Thursday, 3 May 2018

Future To Fantasy: Ruminations On Retrowave

Full-sized version Here (Thanks to the Outrun Reddit)


I've posted before about the odd phenomenon of Retrowave (or Synthwave) music and how it has taken the underground music world by storm over the past decade, but I wanted to make a special post dedicated to the music and less to just the scene aspect. This is partially because I have been listening to it more and more and partially because it's rise is quite fascinating.

As has been pointed out by many, there weren't any real musical movements that came out of the '00s that weren't '90s derivatives, but there was one style that began taking shape there before finally blooming into an original style in the Year of Our Lord A.D. 2010 and has so far only improved in scope and quality every year since. That would be Retrowave (or Synthwave, but I prefer the Retrowave label for being more descriptive) which only grows more by the day. The '10s were the decade of this music.

There were always groups before this genre existed like Daftpunk that used '80s synths but there wasn't a uniform style. In the '00s, some artists like Kavinsky, Makeup and Vanity Set, Lifelike, Chromatics, and College, used '80s film scores as a basis for their electro music and planted the first seeds for what would later be a full blown style. This happened in 2006/2007 but didn't trend right off the bat. Slowly, however, it began to grow. Those that heard this new/old style took it a step further and by 2009 and 2010, FM Attack, Lazerhawk, and Miami Nights 1984, among others, came out with their debut albums that pretty well knocked the door of its hinges. Throughout the '10s the style grew tremendously in popularity and was found in just about anything.

You had it in video games like Hotline Miami and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and in movies like Drive and even in TV series like Stranger Things. This raised its profile considerably. The genre has only managed more and more popularity over the years without wavering from its core goal or audience. This is no mean feat.

But what was fascinating was how different all the branching styles became. Early synthwave from the late '00s all more or less had a very similar sound. When the genre really solidified, more possibilities showed themselves. And sure enough, the subgenres followed.

In the chart above you can see the names given. You have Outrun, Darksynth, Vocal Synthwave, Spacewave, Dreamwave, and Cyberpunk, as the six main subgenres. There are groups that crossover effortlessly and some who stick to their lane, but all tend to have excellent works that spill over to become general audience favorites. If you'd like suggestions for any of them I suggest the image above as it is filled with quality material, but I would like to focus on some albums I think deserve credit on their own. But that can wait.

First let's talk about each subgenre.



Outrun

Outrun is the name of Kavinsky's album which is in turn named after the classic arcade game and Sega racer. Outrun's soundtrack is well known to gamers as being a sunny, poppy, and atmospheric ride that instills feelings of adventure and wonder with hooks that always have you coming back. Magical Sound Shower, anyone?

This style is the one that gets most people into Retrowave, including those who might otherwise dismiss it as gimmick music. This is because Outrun is essentially the Action Adventure of the subgenres. Songs typically vary in tempo and length as well as mood at the drop of a hat to get the blood flowing and the listener energized. Outrun is about wonder and adventure. Would you want a style to get started with, this is the one to choose.

My personal favorite of this style include Tokyo Rose's The Chase: Last Run, Meteor's Inner Demon, Miami Nights 1984's Turbulence, and just about anything by Wolf & Raven.



Darksynth

Essentially where the metalheads congregate, Darksynth has a horror bent with heavy and more aggressively abrasive sounds. If you're a metal fan who wants to understand why this whole synth crap is taking off, then this is for you. Darksynth is all about eerie atmosphere and throwing the listener into the dark. Dance With The Dead really kicked this off with their atmospheric, yet rocking, tunes of monster busting goodness though even artists like Lazerhawk dabbled in it. It's all about rocking out.

Of course this specific aim also means its probably the least accessible style for an outsider to get into. But if you enjoy metal, cheesy horror, and/or blood, then this might scratch the itch. I personally have a harder time finding preferable material in this subgenre the most, but your mileage will probably vary from me.

My personal favorites in this style include Dance With The Dead's Out of Body, Mega Drive's 198XAD, and VHS Glitch's Evil Technology.



Vocal Synthwave

This is the most easy subgenre to understand. Vocal Synthwave basically amounts to artists attempting to recreate '80s pop music in the framework of Retrowave. Instead of just writing a Michael Jackson tune, one writes a tune that would match a dreamlike interpretation of the era and use lyrics to evoke a specific feel. It's not just a Synthpop tune that happens to have a singer. The lyrics tend to be far more ethereal and haunting than a typical pop song from the 80s would be.

