₳§ᗐM̶R̳ (aka ASVMR) is a strange little project from Huntington, West Virginia. Cyberpunk isn’t exactly the first thing when you think of the college towny vibes of Huntington, although when you consider William Gibson’s idea of The Sprawl, which is basically a giant Megacity along the East Coast from Boston to Atlanta, I’m pretty sure Huntington or at least the city that used to be Huntington would be a part of it. ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ has quite a few releases going back into early 2019. Their latest is stylistically entitled “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®” and it was released on September 4th, 2020 via Vivarium Recordings.

The cover art for “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®” (by GLEAMx96) is derivative of the cyberpunk aesthetic that ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ is going for, depicting a gender ambiguous chrome human looking at some glowing star-stuff in their hand. There’s a consistent geometric pattern that surrounds the image, and an almost lens-flary kind of halo shining off of something in the distance. The choice of light pastels here are both nice and clean looking. I think if I saw this sitting on a shelf somewhere, I would feel obliged to pick it up and at least give it a glance.

Much like a lot of proper Vapor/Dreamwave out there in the void, ₳§ᗐM̶R̳, isn’t so much a musical experience as it is an atmosphere of futuristic energy. The real experience from what ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ has to offer with “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®” lies in giving yourself permission to let your guard down, shut your eyes, and relax. There is so much going on with “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®” in a visual sense that it’s best experienced by giving it your undivided attention.

The opener “Digital Sunlight For The First Time” which is a collab track with 沙漠里的沙子晚上很温暖 (this translates to something like “warm desert night sand,” cool fucking name) kicks the album off with an ethereal metallic “clanging” and soft pads. In the distance there is a muffled voice. The song shifts away from this later on into what sounds like a wind tunnel and some very Vaporwave-esque vocals and distortion. By the time you realize it the song is over and four minutes have passed by. Get used to this, because ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ really makes time fly by. The second track, “Self-Enhancing” (feat. Future Anonymous) is notable for its chilly demeanor, subtle manipulation of airy noise, and what sounds like chains or car keys dragging or clanging against someone walking down a busy street whilst snapping their fingers. Next up, is a collab with CHROM-47, it’s entitled “We Will Make You (The Best You Can Be).” This song is also rather metallic and jingly, with a consistent radar sounding vibe that trickles throughout. At about 1:10 into this track there’s a percussion element that kicks in that reminds me of someone knocking on the door, a heartbeat, and a bass drum. The first time I spun “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®,” my little yorkie, Bella, started freaking out because she thought someone was outside making racket. “Au·to·mat·ic A·poth·e·o·sis,” is a song that I grew to appreciate for combining a more traditional sounding chillwave track with what sounds like a computerized voice speaking in a string of numbers or code. “Thought Incubator” (feat. m a g g i e . w a v), is one of the shorter tracks on the album combining a tinny/distorted psuedo-guitar type synth and pads. There’s a really cool sample at the end that says something like “If you step right this way, we’ll begin the proceedings for your brand new life.” What this did for me in a visual sense is allow me to imagine some kind of facility where my brain, or maybe my consciousness became separated from my body and placed into another kind of existence. “Thought Incubator” is like the show room floor type of music for new and better bodies. I connected with this track a lot.

The highlight of “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®” is “Body/Connection/Cut.” The song title reads like some kind of weird command line, giving instructions to cease the functions or a connection to a body that exists only to be thrown away or disposed for something more shiny and a lot less tangible. The choice of manipulated sounds used on this track reinforces this idea even more. I particularly enjoy one sound that reminds me of making a selection or saving a game in an older CD-ROM based game. The way it’s used here with the throttling of oscillating atmospheres doesn’t sound especially violent, but when the (vocoder) vocals kick in the latter half of the song it’s definitely apparent that there’s something nasty afoot. This song accurately depicts the constant struggle of feeling awkward in one’s body, and I love it because it scares the fuck out of me. The next song, which is very sarcastically titled “You’re Going to Love Your New Life! (Inside of a Server),” features a voice sample from one of my all time favorite movies, “The Lawnmower Man”, if you haven’t seen it you should. ANYWAY, the continuity of “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®” just surprises me so goddamn much. Everything that we’ve covered, so far, has lead up to this point. It’s clear ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ is taking us on a journey away from our humanity. This all might seem very exciting at first glance, but really, it isn’t. I mean, can you imagine living the rest of your existence as a disembodied consciousness inside of a server somewhere? It sounds like a goddamn death sentence.

