RF.extreme: Miami Cruise Culture — A lot of what I listen to when I’m skulking the depths of synthwave has a very dark tone to it. Thematically I think a lot of inspiration that producers draw from involve horror and sci-fi. And really, you can’t go wrong with either. Some very powerful music has been composed while Dawn of the Dead or Blade Runner has been on a loop in the background. But it’s rarer that a producer finds his muse amongst palm trees, sandy beaches, and big haired women wearing neon shades.
RF.extreme‘s latest album, Miami Cruise Culture is noticeably lacking in darkness. There are no ominous elements at work here, nothing I would call dark or dangerous. Instead I get an overwhelming urge to just chill. Everything about the album has a warm, dreamy feel to it, like a perpetual mental sunset and I have to admit, it’s a good feeling. The album has a distinct style to it. You won’t find any aggressive drum arrangements, but they are complex and creative and almost lighter than air. The synth and pad work is always very warm and gently paced. There are melodies on this album that will just melt in your mind, with a sweet, nostalgic finish.
‘A Time To Remember’ opens the album with somewhat of a whisper. But the track is breezy and sensual and not unlike a morning jog along the shoreline. The following tracks, ‘Forever Mine’ and ‘Inner Bliss’ are sharp pieces of nostalgia that combine intelligent synth work and warm, gorgeous melodies that put the listener in a dreamlike trance of sweet memory.
The pace picks up towards the middle of the record, with tracks like ‘Fury of the Flame’, which still maintains a slow tempo but the drum arrangements start to show a little teeth. ‘System Transfer’ is definitely my favorite track on Miami Cruise Culture. It’s a fun, spaced out, dreamy outrun track that just puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The rest of the record maintains a similar tempo but it really isn’t the pedal to the metal, hard-charging outrun that you might expect from another producer.
This isn’t a knock against RF.extreme by any means. I hear tinges of A Flock of Seagulls in a lot of tracks, specifically ‘Space Age Love Song’ and ‘Wishing’. These are iconic songs and I wonder why more artists don’t take from their influence. When I listen to RF.extreme I’m almost immediately taken to another place, and that isn’t easy to do.I’m arrested by the sound and I feel a noticeable shift in emotion. Like I mentioned earlier, this is the softer side of synthwave and I believe this release would also qualify as dream wave. But whereas dream wave lets the listener float suspended in a fuzzy haze, RF.extreme takes us on a ride. It’s an easy cruise up the coast, and we have fun even if we’re obeying the speed limit. It’s a nap in a hammock, it’s a strong drink served inside of a pineapple, it’s the memory of the first time you and that special someone spent the afternoon on the boardwalk.
Fans of the genre who are looking for outrun or soundtracks may not understand the mellow mood of Miami Cruise Culture, but for those of us who can appreciate the cool, easy vibes RF.extreme is sending us, this is an absolute gem. Get in the car, take a slow ride to the beach; feel the sand, hear the waves, and let RF.extreme be the breeze in your hair... 8.8/10
St. Vincent: St. Vincent- The duality of man is fascinating. It’s safe to say that most people at some point in their lives have struggled with a darker, more aggressive part of their personality that rarely sees the light of day. If you’re Dexter Morgan, then your “dark passenger” gets the best of you. Fortunately, most people are able to control their inner, conflicted self no matter how much it tries to rear its ugly head. That internal conflict, though, is what St. Vincent‘s music sounds like. With her 4th album, St. Vincent, Annie Clark brings music into this prodigious world that effectively straddles both beauty and lunacy. Only this time around, she’s taken a few influences from her recent Love This Giant collaboration with David Byrne that’s added a new and exciting danceable dimension to her sound.
The album opener, ‘Rattlesnake’ perfectly harness the experimental polarity that is so inherently Annie’s music. Your first introduction into Clark’s self-titled is at first a catchy, yet slightly off-kilter synthpop groove that tells of Annie’s comically frightening brush with a rattlesnake on a secluded ranch in Texas. She sings with this cautious and wary tone as she’s walking through the ranch with no clothes worrying, “Am I the only one in the only world?” That is until she sees the snake and goes into hysterics maniacally exclaiming in highly distorted vocals, “I’m not the only one in the only world!” It’s a welcomed comedic side to her music that wasn’t quite as apparent in her previous albums.