The problem comes in how vocal artists coalesce with the other subgenres. Adding vocals fundamentally changes the game and makes it harder to stick apart from what is on the radio. In fact, a lot of what I've heard in this subgenre sounds closer to Owl City than it does to FM Attack, which is a downside to me. But there are artists that can knock it out of the park and make their vocal work match and merge flawlessly with the instrumentals. If you just can't get into purely instrumental music then you'll probably need to start here.

My personal favorites in this style include The Midnight's Nocturnal, Kristine's self-titled, and Sunglasses Kid's Graduation.



Spacewave

Another hard genre to talk about. This might be considered the opposite of Darksynth as Spacewave concerns itself with open and wide sounds and distance that put across an image of soaring through space itself and across metal monstrosities and steel-capped spaceships inside towering ancient cities on long forgotten planets. It's like prog rock without the aimless noodling and far more atmosphere.

The feeling of weightlessness and distant faraway hope crashes hard against heavy sounds in this subgenre. It's not the most popular style, but it is quite the favorite among many. Would you like to hear the soundtrack to your space opera epic? You'll find it here.

My personal favorites include Dynatron's Escape Velocity, Tommy '86's Outer Space Adventurer,  and anything by Volkor X.



Dreamwave

Probably the most well-known and liked style overall, Dreamwave prides itself on being a like a living dream where reality and the unknown crash in on each other on an empty city street at night. This subgenre encapsulates the feel of Retrowave best of all from its dreamy soundscapes and pop hooks to its remarkable use of 80s synth in surprising ways that would not have happened in the '80s proper. If you've ever heard a Retrowave song before you ever knew what the genre was then it was probably Dreamwave.

Of all the styles this is the one I think I've spent the most time listening to as it is remarkable for writing inspiration or just a pick me up. It offers by far the most variety of sounds of all the subgenres and is the one style most likely to be frequented by listeners of any of the others. It's the most straightforward style.

My personal favorites include FM-84's Atlas, D/A/D's The Construct, and Kalax's self-titled.



Cyberpunk

I don't know what it is about Cyberpunk that attracts so many, but of all the subgenres I think this is the most unique. Imagine a bleak cityscape punctuated by moments of beauty that slip through the darkness to remind you of something higher than where you are. The world is crumbling, but there is something beyond it that prevents you from also doing so. Cyberpunk differentiates itself from Darksynth in that it can have a sense of hope if it desires to and it differentiates itself from Spacewave in that it can get down and dirty if the situation calls for it. Its a bit of a bridge between the styles in that area.

I do think my opinion on this style might vary from others because my favorites are not what gets talked about much in this subgenre, but then my taste in Cyberpunk itself is much different than many others as it is. There is a sense of the transcendent and the loss of the ineffable that pervades in the genre like a good Gothic Horror story. I enjoy the fight against ever increasing odds in a world gone mad, and I also enjoy hope that is almost, but not quite, extinguished. This Cyberpunk musical style fits the bill better than most Cyberpunk fiction actually does.

My personal favorites include Noir Deco's Future To Fantasy (or anything by them), LeveL-1's Motherbrain, and Mega Drive's Futurescape.



As you can well see there is a lot of variety in these styles. There is a very clear reason why Retrowave grew to the height it has in a mere decade. You have a very good case for it still improving and growing, as well. While a lot of the kooky, so-random appeal has worn off, the artists continue to work and put out great music on what feels almost like a near monthly basis. It's quite impressive. There's something good almost every day now.

To finish this post off, I'd like to leave you with a final list. This is my list of my personal top 10 Retrowave albums without using more than one entry per artist.

You can use this as you like, maybe to find a new favorite for yourself, but you would hard pressed to find fault with any of them. This is some good stuff.



1. Miami Nights 1984 - Early Summer


I've said it before, but this was the album to get me into the genre. I'd listened to pieces of other albums like Lazerhawk's Redline, but they didn't stick. They had good tracks, but nothing that gelled as an album. This one got itself trapped in my head and listening to it for years at this point. For me, this is THE Retrowave album that describes the whole appeal better than any other.

