Make Believe Machines is an avant-garde, neo-classical project from Des Moines, Iowa. At the center of this project is producer Justin Norman. Right at the tail-end of 2019, Norman released “A Lonely Gust Toward the Heavens” which tells the his personal tale of grief in losing a close friend and grandparents. While this isn’t Make Believe Machines’s latest album, I feel compelled to write about this one as I connected with it earlier this year amidst my ongoing search of music worth listening to.

Artistically speaking, Norman is keen to the fact that ambiguity plays a big part in how art is perceived. He writes, “I’ve always connected with instrumental music, because without the specificity of lyrics, the listener is free to insert their own circumstances into the world of the song. It’s my hope that the new pieces of music on this record can be some comfort to others in trying times.” Personally speaking, I think that whenever an artist tries to define exactly what their art is for their audience it can come off as trite. Specific sounds, atmospheres, vibes, and visuals can bring about as many different feelings as there are people in the world. Music is very subjective. In my case, darker sounding music (like this) is very uplifting. However, those same sounds might be depressing or cause no feelings whatsoever in someone else. To Norman, “A Lonely Gust Toward the Heavens” has specific meaning, but he doesn’t discount the fact that ambiguity is what really makes this album tick.

From the get-go there is one thing that separates “A Lonely Gust Toward the Heavens” from the majority of the new music I’ve listened to this year: this album feels gigantic. I’m sure that part of this is a function of Norman treating the mix of this album with loving care, and then outsourcing this to a proper mastering engineer. The other part of why this album sounds so large is because of the energy behind the art presented here. It’s not often that you come across an artist who can so beautifully express what they want to say with their music, especially when it comes to instrumental music. In a sense, instrumental music is much more difficult to “get right,” primarily because there’s a an unspoken notion among creative minds in all genres that it’s easier to produce. Quite frankly, this point of view is understandable. Vocals can be a pain in the ass to–but can the twenty instrumental albums you released in the last year actually paint a picture? Can they tell a story? Can they do both of those things even if your listeners don’t know anything about you or your process? “A Lonely Gust Toward the Heavens” can.

In terms of how “A Lonely Gust Toward the Heavens” sounds, I feel that most people will instantly compare it to Hans Zimmer. Generally speaking though, I think that Make Believe Machines has much more in common the kind of music Thomas Newman (The Green Mile, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption) typically churns out. This is an album that is definitely cinematic, but at a more down to earth and slow pace. The entire album has an unmistakable undertone of heavy sadness throughout that makes me think about every moment in my life that I didn’t have control over.

While the entire album is a high water mark for this type of music, there were a few moments that really resonated with me. “Ghosts Made of Static” is the song I would direct people to listen to first if they wanted to see what to expect from this album. This is a song that’s extremely textured, ambient, and string driven. This song gives me thoughts of wanting to escape into the woods. Like, when I listen to”Ghosts Made of Static” I actually see spinning eddies of leaves and dirt occupying an empty autumnal path like solemn ghosts. It’s almost like every person in my life who is no longer here has a voice in this song. It’s rather beautiful. “This Olive Branch is a Hornet’s Nest” has a very infectious Silent Hill vibe with its piano driven movement. The ever so slight sample reversals going on here just add to that feeling as well. When it comes to what I see when I listen to this song, I think about a car ride to the cemetery in the rain, or looking out my window in longing for days that are no longer here. “Mount St. Michel’s Revenants” features a very prominent violin and cello duet by Elaina Steenson and Anna Kucera respectively that feels like looking back at the world from the perspective of someone being laid to rest. There’s a mutual feeling of regret here that encapsulates a conversation between the living and those who have passed on into the aether. “The Restless Woods” is also an incredible highlight from this album, what with the simple piano and the right amount of reverb and atmosphere to give it vibrant and visual life. Finally, “Another Fruitless Victory” is the point in the album where I felt that the Zimmer parallels could be felt the most. This is a slow, plodding, song that really speaks to its title by questioning whether or not there’s any inherent meaning in life at all. Everything is finite–and I feel that this song does well in pointing that simple fact out.

As far as complaints are concerned, I don’t have many. Structurally, all of the songs are solid. The song titles hit the mark too. That said, for as much as I feel like this album would’ve benefited from the songs flowing into one another more smoothly. Part of this lies in how difficult it can be to separate tracks out so that they seamlessly run into one another, but the other aspect of this may have to do with how the tracks were arranged order-wise. Outside of that, this is a near flawless effort by an indie artist to get that big cinematic sound.

