a whimper instead of a bang?
After reading this review, it should be clear that I can really only recommend the first half of the album. I suppose this is how iTunes could prove to be handy in this situation; you can just buy the first seven or eight tracks (plus "Treasure Box", I suppose), and leave the rest to upcoming disappointed trance fans. This album forces me to believe that the tracks created purely for the album alone (not for vinyl) were hastily prepared, and as a result, the quality of this release suffered greatly. However, the first portion is enjoyable enough that it can overshadow the second part, leaving for some degree of happiness. For the true 4 Strings experience though, you may want to look a little farther back in their discography for a consistently decent album. However, I know 4 Strings is capable of great tunes (as the first half of "Mainline" has proven to me), so let's just look to the future and hope for better things!
I also have NO clue who that is on the cover...