‘Rattlesnake’ then takes a turn for the absolutely maniacal with a blistering guitar solo that slashes through the the end of the chorus like a light saber. Annie’s been known to shred before, but this album in particular has taken her playing to an otherworldly level. Lead off single, ‘Birth in Reverse’ is an excellent example of how she’s become one of the more interesting guitar players in recent years. The single itself has probably the most easily accessible melody on the album, but it’s offset by some of the most bizarre guitar riffs I’ve ever heard. If you’ve ever run into this uncomfortable dose of WTF around the net, then you’ve witnessed the visual equivalent of a St. Vincent Guitar solo.
Even though she’s more than capable of ripping through highly virtuosic and showy guitar solos, Annie always chooses to keep it tasteful and focus her energy more on creativity and texture. Perhaps my favorite track on the album, ‘Huey Newton’ starts off with this driving faux hip-hop beat as Annie takes her time singing over layering keyboards as if she’s fascinated by the sounds her mouth is making. She hangs onto strange lyrics like “Fuck this” and “fake knife, real ketchup” to the point where you’re brain is stimulated past the point of return because there’s no telling what she’s singing about. The song builds until a gigantic, Zepplin-esque guitar riff comes crashing down like a lightning bolt right at the climax. It’s sonically overblown but each note that she plays is with purpose and intention; she’s know exactly how far she can push it and exactly how much to hold back.
Of course, all isn’t perfect in the the land of St. Vincent. ’Psychopath’ is one of the weaker songs as it comes off a little too David Byrne without the melody or punch to back it up. And, the obligatory ballad, ‘I Prefer Your Love’ is a bit underwhelming as it stays on a relatively flat plane and doesn’t venture to an interesting place like some of her previous ballads (‘Strange Mercy’ and ‘The Party’ to name a couple) do. Although, her vocals on this song are what I imagine my own personal heaven to sound like.
Annie Clark has more in common with that rattlesnake than she probably realizes; both are beautiful, misunderstood creatures with a venomous bite that’s only employed when necessary. She jerks back and forth through textures like a snake constantly shedding its skin. Every time she sheds her “rattle” becomes longer and more musically impressive. She’s relentless in exploring new sound territories and music in general is that much better for it… 9.4/10
Birth in Reverse
Ex-Machina: Dystopian Dreams - The temptation when one is crafting a sci-fi/cyberpunk dystopian world, whether it be an image or a story or a piece of music, is to just pile on as much stuff as you can. It’s easy to go overboard and if you’re not careful, what you’ve created is a bloated, junk-sick unrelated mess of clichés that don’t work together or individually. The smart creator is able to use subtlety and elegance to build a believable world.
This control is what pleases me so much about Ex-Machina and his newest release, Dystopian Dreams. This is an album full of wonderfully bleak imagery and storytelling. It allows us to exist at the end of the world, desperate for a normal life, normal love, normal worries. It is a tense albums at times and ponderous at others, but it is always introspective. That being said, it does not sacrifice tempo for tone.
Something that always worries me when I listen to a new record is the presence of long intros. A lot of old school EDM suffered (in my opinion) from long, pointless intros that sapped my interest before the song ever had a chance to really get going. So when I saw that Ex-Machina was pushing the one minute mark on some of his tracks I raised an eyebrow. Fortunately for me, these are smartly done intros and they add interesting elements before the meat of the track kicks in. Ex-Machina, like a master chef, knows how to serve just the right amount of appetizers, making sure we’re hungry for the main course.
‘Pursuit Through The Ruins Of The Old City’ is just that kind of track. It sets up an interesting background before the pursuit begins, and when it does you’ll feel yourself pushing your foot on the gas pedal. The second track, ‘Come Get Me’ is a great example of retaining a sci-fi/soundtrack sound while featuring great vocals. Once again Dana Jean Phoenix kills it and there really isn’t much else to say. You’re not going to see a lot of fluctuation in quality with DJP; she’s consistently on point.
‘The Man From The Company’ is perfect sci-fi. If I could recast Aliens and make Paul Resiser’s character a sinister, faceless agent of Weyland-Yutani, this would be his theme song. It’s also a good example of how Ex-Machina likes to explore different tempos and arrangements within a song. He isn’t afraid to slow things down and change the mood, because he’s able to retain the theme of the track and not lose any energy.
I’d also like to make mention of ‘Sophist’ featuring SpekrFreks. I’m not familiar with his work, but if this track is any indication of his talent, I’m interested. This is another great example of synthwave complementing vocals to great effect. This is Depeche Mode a century into the future, where most of the members are more machine than man. It’s wonderfully catchy but with a distinctive dark side to it.