While I want to avoid getting overly existential in my analysis of this release, “A Lonely Gust Toward the Heavens” represents, at least to me, the necessary process of having to grieve through the death of a loved one, be it a friend, a parent, or partner. This is absolutely, one-hundred percent, NOT feel good music. Don’t come here looking for bopping happy vibes. Come here looking for an album that will make you want to reflect and listen to the compartmentalized hurt inside of your heart.

Album Color Profile: #E8F5E9

RECOMMENDED FOR: People who need a much needed cry or grief-release.

Stand-Out tracks: All. But definitely check out “Ghosts Made of Static” if you aren’t sold on this album yet.

You can find all things Make Believe Machines at https://makebelievemachines.com/

Cyberthing! is a Darksynth project from–I’m not entirely sure where. Their VK page says Vancouver, but their Bandcamp page says California. Let’s put it this way, they are probably from somewhere here on Earth. I hope. *gulp* Cyberthing! (aside from one rogue photo on Twitter) is the type of project that takes a page out of the Deathspell Omega handbook by revealing very little about the actual producer behind the scenes. This is the type of “created persona” music that’s become all the rage among the kids these days. To be honest, I’m rather ambivalent to the whole concept. Cyberthing! is also one of those projects that has released five full-length albums and one EP at breakneck speeds over the course of two years. Their latest is entitled “KIRA.” It was released August 12th, 2020.

The cover artwork for “KIRA” is by Nero Exgalatine. It features a wonderful look that is reminiscent of early 2000s anime. There’s just something really cool about slick looking digital art that feels faded and worn at the same time. Nero really excels at this sort of thing. Her art gives off a nice retro vibe akin to looking at a single frame from an older anime on VHS. It really makes me miss Animerica magazine.

When it comes to what Cyberthing! has done with “KIRA” I can happily report that, at least to me, it is aesthetically near perfect. Nero’s anime style art coupled with slick, Cyberthing!’s grainy Darksynth is precisely the type of thing that’s right up my alley. “KIRA” is entirely instrumental, sans a few sample drops is a concept album. The liner notes on Cyberthing!’s page tells the tale of Kira Atari, “the second best killer” in the entire world. The album takes us on her journey to eliminate her rival “Killer Zero” in a bare knuckle cinematic feast for the ears.

“KIRA’s” intro track reminds me of Kenji Kawai’s “Making of a Cyborg” from 1995’s “Ghost in the Shell,” complete with that chorusey Bulgarian percussive vibe that made Kawai’s song so wonderful. The rest of the album, with the exception of “Into the Arena,” is your typical Darksynth affair. This isn’t a bad thing. While there is nothing particularly unexpected or surprising about “KIRA,” it’s strengths lie in maintaining a specific cinematic feel throughout the album that just works.

I found myself humming “First Strike” a lot this week. It’s a total earworm that shows off a little bit of what to expect from “KIRA’s” overall sound. This is the type of neon-flavored Darksynth that boasts a Roland Juno 60 and Minimoog vibe. “Slayer Incorporated” is my favorite track off of “KIRA.” It does a lot right, by combining elements from Darksynth with an early 2000s aggrotech sensibility. This song’s slow crawl brings on that perfect danger-energy that makes my toes curl with glee. “Welcome to the Fightclub” is another track that really caught my attention. Primarily for the rolling squishy bass patch that Cyberthing! uses in an all out barrage of audio violence. “Into the Arena” reminds me of the type of music you’d hear in an old 80s movie featuring a knife fight. It’s not very Darksynth per se but it does have the same spirit of “KIRA’s” opening track which fits in well with the aesthetic that Cyberthing! is pulling off here. Other tracks of note include “Electric,” “Target Hunter,” and “Megaweb Storm,” which all make liberal use of that fancy distorted French Darksynth bass we’ve all grown to love and adore since it first reared it’s ugly head onto the scene via Carpenter Brut & Friends.

Visually, “KIRA” makes me think of a corrupt inner city police precincts, flashing lights, sexy android girls, and flying cars cruising amidst the back drop of some kind of futuristic neon city. It doesn’t do anything daring when it comes to sound design or song structure, but I can’t say that that bothers me. I love Darksynth, and “KIRA” represents a solid example of how to do it right.

Make no mistake, if you’re looking for an album chock-full with Cyberpunk goodness, “KIRA” is your girl.

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of Darksynth, Cyberpunk, and sexy killer androids.

STAND-OUT TRACKS: “Slayer Incorporated,” “Welcome to the Fightclub,” “Target Hunter.”