Dreamy images of the summer, past, present, and future, and all it entails grip the listener through every piece. From the ethereal title track to the end, this is back to start greatness. If you want a single album to listen to to get you into Retrowave, I'd say this is the one to go with. The perfect summer album.

Thankfully you can find this classic (with a far less cool cover) on bandcamp.



2. The Midnight - Nocturnal


This one came out of nowhere for me. Most people had been singing these guys praises for years now, but I always thought they were just okay with some great songs. A lot of their vocal songs sounded more like Owl City than Retrowave. But with this album they hit it out of the park with all killer and no filler tracks and more sax than you can shake a stick at. The lyrics paint a very vivid picture, as do the layered sounds. Dark streets, forgotten corners, empty alleys, and a way to a better tomorrow. This is by far the best vocal synthwave album I've come across.

Fortunately, since they're pretty well known, their material is easy to find. The album is on their bandcamp.



3. Noir Deco - Future To Fantasy


Someone clearly likes Blade Runner. But beyond that clear influence, Noir Deco's Future To Fantasy is a soundscape that crawls through a destroyed future into a fantasy world beyond the ruins of the old one. It merges the utter despair of a soulless existence with the eternal hope of something far beyond it, and it progressively makes its way with each new track as it goes. This album blew me away the first time I heard it as it is the first to really get that feel that most Cyberpunk just doesn't get right that I like most from it. Danger and wonder rolled into one. This album is pretty close to perfect.

Noir Deco is truly unlike anything else in the genre, and their material being hard to find doesn't help them stand out like they should. But you can get all the tracks on this album in the compilation release they put out at CD Baby.



4. Mega Drive - Futurescape


Not his most well known work by any stretch, but by far my favorite. This album is only 6 tracks that get progressively longer but also expand in sound and scope. By the end you feel like you've been through a real futurescape. Most of Mega Drive's work is more driving and hard, but this one is subtle and airy. It slowly works its hooks into you.

I like this for much the same reason as Noir Deco's stuff, but this album has a much sharper and abrasive sound that makes it a good companion piece. If you want something more accessible, you might also prefer his excellent album 198XAD, but this is still my favorite piece he's done. It's sharp and to the point.

You can get this easily on his bandcamp page.



5. Tokyo Rose - The Chase: Last Run


Essentially a compilation of much of their early work with some remixes and brand new songs, this album is the complete package. From the first notes of the intro, you know what you're getting, and it doesn't let up from there. Top notch Outrun Retrowave with plenty of wide open roads and skies where there is no limit. Every track on here is perfectly picked and all are worthy of inclusion on any compilation you might want to toss on. Simply put, this album has no bad songs. It is one of the best in the genre.

It also runs a bit of the style gamut being that there are also Vocal Synthwave, Darksynth, and some Dreamwave tracks to go with the main Outrun style. This might actually be one of the best Retrowave albums to start with just for its breadth.

Thankfully this one appears to have been a big hit as it is easily available on the NewRetroWave bandcamp itself. Well deserved.



6. FM Attack - Dreamatic


This is the earliest album I've included on here, and I hope one doesn't get the wrong impression of FM Attack. This does not mean their only good work was their original as that is definitely not the case. Go listen to Deja Vu or Stellar to get even more excellent work. I'm only focusing on their first album because it is my favorite. This was the album to really sand the genre down to its core parts and that makes it endlessly re-listenable.

This is the first album to really nail it down. Each song fills the quota for dreamy yet driving synth that really gets the imagination going. You can't go wrong with this one.

It's easily available on FM Attack's bandcamp here.



7. Kristine - Kristine


It might seem like I'm including a lot of vocal artists on this list, but it is only that the ones I included are about all I really like. It's really that simple. Their inclusion here only testifies to how good the ones I included are. I've already said that this is the hardest subgenre to get me into because it's so difficult to hit right compare to the other ones. Kristine, however, gets it right. This was the second vocal synthwave album (after Nocturnal) to get me on the first listen.

Catchy hooks, old and new sounds merging effortlessly, and dreamy lyrics that hit the essence of what makes the genre work. You won't find much better than this album in the vocal style.

Unfortunately, she hasn't put out much other work, but this album is easily found on her bandcamp page here.



8. D/A/D - The Construct


This one is the hardest inclusion to explain. D/A/D manages to include such spare instrumentation yet has a very emotional undercurrent flowing through every track. I couldn't describe what really makes this album click so well for me compared to the others as this is just an album that works on a gut level. And I'm listing it here exactly for that reason.

