“Wanderers” is the first single from my forthcoming album (of the same name). It features the incredibly talented artist Michelle B, who provides the vocals and the song’s deeply nostalgic lyrics. Synths, guitars, drums and all production/mixing are me. Mastering by Tonebox.
“Wanderers” is available for purchase from my label, NRW Records.
“Wanderers” is also available for streaming on Spotify and all other major digital platforms. If you add it to your playlists, please fee free to shoot me a note and I’ll follow.
Finally, “Wanderers” is also streaming on the NRW YouTube channel.
Enjoy – I’m excited to hear what all of you think!
I’ve heard people refer to the darker side of synthwave as “darkwave.” The name makes intuitive sense – take synthwave, make it darker, end up with darkwave. Problem is, darkwave already refers to a style of music, one that’s been around since the early 1980s. Basically, take New Wave, make it darker, end up with darkwave. (Or you could think of it as a fusion of goth and New Wave.) The darker side of synthwave is more properly referred to as darksynth.
Muddying the waters, one of darksynth’s pioneers and most celebrated practitioners, Perturbator (aka James Kent), has just released an album that’s heavily indebted to ’80s darkwave and other descendants of post-punk. He’s not the first one to do this – there’s an active scene within and bordering on synthwave, which includes bands like Drab Majesty and (my friends) Vandal Moon and Czarina. But Lustful Sacraments doesn’t really sound like anything else I’ve heard.
Really the album feels both like a departure and a natural extension of Kent’s previous work. His early work had a distinct cyberpunk vibe, which then shifted toward the synth/metal hybrid sound that has come to define darksynth. Kent was one of the biggest and most accomplished practitioners of the style, but at the very height of the sound’s popularity, he shifted directions and released the industrial-influenced album New Model. I found it interesting and very sophisticated from a production standpoint, but it didn’t quite resonate with me.
Lustful Sacraments is different – I’ve always had a passion for dark ’80s music, so this is very much in my personal wheelhouse. And Lustful Sacraments, to me, is the most retro-sounding album Kent has released since 2014’s Dangerous Days. It’s just retro in a way most synthwave isn’t.
What I most admire about Kent is how subtly daring he can be with arrangements. Most pop/rock and dance music is formulaic, albeit in different ways (a distinction I’ve written about previously). This is because the formulas are highly functional in the sense that they both satisfy listener expectations and make life easier for the artist. But Kent’s songs typically eschew the tropes of traditional part- or pattern-based arrangements. They often build and release tension in unexpected ways, and include little flourishes that aren’t intuitive for the average producer (or even the above-average producer). I’ve always found these moments thrilling, and they are especially so on this album.
Bottom line, Lustful Sacraments is a bold and unique offering that doesn’t really sound or feel like synthwave or darksynth but still feels connected to earlier Perturbator material. Highly recommended.
Shawn Ward, aka FM Attack, just released The Never Ending. In a recent interview with Vehlinggo, Shawn stated that this will be the last FM Attack record. It is a fitting end to a stellar career in synthwave – as both one of the style’s early innovators and consistently excellent practitioners.
Rather than review the album (spoiler alert: I love it), I want to tell you what FM Attack’s music has meant to be over the years, and why The Never Ending is such a bittersweet moment.
I came to synthwave fairly late in the game. My background as a musician is in techno and indie rock, but I’ve always had a soft spot for ’80s pop music and retrofuturism. In the ’00s I tried making what I now recognize as an attempt to make synthwave – a mix of techno, chiptune and ’80s analog synth tones. But it never went anywhere. That said, when I did discover synthwave, several years later, you could say I was primed to love it. And I did – it felt like this was the kind of music I was always destined for, as both listener and producer.
One of the first artists I discovered was FM Attack. “Hot Girls in Love,” from Dreamatic (2009), had immediate appeal, with its energetic dance beats and catchy vocoder chorus.
The one-two punch of “With You Tonight” and “Magic,” from Deja Vu (2013) showed me what synthwave could do when untethered from its dance music roots. These are stellar pop songs, among the best ever written in the genre.