Album Color Profile: #D81B60

You can find all things Cyberthing! at https://cyberthing.bandcamp.com/

In the post-covid postmodern cyberpunk pastiche that is 2020 just about everybody and their mother has taken to the arts in a last ditch effort to make their hopes and dreams come true. The result of this has been really mixed. On one end of the spectrum there’s high-quality “didn’t bother to write my own music” garbage that low skill non-producers have thrown money at to make their egos feel better. There’s an entire industry that orbits around separating these folks from their hard earned cash. In the middle, you have low quality artistic music that actually has real substance. There’s also the low quality, low skilled producers that aren’t “in it to win it” rather they are only in it for fun—to which I say, hell yeah, keep having fun. And finally you have really well produced music that’s artistic AF. This is very rare mythical unicorn that often gets buried under high quality, low skill garbage. This is sadly just the way things are. But hey, when I discover music like this, I am motivated to share it. Enter London’s very own dark synth producer who goes by the moniker “The Unseen.” Since June of 2018 they have been producing delectable and dark music just perfect for a night drive. Their latest “EP”—it’s not an “EP,” this is a fucking album, is entitled “To Where We Roam.” It released on June 19th, 2020 via Bandcamp.

The cover art for “To Where We Roam” is extremely unorthodox for this type of music. I say this mainly due to it’s color scheme. Just looking at this album, the first thought that comes into my head is that this is going to be something light-hearted and smooth. I mean look at those pastels! Towards the bottom of the image is a figure walking away. They are draped in a scarlet looking robe/blanket/shroud that appears to be swaying slowly in the wind. This is the part of this artwork that is slightly unsettling to look at. There’s mystery there. Right out in the open. Right out in the light. Needless to say, when I pressed play on this album for the first time it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

“To Where We Roam” is a release that has gone widely unnoticed—which I think is downright criminal. In terms of what I’ve already listened to in 2020, this album is top ‘o the heap. This is mostly instrumental, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s just another fancy darksynth release. The Unseen did a wonderful job producing this one. From beginning to end, I was treated to the perfect mix of early 1980s Vangelis/Tangerine Dream mixed with what sounds like to me Jack Wall’s work on Mass Effect 2, only instead of getting one “Suicide Mission” track, the entire album sounds like that. I think that top loading “To Where We Roam” with “Paris, Aimes-tu Les Damnés?” was a solid artistic decision, because while it has threads of what typically is expected out of a darksynth track, it vaguely reminded me of the first time I heard Xasthur’s “Moon Shrouded in Misery, part I.” I think that adding this type of sound to darksynth is the proper progression for the genre, not only because it adds a dreamy death-like element to the tone of the music, but because I think it feels nostalgic, albeit not in an eighties sort of way. “Veiled Silhouettes on the Dunes of Dubai” reminds me a lot of Keiichi Okabe’s compositions on both the original “Nier” and also “Nier Automata.” It’s dusty, atmospheric, oppressive and breathy. It stands out as one of the album’s most visual songs, and although it’s a little tropey I like it. “Stargazing From a Train in the Austrian Alps” sounds eerily familiar to the end theme from “Blade Runner.” There are two reasons for this. One, it’s in F minor just like Blade Runner’s end theme. “Stargazing…” is also similar sounding because of the steady arpeggio that continues for most of the song in tandem with lush pads going up and down the scale. The primary difference here is that the starting root note of the arpeggio isn’t C like in Blade Runner’s end theme. In general, I look at this like a nod to Vangelis, and what a nod it is. It’s a great tune. The best track on the album goes to the final track “World, Interrupted.” This also sounds similar to Vangelis, complete with it’s choir sweeps and dynamic percussion clashing with synthesized leads. The greatest moment of the album comes roughly two minutes into “World, Interrupted” with a drastic change in tempo which shifts the song’s focus from a more brooding energy level to something dark and upbeat. This is precisely the type of thing I love in darksynth that isn’t done nearly enough. It takes the overall vibe of the track from a, “yeah we’re not doing so well here,” to “we are absolutely fucked.” This is definitely one of the best tracks I’ve heard all year.

Overall, “To Where We Roam” is an album that was a huge surprise to me. It’s not only just dark, it’s oppressively dark. There isn’t any fun going on with this album. It sounds like the end of the world. And that’s the way I fucking like it.

RECOMMENDED FOR: People who like their darksynth sounding like a razorblade sweeping back and forth in their mouths.

Stand-Out Tracks: “World, Interrupted,” (GREAT TRACK), “Paris, Aimes-tu Les Damnés?,” “Veiled Silhouettes on the Dunes of Dubai,” “Stargazing From a Train in the Austrian Alps” (Blade Runner vibes!)