I got this one lodged in my brain after a single listen. This album is one that is a lot less known than it should be, but it is engaging from the first note until the end.

Like a few other artists here, he doesn't have that much material available, and this is his only album. That said, it is at least readily available on his bandcamp page here.



9. Sunglasses Kid - Graduation


This album is a masterwork of popcraft that throws in everything but the kitchen sink to make an album that celebrates an era long ago. Sunglasses Kid clearly is a fan of cheery 80s movie scores, because he nails that feel throughout. This is the definition of a summer album. You'll be cranking this on high.

The ONLY blemish on this great album is the absolutely terrible rap included on the third song that ruins the positive vibe of the rest. The rapper wrote some awful lyrics and they really should have been rerecorded or scrapped. There is an instrumental version that I recommend seeking out instead. That aside, Graduation is a great summer album with great grooves and fun beats that will get a smile on even the most jaded jerk.

I'm kind of surpised this album isn't more well known as it has everything genre fans dig. You can even easily find it on his bandcamp page.



10. Dance With The Dead - Out of Body


I guess it's fairly obvious that I'm not the biggest Darksynth fan. My list is conspicuously missing many artists subgenre fans live for. Sorry. It's just not my bag. But there is some great material in the subgenre I like, and this is the best of them all.

Dance With The Dead plays some hard hitting yet very atmospheric pieces that stick with you long after the song's over. Good for inspiration, good for chilling, and good for rocking out, this album hit all the marks. If there is a single Darksynth album I'd recommend first it would be this one. It's the one I listen to the most.

These guys are no unknowns in the scene. You can easily find this on their bandcamp.



And that's all I've got for you today! I wanted to get together a post for the genre that was slightly more in depth than my last one, and I hope I succeeded. This music should definitely be talked about more than it is.

Retrowave (or Synthwave) is the best musical genre to emerge in a long time, and has a lot of places left to go. Here's hoping it will stick the path and continue to delight old listeners and draw in new ones for awhile to come. The genre deserves it.



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8 comments:

  1. This was a great take on my favorite music genre right now. This genre is a goldmine of a sorts. The moment I found it, I knew I had stumbled upon something different; the kind of music you have always wanted to hear but haven't been able to.

    Nostalgia side of retrowave is particularly interesting. I guess it is partly a fashion thing since we are seeing all kind of things "retro" popping up. But ultimately it goes deeper than that. There's obviously the romanticization of the 80s but ironically enough, it's not my actual past. Being born in 1991 I have no personal experience of that decade. All I have is the imperssion and myth of the 80s, filtered through popular culture (end of a decade is not purely an arithmetic thing of course, since early 90s stuff echoed the previous decade. Think about Jurassic Park for example. In spirit it was an 80s adventure film).

    But it's not solely about the 80s either. For me nostalgia is ultimately not about any particular past, lived or not lived. It's about a mythical golden age when sun shined brighter and heroes fought better. And it goes even beyond that. Sounds of retrowave bring me memories of forgotten past, it's about our longing back to paradise, to unfallen world. In that longing is also a promise: What once was will be again. The "Endless Summer" that The Midnigt sings about is the lost paradise that will be regained at the judgement day.

    ...

    Well, that was an idealized take on the genre and only for a portion of it. I don't know if there are many christians among retrowave-musicians but I want to believe in their sincerity. That they truly want to create something beautiful even if they don't fully grasp it's origin. Tyler Lyle of The Midnight is clearly trying to look into the right direction:

    “The Midnight is my permission to explore God and sex through a lens of nostalgia,” Lyle says. “What I’m digging at usually is trying to answer questions for myself about sex, spirit… Teenage pastoral ‘80s images provide a really easy way to do that.”

    Lyle also indicated that as our post-ideological society renders the sacred no longer sacred, nostalgic veins of energy pop up. The human need for big explanations and interconnectedness with something is a powerful emotion.

    “Nostalgia is a way for us to sort of filter ideas about transcendence,” he says.

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    1. Great post!

      Yes, there's something about Retrowave that really connects to people in its desire to mine the past to create new sounds. The people behind it are in it to find a deeper intangible sound than they might be willing to admit. There's no other musical movement operating on this level.

