[10 January 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
These days, “superstar DJ” is a relative term. In the post-Chemical Brothers, post-Moby era, it is rare for even the most famous DJs to cross over into the mainstream, especially in America. But that is just what Ryan Raddon, who goes by the name Kaskade, has done. Over his decade-long career, he’s gone from an assistant with the San Francisco label Om to a popular DJ whose proper “artist albums” have complemented, not detracted from, his success behind the decks.
In 2006, Kaskade left Om in favor of the sleek, chic trance label Ultra. Two years later, he scored a few crossover hits with the Canadian electronic artist Deadmau5. Now, with Fire & Ice it is safe to say Kaskade has arrived, at least in terms of mainstream crossover success. The album reached the Top 20 on the Billboard 200 album chart. There is a bit of a catch. Billboard counts each disc as one unit, and Fire & Ice is a two-disc set. Still, it’s tough not to appreciate Kaskade’s hard-earned, old-school career arc.
You could argue Kaskade has earned the right to release a would-be magnum opus like Fire & Ice, and you could also marvel at its ambition. Each of the 10 tracks is rendered twice, once on each disc. You have the brasher, peak-hours versions, and then the “Ice” versions, which are generally mellower, more minimal, and more relaxed. These are not remixes per se, but rather complete re-productions with Raddon at the helm. But is this really as ambitious as it seems, or is it a clever bit of bet-hedging?
Kaskade’s previous album, Dynasty, was heavy on the glitzy Ultra sound. Fire & Ice seems like an attempt to build on Raddon’s recent success as well as placate fans of the smoother, more atmospheric sound he make his name with. It is a disappointment on both counts, though.
The Fire proceedings start off promisingly. With its stuttering Laurie Anderson vocal sample, warm piano chords, and Mindy Gledhill’s understated singing, “Eyes” is a near-perfect meeting of Om and Ultra sounds. Then the fat, blingy synth riff of “Turn It Down” comes on like a bludgeon, and things start to go awry. Loud, ugly synths; artless, chunky beats; and uninspired arrangements abound. Raddon tries his hand at techno-soul (“Lessons In Love”), Daft Punk-style disco-funk (“Lick It”, “Ice”), and trance anthems (“Llove”, “Let Me Go”), but nothing really sticks. The lyrics provided by the slate of guest vocalists don’t help, either. “4,5,6 / I know how to get my kicks”, indeed. Only “Waste Love” takes a step back from the neon, with a jazzy double-bass riff and sassy-Billie Holiday vocals. But that flash of inspiration could just be due to the presence of Danish nu-soul duo Quadron, who collaborated on the track.
While Fire suffers from too much flash and too little substance, Ice is just plain lukewarm. Yes, the versions here are generally slowed down, less crowded, and more atmospheric. They’re not particularly satisfying, though, and occasionally Raddon’s choices are head-scratching. The low-key, moody mope of “Lessons In Love [Ice]” is interrupted by an incongruous, loud, glitchy explosion. Wasn’t this supposed to be the “cool” version? “Waste Love [Ice]” loses the original’s greatest asset, the groovy double-bass line. Attempts to stretch musically, such as turning “Let Me Go” into a Coldplay track or “Room For Happiness” into a strings-embellished piano ballad, fall flat.
The clean production from Raddon and longtime collaborator Finn Bjarnson ensures Fire & Ice never sounds less than professional. Still, you can chalk this up as another in the long line of double albums that would have been better off at half that length.