Album Color Profile: #FF8A80

You can find all things The Unseen at https://theunseen.bandcamp.com/

And now time for a little something—different.

Tengushee is a prolific producer from the so-called “Endless City.” I can’t find out much aside from this. What I will say is that he survived the first cyberpunk apocalypse, and that he’ll survive the next.

“Afterlife” is Tengushee’s forth full-length album. On the cover is a black and white image of our hero, Tengushee, wielding a sheathed sword, four pictures on the wall behind him, and two studio monitors. Like a king on his throne, I get the feeling that he represents a shadowy occult persona who secretly disseminates universal esotericisms through audio. CALL IT A HUNCH.

I’m going to come out straight away and say that I am not as acquainted with the Witch House genre as much as I should be. That said, “Afterlife” sorta sounds like Witch House, but it also doesn’t. There is a rather hefty amount of genre bending going on here, which makes this album really difficult to describe. To make it a little easier, imagine the following:

It’s the year 2072. After a couple of earth shattering environmental disasters, several pandemics, a war, and a shift from isolationism to globalization the world has changed. You’re living in a Edo period style bordello in Oslo as a meat puppet (aka working girl). The pay isn’t bad, but it’s a hard life, and you are always on call. You do what you can to get by, but it doesn’t always serve you to be completely lucid. So you often find yourself popping a few pills every few hours to help forget the ugliness you have to live. Sometimes after spending time with your clients you treat yourself to a drink in hopes that you’re finally done for the day. Lying on a tableau of pillows and soft bodies you lean back in a hazy stupor. The room is as dim as your soul at this point. You take a long draw from a cigarette and surround yourself in a cloud of relaxing smoke. The music in the background is both calm and energetic, futuristic and traditional, dark and light. You quite like it. Life feels grey. So why shouldn’t your music also be grey?

“Afterlife” sounds like the above scene. It’s the sort of music that can simultaneously serve two purposes. It can either be put on as background music, or you can intently listen to it. I’m used to dealing with one or the other. It’s fascinating that Tengushee is able to be both. Artistically speaking, I haven’t often come across music that does this so easily. And even though Tengushee self-describes his own music as “Faewave,” I feel that “Afterlife” encapsulates what I would call futuristic “parlorwave.” In my mind’s eye, I could see music like Tengushee’s “Afterlife” in a film about what life was like at the beginning of the Meiji restoration. At the same time, I could also see it in a film adaptation of Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” Listening to “Afterlife” is like being pulled into two different directions at once. For instance, on a track like “March of the Misfit Toys” there’s a more modern drum and bass rhythm that’s being torn apart by an ambient four note chord progression that sounds like something from early 1900s Vaudeville showcase. It’s quite odd!! There are also instances of Vaporwave-like attitudes popping up all over “Afterlife.” Only instead of directly lifting material from older music to be repurposed into something new, I can’t help but feel that “Afterlife” was actually composed from scratch rather than sampled from another source. Regardless of whether or not this happens to be true or not, a lot of the music “feels” sampled or resampled from original music that Tengushee created himself. See “The Rule of the Queen of Rats” with it’s gritty koto-infused music box vibe for the best example of this. Even Tengushee’s vocal performance on this album feels like it was intended to purposely sound like it was sampled from another source, even though it’s Tengushee himself. Psychologically, I find this both scary and fascinating, because with the way our minds work we tend to digest vocal drops with a sense of authority since many of them come from established brands and/or people. (An often overused example of this can be found in Oppenheimer’s famous “I am become death” quote about nuclear weapons).

I think that “Afterlife” is really fucking weird—but not to a fault. It’s a carefully crafted piece of work that accomplishes being dark and futuristic without being dark and futuristic. This is truly grey music that I would compare to post-black metal Ulver, (think “Blood Inside,” and “Perdition City”). Overall, I really like what “Afterlife” is doing, although I think it’s going to over the heads of most due to how majestically avant-garde it is. If you want a glimpse of how to properly execute futuristic weirdness in an occult sort of way, look no further than “Afterlife.” You can even download it for free from his website, if you so choose—so check it out. I highly recommend it.

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of post-black metal Ulver, people looking for something weird and avant-garde.

Stand-out tracks: “Let’s Die Tonight,” “Walk with Serenity” (my favorite track), “Welcome to Nightmares,” “The Rule of the Queen of Rats.”

Album Color Profile: #B3B6B7

You can find all things Tengushee at tengushee.com