Sasha: Airdrawndagger

Gauzy and amorphous by nature, trance has had an unwieldy genre tag since the label was first invoked to account for whatever records found room in the crates of certain superstar DJs. Comprising everything from airy ambient washes to harder-than-hard house beats, trance can be read as a testament to all-inclusive macrovision. But it can also be spun into a condemnation of the numbing effects that convert even the most hard-won anthems into mere fodder for formulaic whoosh. As the globe-spanning fame of DJs like Paul Oakenfold and John Digweed attests, critical concerns hold little sway on the dance floor. But they do crop up when one of the scene's biggest names makes his "artist album" debut and drifts quietly into obsolescence. With his partner Digweed, Sasha stands as a paragon of the superstar-DJ phenomenon built around tales of Concorde flights and jaw-dropping gig fees. Leaning toward the softer side of Digweed's progressive-house functionalism, Sasha made his name as a recording artist with a number of definitive trance mix-discs and Xpander, a drooled-over 1999 EP of original tracks that showed off his evocative simplicity and hooks as hummable as any in dance music. It's a wonder, then, that the much-anticipated Airdrawndagger fades so listlessly into the annals of anonymity. Opening with muted dub effects, electro echoes, and thought-clearing synth winds, the album starts off with an introspective ambient tone that only occasionally gives way to Sasha's euphoric stateliness. On "Cloud Cuckoo," he wraps sun-dappled chimes and a King Crimson guitar-wheeze sample around a recurring beat that plays like a syrupy meditation on the two-step lurch of jungle. The contemplative formula works to grand effect on jumpy and propulsive tracks like "Bloodlock" and "Golden Arm," but Airdrawndagger favors buildups at the expense of payoffs. Gliding through chill-room tropes and scoring a few moments that could be winning bits if they were condensed into a DJ set, Sasha ultimately proves himself a decent ambient artist. But decency leaves him little leverage over countless others toiling in trance obscurity.

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