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Kaskade's 'Atmosphere' is an EDM bummer

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Kaskade may be the grand exemplar of the ho-hum, euphoria-dealing dudes who monopolize electronic dance music.

Like other top DJs—including Avicii, whose debut album I review this week—he makes a fortune (about $16 million a year) by gigging almost constantly, queueing up dance hits for mobs of party people while doing expressive things with his hands. But unlike Avicii, who on True combines his beats willy-nilly (and not unsuccessfully) with other pop forms, on his tenth album Kaskade distills EDM’s ebb-and-flow pleasure-seeking down to its coolest, most frictionless essence—and enters a terminal space familiar to anyone who has stood in the lobby of a W Hotel.

EDM can claim a long lineage that includes house, disco and many other beloved club idioms, and has percolated in something like its current form for years. (Kaskade, a 42-year-old American house acolyte, has helped keep it cooking.) But EDM is all about creating the illusion that you’re living in the future—a utopia perfectly calibrated to keep lifting your spirits. And in fact, when you’re sweating through your bodypaint at a festival, it’s pretty damn effective at yanking you right into the present, which is plenty for any musical form to accomplish.

Where Atmosphere goes wrong … Well, let’s start with the name. Kaskade called his last one Fire & Ice, which at least gets at the, shall we say, fundamental dynamics at work in dance music. “Atmosphere” is what you try and create at a trendy restaurant—or boutique-hotel front desk. Kaskade’s new album waters EDM’s utopian uplift down to something like a pleasantly immersive experience. It’s built for comfort, not speed or surprise. He swaddles steady beats in celestial washes, punching in hinky builds. The half dozen or so female guest singers range from Canadian electropopper Lights to indie-rocker Alejandra Deheza from School of Seven Bells, but here they all sound uniformly girlish and sensual.

Not only does this not call to mind the future, it feels alienated from the present. That Kaskade himself provides the vocals with the most grain, on the title track, presents a quandary. On one hand, it shows he can sing with feeling. On the other, it makes me wonder whether he wants the women on his album to exhibit anything like personalities of their own, or to just reserve that right for himself.

Ultimately, though, this problem owes to limitations of the music. When all a dance album wants to be is inviting, what can a singer do but subsume herself in that? What Kaskade represents here is not EDM’s distinguishing characteristics, but a perverse ideal, where a seamless emotional experience—the hectic mounting of a beat, the wistful release of a break from that beat, the whole roller coaster hitting switch after switch to the next loop-the-loop—instead glides off into nothingness. He’s the archetypal DJ dude in the sense that his music embodies the anonymous, supremely satisfied man hitting the fader and tweaking the volume while everyone around him angles for lift-off. It may be, in fact, that he’s what’s holding you down.