My favorite track on Dystopian Dreams has to be ‘Love Scene’. It has perfect tone and atmosphere. I’m reminded of the moodiest Jan Hammer pieces from Miami Vice, but at the same time, there are elements of Vangelis in there, too. I can’t decide if I’m cruising South Beach with a broken heart or making a daring escape from Mars with my replicant lover. The guitar is sexy, mournful, and nostalgia-inducing.
Ex-Machina’s true talent lies in his restraint. This is a pitch perfect record that oozes atmosphere without going overboard with any one element. It’s an elegant album full of catchy riffs and thoughtful melodies that does an amazing job of telling many stories, all contained within the dreamscape of a ruined metropolis…8.7/10
Timecop1983: Synthetic Romance - After listening to this EP, a longing to truly experience the awesomeness that was the 1980s was created within me. Timecop1983’s Synthetic Romance contains instrumental synth wave tracks that could be featured as background music in a revered ’80s coming-of-age comedy drama film.
Together, all the songs seem to tell a story despite the fact that they don’t contain lyrics. The opening track ‘Indigo Tears’ is sweetly melancholic. While listening to this song, I envisioned the main character standing alone on a pier, contemplating the future while looking out into the ocean at night, long after everyone has gone home. The song gives off that feeling of being lost inside along with a yearning to achieve great things.
The second track, ‘Secret Love’ is a little more upbeat and has a sunnier feel to it. To me, this song reflects a point in the movie where things begin to look up, faith has been restored and brighter days are ahead. I couldn’t help but a smile a little while listening to this song, especially considering the gloomier tone of the previous track.
‘Echoes’, the third track off the EP, is dreamier than the other tracks. The steady beat is surrounded by airy melodies that flow gracefully in the foreground. I can imagine this song being played when two characters finally admit their true feelings to one another.
‘Lonely Nights’ is a slow song that mirrors the gloominess of ‘Indigo Tears’. I see this song being played after a lovers’ quarrel: the main character, lying awake at night, looks up at the ceiling and thinks about all of the special moments of the relationship.
The final track, ‘Fading Memories’, is the kind of song that would be played during the “big moment”. The drums are prominent, the beat is steady and the presence of the keyboard adds a starriness to the song. I could see it being played when the two lovers reconcile at the end of the film, having the track continue into the ending credits.
Timecop1983 is successful in achieving the new wave/synth pop sound that is authentic to the decade in which it became prominent. The EP echoes the sounds of the ’80s group New Order but in a more subdued fashion with its sometimes woeful melodies. It’s the kind of music that you have to be in the right mindset to listen to, or else it might leave you feeling a little blue.
Overall, if you ever wished your life was an ’80s movie filled with thought-provoking moments, this EP would definitely be a part of the soundtrack…7.0/10
Blonde Summer: High Times – The concept of the California beach bum is the prototypical relaxed guy. Unflappable and stoned (those two concepts may be connected), they live only to surf and get chicks. That’s the image that we have in our minds, and that’s the image that we seen in TV and movies. Blonde Summer‘s latest EP gives a look at what the lifestyle is really like from the perspective of an insider.
‘High Times’, like most of the album, sounds like a celebratory peak inside the life of a kid from California. Lead singer Chris Pope says that he’s got no ambition and is new in town with the sun in his eyes and nothing on his mind. That about sums it up.
I like the thought of the titular figure in ‘Jim’ being surprised by the callout in this song. I’m also be curious to know if he’d like to be thought of as “a ’90s slacker”. The song meanders a bit, but mainly keeps a positive dream pop feel while informing us about a wayward prodigal son named, as you might have guessed, Jim.
‘So Lonely’ is a fast-paced lovesick take on adolescent love. The keyboards in the song really set it apart from the rest of High Times. It is the fastest and probably most fun song on the album.
The echo-based distortion on ‘Pier Ratt’ take away slightly from the delivery of the message. However, the emotion of the chorus and the self-explanatory nature of the title give the listener some idea of what the song is about. ‘Pier Ratt’ also features a synthy breakdown that skews the timing and adds a cool layer to the song.
‘Surfer’ gives a sonic nod to something a little deeper. It’s essentially a song about a surfer, but its vibe is despondent. The rest of the album appears to be something of a love letter to the lifestyle of California. The rest of the album is about youth; this one is about someone older. You might wonder if the lifestyle or the age is what leads to the more depressing nature of the song. I wonder if Blonde Summer is judging the man or themselves. This acoustic powered track about the negative side of the lifestyle gives a more complete view of what it’s really like.
The entire album works equally well as a simple way to relax and forget about the snow as it does as an anthropological glimpse into a subset of our culture. Either way, it’s a pretty decent album…7.4/10