Since then I’ve bought every album FM Attack has put out, and blasted them on repeat for weeks after each purchase. FM Attack is one of the rare artists where I like almost every song in the discography, and only rarely skip ahead from one track to another. The melodies are catchy, the synths lush and dreamy, the arrangements tight and the production top notch. I’ve enjoyed the incorporation of post-punk and dreampop elements into his more recent work, and especially enjoyed his collaborations with Vandal Moon, who I also had the pleasure of collaborating with on “Stars That Fade” (and more, as you will soon find out).
Though my music doesn’t really sound like his, philosophically I’ve always seen FM Attack as a fellow traveler. When I listen to his music, I hear many of the same influences – from dance music to shoegaze – that I’ve always felt marked me as a bit outside the synthwave mainstream. I hear someone pushing the genre in the directions I want it to go.
So the release of The Never Ending is a bittersweet moment for me. It’s a great album – showcasing that unmistakable sound but with a number of key innovations. “So Blue” is probably my favorite track, which recalls the SF-based indie band Film School.
Meanwhile, the dance music edge that attracted me to Dreamatic all those years ago is back in full force on songs like “Hypnotize.” As I said above, it’s a fitting end for a stellar career.
…and that’s why it’s bittersweet. Never say never, I guess, but I don’t expect we’ll get another FM Attack album. The Never Ending really does feel like a bookend, so I’m just glad I could be along for the ride. My only regret is that I never got to see him perform.
I am thrilled to announce that my 3rd full length album, Wanderers, will be released on NRW Records this summer. Four years in the making, Wanderers is both an evolution of my previous work and unlike anything you’ve heard from me. It comprises 5 vocal and 6 instrumental tracks – ranging from dark and moody to dreamy and hopeful – and features a host of talented guest appearences. Wanderers will be available on all formats via the NRW Records Bandcamp store and on all major digital stores/streaming services. Release date forthcoming.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all of the people who have supported and believed in my music over the years, and especially DJ Ten – who has featured several of my songs on NRW’s YouTube channel.
I’d also like to thank Timeslave Recordings, who released Postcards from LA (2017), Cosmopolis(2017) and Concrete Island (2018). I would not be the musician I am today if not for the opportunity they gave me. And for those who (rightly) love the label, this is not the end of my relationship with TSR. More on that to come as well…
I’ve seen a few “essential synthwave” lists going around (for example, this one from Iron Skullet), so figured I’d join in with a few of my own. This first list celebrates the classics – albums that have had a major impact on me as an artist and fan, and which in my opinion have stood the test of time. So if I was teaching a “Synthwave 101” class, this is what I’d put on the syllabus.
Is it an objective list? Not at all – in fact, no top 10 or “essentials” list can be, because art is subjective. Rather, I chose the albums below because they are (a) are meaningful to me and (b) arguably important for the genre. The word “arguably” is key there, though.
Bottom line: I want you to given them a listen. But if you bounce off them, that’s totally cool; like every listener, I have my biases and preferences – and they may not match your own. But enough about all that…here is my “Synthwave 101” syllabus – 10 classic albums I keep going back to…
1. Makeup and Vanity Set – 88:88 (2015)
If you ask me, this is hands down the best synthwave album ever released. It is foreboding, mysterious and optimistic by turns. It is compositionally sophisticated, exquisitely produced and high concept – the sequel to a film of the same name.
2. Lazerhawk – Dreamrider (2017)
Every Lazerhawk album is a unicorn – beautiful, exciting and completely different from all the others. It was hard to pick just one, but Dreamrider is pure molten gold. “Somnus” may be the most emotive synthwave track I’ve ever heard.
3. Mitch Murder – Current Events (2011)
Mitch Murder’s finest is one of the genre’s defining moments. The production is silky smooth and the compositions are still surprising, even after all these years. One might even call Current Events the high point for synthwave’s playfully meta take on the ’80s. *sigh*
4. Kristine – Kristine (2012)
A lot of synthwave makes reference to the ’80s, but not a lot of it actually sounds ’80s. Kristine’s debut album does. And it’s got some serious tunes too. This is epic singalong material.