      And they never forget to make it entertaining first and foremost.

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    2. And they never forget to make it entertaining first and foremost.

      It's about the adventure. What is more entertaining than an adventure? It is not a coincidence that this genre borrows much from movie soundtracks of the 80s. You can really "see" this music.

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  2. Since you have sorted out many examples for the different flavors of retrowave, allow me to sort out mine. I leave only one song per example, so that this doesn't turn into a spamfest.

    Outrun: Nigt Runner - Sentinels

    This is the epitome of outrun for me. That uplifting and heck of a long intro leads into an andventurous track. This is perfect inspiration music for me when I want to fantasize about a new story. Altough I try to avoid listening to this too much so that I don't get tired of it.

    Darksynth: Dedderz - Souls On Ice.

    Weird combination of heavy synths, goth athmosphere, Nine Inch Nails-style vocals and nice melodic hooks. This track has an occult feel to it, that makes it sound sinister and exciting a the same time; I was sweating and my heart was pounding when I encoutered it for the first time. This group doesn't really have other good songs so they seem to have been struck by a single stroke of genius.

    Vocal Syntywave: Lebrock - Runaway

    Because you already dig The Midnight, why bother. They are the best vocal RW-group there is so here is another one. Lebrock combines Glam rock-vocals with powerful synthpop-riffs. This is some ridiculously optimistic stuff, love it.

    Spacewave: Scandroid - The Force Theme

    I am not so familiar with this subset, althoug I know Volkor X and Dynatron. But I believe that this Star Wars-cover fits the description.

    Dreamwave: Futurecop - Into The Darkness

    Can it get any more dreamy? Into the darkness we go, to reach out for the starlit sky. Some other place, some other time.

    Cyberpunk: Waveshaper - Fight Against Time

    For me, this encapsulates the feeling of cyberpunk. At least a certain type of it, where there is magic and wonder to the circuits and tech. Where there is more advneture than grim.

    As an extra genre, Adrenalinewave/Actionwave: Red Marker - DMC 12 Gauge

    I think this type of stuff requires it's own name. It is so pumped up and punchy that it makes you wanna rush into gym or go to a god damn war. Great stuff as pseudo action-adventure soundtrack.

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    1. A lot of good material. I'm partial to LeBrock's newest EP, especially the last song Juice.

      I'm not sure we'll be running out of any material in this genre any time soon.

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  3. Just have to mention this: in NewRetroWave channel there is one user who leaves great comments in the videos. He creates ridiculous outlines for could-have-been 80s movies. Here is one example from the Red Marker song that I linked:

    It's 30 years later and the ghosts of the cold war return. The toxic swamps of Florida become the battleground for the 2nd Vietnam War. The Government's only choice is to thaw out the man they put in Cryo-prison for a crime he didn't commit. Not only must he contend with the blood thirsty and dangerous Cyber-Cong, but also Mutated Backwoods Cannibal Hillbillies, Overgrown Gators and a Rogue US Military outfit lead by a man who he treated like his own son. This time War just got personal.

    Hilarious, but awesome at the same time. I had to once make a similiar outline myself. It is for the Waveshaper song I also linked:

    Cyber Quest (1985): A young couple, Sarah and Kyle, goes onto cyberspace ride. They slide on the waves of conductor pulse and in awe behold the digital wonderland. However, something goes off and disturbs the flowing current. In a violent shock, they are separated and Kyle falls down the bottomless cyberstream. What was about to be a refreshing trip turns into an electric adventure. Lost in the virtual abyss, he must seek his way back to Sarah and reality. Befriended by a sentinent subprogram, The Analog Kid, Kyle begins his quest. Not only needs he to find the passageway, but to fight against time. Something seems to be corrupting the system, byte by byte...

    God, I love this genre. I really have to dig into your recommendations. I try not to listen too much at once, I feel like this is too precious to just be consumed. I try to find a good song once in a while even though there is an abundance of them. It's like there is a lifetime of music waiting for me.

    I think we are in the middle of a golden age for retrowave. There is a creative peak going on and we should take all the delight while it lasts. But I hope you'are right when you say there are still "lot of places left to go".

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    1. Nice. I like all the creativity this style produces. If it keeps up then the golden age should hopefully last a good long while.

      Thanks for sharing so much quality material!

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