Top critical review
30 of 33 people found this helpful
You can't even tell it's Sasha
on 9 April 2013
There was a time when all Sasha had to do was stand in the back of the booth while another DJ was finishing their set and it would change the way the music sounded. There would be a palpable electric atmosphere of anticipation in the room - and when he played he would take you to musical places that touched your soul and leave you begging for more.
From early 90's Italian piano scream-ups, hardcore, breakbeat and thumping early motorbass techno through early German trance, progressive, progressive trance and then the early 2000's deepness before pioneering CD and Ableton mixing from around 2005 and then the fine-tuned whole experiences of Fundacion and Involver - the quiet Welshman, who became a DJ almost by chance, pioneered and defined every movement that was important.
Throughout this gigantic musical landscape there were landmark sounds and themes: twinkling synths, hypnotic melodies, cheese-free "proper" trance (aka. Sasha-trance), intense emotional swings between high and low, long periods of tension, tease, effects-laden breaks, exciting percussive rhythms and great big dirty riffs that seemed larger than the universe. There was something symphonic about how he played; his sets dared to create something larger any of the individual tunes he sought out (or, to be fair, was often sent first, so revered were his hands). His genius was in spotting how to stitch it all together into the famous Sasha "journey".
The plain truth of "Involv3r" is that these musical themes, which Sasha defined and which define him, take such a back-seat as to feel absent. The big tripped-out textures, the crystalline electronics and the massive cavernous sound have all been muted back massively, to the point they no longer dominate; the varied genres, clever mash-ups and other-worldly edge have gone; in come the slightly funky but blandly inoffensive bass-lines and unplugged-type vocals. His entire musical vocabulary has changed: where he used to be a musical pioneer and polyglot, weaving every style together into his unique sound, this is an uneventful, mumbling meander in monotonism that can't be identified to any one DJ or another. Elements of the old lushness, inventiveness and massiveness are just about there but we're talking distant after-echoes of former glories. Overall the effect is staid, steady and far from dazzling - and side-by-side with "Involver" and "Invol2ver" it's hard to find a continuing musical narrative. I actually wondered if I was playing the wrong album. There's no journey.
It's not bad - not at all - but it's got none of his trademark innovation and so it's not great or even good. There is no way (on any night) on earth that you can identify this as the work of Sasha, versus the first 20 years of his output. There used to be a subtle humour to how he used to play - a delicacy to his imagination, a constantly searching energy for the next way to make the music even better. I experienced many times in real time his almost unearthly ability to build up for a huge musical moment - he had an anxious wit and a crafty lairyness that nobody else could touch and was surely god-given. We're talking early 90's Ibiza through warehouse parties to the present day here, so I'm not just remembering the massive banging tunes he did at times play; he was right to give up playing big fluffy trance in the late 90s and became the master of dramatic tension who could breathe life into records that were unremarkable when heard alone. That was his enduring talent and it has, on this showing, vanished. There's almost none of the old magic in this work.
It's as if the Jimi Hendrix of acid house has switched to playing middle-of-the-road album-oriented rock. No matter how much fun he's having or really loving life, for me there is nothing daring or pioneering going on here. I'm not expecting the big man to go over old ground or regurgitate former formulae; but I feel entitled to expect excitement, dynamics, contrasts and innovation, the stuff for which he is known and loved. Instead I hear a massively missed opportunity and - perhaps - a contractual fulfilment album.
Change is good. We need change. House music and rave culture were the biggest cultural change since the 1960s. So it's right that a DJ who made his name as one of its legendary pioneers should always press forward. I've spent the last few weeks listening to mixes from all of Sasha's career and in all guises and regular shifts of style there was something consistently recognisable throughout - up until about 2008. The change since then is however not so much an evolution as abandoning everything he is known for. It's as incongruous as Sid Vicious becoming a funk DJ, One Direction playing a Baroque string quartet or Kraftwerk appearing on X-Factor. I don't mean that to be scathing; it's simply a way of expressing total confusion at this metamorphosis. Getting further into the details I don't get how the relatively simple-sounding tech-house remixes on "Involv3r" could have been so complex they overloaded the computers to the max. They just don't sound like it. He made bigger-sounding stuff 20 years ago.