5. Miami Nights 1984 – Turbulence (2012)
“Ocean Drive” is up there with “Somnus” in my book, but for very different reasons. This is party music, which somehow manages to be perfectly evocative of the ’80s without sounding anything like the music actually released in that decade. And I mean that in the best possible play. Plus it’s the rare synthwave track that house DJs will play at clubs. Oh, and the rest of the album is pretty badass as well.
6. Timecop 1983 – Lovers EP Part I/II (2016)
No one in the genre makes music as lush, dreamy or wonderfully nostalgic as Timecop 1983. And over the past 5 years, he’s consistently put out high quality stuff, so it was tough picking an album to highlight. In the end, I went with the combined Lovers EPs – which to me best captures his aesthetic. This is a version of the ’80s that never quite existed, but should have.
7. Syntax – Island Universe (2015)
Tough choice between this one and Transmissions, but in the end, Island Universe just speaks to me more. If you like spacewave, this is pretty much the gold standard. Lush and dreamy to the core.
8. FM Attack – Deja Vu (2013)
Deja Vu features “With You Tonight” and “Magic,” which are among the best vocal tracks the genre has ever produced. And this is one of those albums where the synthesizer’s soul really shines through – a testament to Shawn Ward’s skill as a producer. On top of that, you can hear the influence of both ’80s synthpop and dance music – welcome and to this day still underdeveloped areas for synthwave artists to explore.
9. Le Matos – Turbo Kid Soundtrack (2015)
I love me some soundtrack music, and this one is a beauty. Easily my favorite release from Le Matos, and a big reason why Turbo Kid is such a memorable film.
10. College – Teenage Color EP (2008)
One of the first and still one of the best. It’s a testament to College’s success that very few artists have even tried to emulate his minimalistic, pattern-based approach. Still sounds unique and fresh.
I’ve released 2 albums and 1 compilation EP on Timeslave Recordings. The most recent of these is Concrete Island(2018), the soundtrack to an imaginary film from 1983 set in the present day. It’s dark and moody. Currently available on limited edition vinyl, cassette and (unlimited) digital.
Prior to that, I released Cosmopolis (2017) – a dreamier, more nostalgic synthwave album. The vinyl and cassette runs sold out, but you can still get digital copies.
My earlier stuff is available via my personal Bandcamp. I don’t really use it much anymore, but do plan to do the occasional single there, like “Skiers vs. Snowboarders,” which is available now for whatever price you want to pay.
You can also find my stuff on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.
My preferred streaming service is Spotify. I definitely encourage you to follow me and add all my songs to your favorite playlists 😉
Concrete Island is live! Two full years in the making, Concrete Island is the soundtrack to a 1983 film set in an alternate 2016 – a black-and-white road trip across a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned freeways, buildings and monuments to a lost civilization: ours. Available now on limited edition vinyl, cassette and digital.
Over the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure of mastering a lot of great music–most, but not all within our synthwave scene. However, because of some major changes in my life, the amount of time I have for music-related activities is set to sharply decline. Though mastering has been an enormously gratifying experience (one that I treasure), in this context I need to prioritize my own productions. As such, I will no longer be taking on new clients–for the foreseeable future, at least. I will, however, continue to work with my regular clients.
If/when this changes, I will make another announcement to that effect.
Hello All! I’ve neglected this blog for a few months, but had thought to start up a new post series where I look at synthwave through a conceptual lens. The first topic I want to cover is arrangement, by which I mean, how parts cohere into a song. -G
Part- and Pattern-Based Music
There are, essentially, two main approaches to composition and arrangement: (1) part-based and (2) pattern-based. These approaches are not mutually exclusive; there is also a lot of overlap and hybridization (more on that later). Fundamentally, though, part-based and pattern-based music differ structurally and philosophically.
Part-based music is divided into discrete sections, usually referred to as “verse,” “bridge,” “pre-chorus,” “chorus,” etc. The chorus is the main hook–the section that should, ideally, be the most memorable and elicit the strongest emotional response. The other sections exist to build tension for the chorus, imbuing the moment it arrives with release, which then triggers euphoria.
Pattern-based music, by contrast, is divided into a series of interlocking patterns, which are then combined to induce a hypnotic state. Tension comes from subtle alterations to meta-pattern, or from pulling pieces out and then slamming them back in again. Euphoria may derive either from these moments or from the hypnotic state itself.
Whether you realize it or not, you are already deeply familiar with both. Most pop and rock music is part-based. Most classical music–think Beethoven or Mozart–is also part-based, as is big band jazz. But dance music is usually pattern-based, as is much traditional folk music. Jazz from bebop on is also pattern-based, featuring a single groove and then a series of improvised riffs off that groove. And whereas Beethoven and Mozart generally wrote part-based music, Bach’s fugues are decidedly pattern-based. So is most contemporary classical music.
Part-based and pattern-based music are not, however, mutually exclusive categories. Rather, it helps to think of them as both a Venn diagram and continuum. Techno, African traditional drum music and contemporary classical present what are, in my view, the most radical visions of pattern-based music in existence. But hip-hop resides in the fuzzy border region between part- and pattern-based music, as does vocal house music, EDM and a lot of extreme metal.
Part- and Pattern-Based Approaches to Synthwave
Both part- and pattern-based approaches are well represented in synthwave, and have been since it’s inception. To illustrate, here are two of my absolute favorite early synthwave tracks: Electric Youth’s “Right Back To You” (part-based) and College’s “Teenage Color” (pattern based):
Notice the difference in how they build tension and release. “Right Back To You” is all about setting up the chorus, which is infectious and downright euphoric. “Teenage Color,” by contrast, builds tension slowly, by introducing, dropping and modulating patterns into a tightly-constructed, hypnotic collage.
“Ocean Drive” by Miami Nights 1984 is another one of my favorite pattern-based synthwave tracks. Listen how it slowly builds up to that killer synth solo:
Now consider the MPM Soundtracks classic, “Daydreamer,” which is a wonderfully nostalgic, part-based instrumental:
Examples of hybridization abound as well, especially but not exclusively when pattern-based producers do the odd vocal track. Two of my favorite examples are “Hand in Hand” by Makeup and Vanity Set and “A Real Hero” by College and Electric Youth:
Part-Based vs. Pattern-Based Music: Is One “Better” for Synthwave?
You’ve probably guessed by now that my answer is “no.” Synthwave draws on both the part-based pop and pattern-based dance music traditions, and both halves of the equation are important. In other words, there is and should be room for both approaches.
In recent years, though, synthwave has been moving away from pattern-based styles like outrun and toward more part-based approaches, most notably with the vocal pop style that Iron Skullet calls popwave, but also in instrumental music.
I like a lot of that stuff, some of it dearly, but pattern-based music holds a special place in my heart. I love the feeling of being entranced by interlocking rhythms–the moment when the various pieces link together almost geometrically–and the feeling of motion that emerges from subtle changes to the meta-pattern. I love hearing DJs create new pastiches by merging two or more pattern-based tracks into something new and original. And I love being in the peculiar headspace that emerges from dancing to music where the performer is backgrounded to the experience, rather than watching a performer on a stage.
I want synthwave to build a DJ and club culture the way it is building a live music culture; and I want synthwave to celebrate pattern-based music just as it celebrates part-based music. Because why not? Both are awesome–and complementary to one another. (Plus DJ sets are a great way for artists to get exposure, while DJing can be a solid source of music-based income, but those issues deserve their own dedicated blog post.)
I’ve already linked to a bunch of awesome music, but here are some more of my favorite part-based and pattern-based synthwave tracks, as well as a couple of mine at the end:
Makeup and Vanity Set – “A Glowing Light, A Promise” (pattern-based)
The Midnight – “Los Angeles” (part-based)
Vandal Moon – “Baby Sounds” (part-based)
Betamaxx – “Redlining 6th” (pattern-based)
Mitch Murder – “In the News” (hybrid)
The G – “Shadows in the Neon Rain” (hybrid)
The G featuring Vampire Step-Dad – “The Color of Television” (hybrid)