Bafflement aside and taking it for what it is, rather than what it isn't, as an album of slightly-more-interesting-than-dull-tech-house music, it reasonably pleasant and not too bad. As just that, it does still struggle to stand out versus the turgid, unexciting, loopy boringness so many DJs are churning out nowadays. It's pretty in places and has some thoughtful sounds and cute vocal snippets, but that is it. It just chugs away on a level with a few twittery or subaquatic sounds making the odd appearance, like a competent but unremarkable warm-up set for a big act who will come on later.
I even listened again, trying to forget that this is the work of Sasha and to approach it as like the work of some upcoming talent I'd never heard of. Even as that, it didn't really grab me. By the time acid house was 25 years old I expected something new and huge, scary and exciting to be going on, possibly that I wouldn't understand because it was too revolutionary (like how my grandparents didn't understand punk or acid house). But if anything, I find a scene that I don't understand because it is at a such a low ebb of creativity (note: *other* scenes are bursting with creativity), where so much music is so polished and well-produced - where production values have taken over from innovation, safety has taken over from experimentalism, melody has given way to effects and beats and where there's so much gloss and so little feeling. We appear to be in an era where not just one but a whole bracket of top DJ's is playing endless grey, dull tech-house yet the online adulation continues no matter what they do. It's an era where DJs are all over YouTube and it's no longer the music, samples or melody that is the star; how things have changed from the rave era of faceless techno b*ll*cks. Maybe because the UK rave culture that Sasha pioneered has now morphed into the global EDM culture, this means that musical has become more conformist and less cheekily irreverent - or maybe there's just more cash in serving up bland EDM.
I can't tell you how much it pains me to write this, like I'm doing the dirty on a really old and treasured friend - I feel almost treasonous. I genuinely love what Sasha did for music and for my life. I know he's still got that visionary energy and pioneering edge in him (evidenced by V_RTEK and a few recent Space sets). But on this devastatingly average mix, he has checked out. As the tune itself says, "We used to be clo-o-oser than this" and right now I feel almost like a piece of my youth has been lost.
Three stars for an album of noodling tech-house-with-vocals; one star for it sounding nothing like Sasha. So two stars overall. Sorry, big fella. I just don't get it.
POST-SCRIPT - two months later: I feel as above just as strongly but I'm adding this because a very suspicious number of 5-star reviews have appeared. Why do I say suspicious? Just a hunch. I can't prove it. But they don't actually address this work (some could apply to almost anything) or if they do only very superficially. They don't appear to be written from a position of knowledge or as a sincere attempt to evaluate what is here. They read more like marketing. If you click on the reviewer's name you can also see that some have only written just the one review. That just seems way too suspicious. If we live in an age where LIBOR and oil prices have been rigged, then why not star-ratings in Amazon reviews? The reviews that offer a more serious level of critique are easy to spot and, interestingly, have the most helpful votes. As I say, just a hunch - but see what you think.
POST-SCRIPT #2 - OK right I think I'm beginning to get what's going on. We're all getting older and the scene has stopped innovating in the way we got used to in the 1990's and much of the 2000's. Times change, tastes change, technology changes and the nature of innovation itself has changed. What appears to have happened is the Big Man (cos he still deserves the title) has switched audiences quite deliberately, no longer delivering big wigged-out tunes for chemically-charged spotty blokes in favour of funkier and sexier stuff that appeals more to women and (perhaps) a more mainstream audience. Hat tip to him to being so bold after such an established career and famous sound. It's brave and as a punter I respect it; I'm no superstar DJ but imagine it took a lot of courage. But as it stands, I don't see that this new groovier sound is as stand-out remarkable as what he did for the spotty ravers. It feels a bit like the "New Coke" saga, where Coca Cola started selling a different product under the same label. Only this time, it does appear to be working to some extent. I'm definitely part of the older audience (though I was never spotty), so it's only honest to mention that. Good luck with the new sound - it doesn't work for me, but I'm sure the new audience is lapping it up.
POST-SCRIPT #3: listening to the Sasha DJ Mag Last Night On Earth takeover from Sep 2014. Now THAT is better Sasha. It's got a better balance between the new chilled groovy sound and enough energy. There's some proper Sasha moments in that. A doff of the hat to the past but not ruled by the past and the new direction is more cogent. Keep at it. You've found better stride here.