“Reality v. 2” (feat. V​/​/ Tomo) is the one of the more musical tracks on the album, zeroing in on a relaxed drum and bass vibe. This quickly wraps up heading into “Forget The Past (We Can Remember it For You)” which takes a sample from 1990’s “Total Recall.” I had a good giggle when I heard Kuato’s voice carry the first part of the track along saying “OPEN YOUR MIND” over and over again. The track that follows, “Ersatz Heaven” (feat. Soul▲Craft) is my second favorite track from the album. Again, much like “Reality v. 2” this is more traditional “music.” It has an authentic cyberpunky post-synthwave vibe that sits right in the goldilocks zone of “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®.” It’s slightly groovy, atmospheric, and just different from everything else on the album. “Complete Reconstruction” (feat, V‡▲D‡M∇R) quickly gets away from tradition by purposely pushing it’s music into the background of the track. Again, we are greeted by a voice put through a vocoder channeling some creepy post-human energy. The final track on the album, ” .​.​.​And That’s How I Assimilated” (feat. First Kings) begins with another odd noise, it almost sounds like a gunshot, some detuned pads cycling through some kind of LFO, a squishy low passed bass, and some rickety percussion. Somewhere north of 1:30 some “Blade Runner”-esque pads help to end the album via anti-climactic textures that made me catch a few flies by the time I actually started to understand how sophisticated this album really is. Like–holy fucking shit this is art, not because it tries to be but because it’s delivery is so natural.

Overall, “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®,” combines the sensibility of a threatening artificial intelligence while listening to Kraftwerk and Dan Mason through an LFO while baking a cake. I hope that that makes sense. This can be an odd album to the uninitiated, but I really appreciate it for two reasons:

  1. ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ consistently melts time without relying on hooks, bass drops, or sick beats.
  2. “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®,” uses pre-existing sources via samples to paint a tableau of ideas that flow together into a coherent narrative that not only makes sense the more you listen to it, it almost becomes a part of you if you’re willing to let your defenses down to appreciate just how incredible it is.

I loved this album. I’m so happy that I was able to spend some quality time with it.

***As a side note, I have three albums in mind for what I consider to be “best of the year” for 2020, “𝑵𝒆𝒘 𝑳𝒊𝒇𝒆 ®,” is one of these.***

THIS ALBUM IS FOR YOU: if you’re into proper high-minded cyberpunk without the beat dropping, or silly musical melodrama/tension.

HIGHLIGHTS: “Body​/​Connection​/​Cut,” ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ x Soul▲Craft – “Ersatz Heaven,” and ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ x m a g g i e . w a v – “Thought Incubator,” ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ x CHROM​-​47 – “We Will Make You (The Best That You Can Be)”

ALBUM COLOR PROFILE: #F4ECF7

You can find all things ₳§ᗐM̶R̳ and more at https://vivariumrecordings.bandcamp.com/ and https://asvmr.bandcamp.com/

Deckard 88 is a retro-style producer from Buenos Aires, Argentina. While they have only recently come onto the scene in September, I have to say, there’s a lot of promise here. Yeah, it’s true, Synthwave doesn’t have that shiny new car smell anymore, but you know what? There’s still quite a few artists out there exploring the genre with fresh new enthusiasm. Deckard 88’s first full length is entitled “Controlled Machines.” It was quietly released on October 12th, 2020.

The cover art for “Controlled Machines” reminds me of an old, worn, movie poster for a late 70s or 80s horror flick. You know, something like this. There’s a cyberpunky Gibson-esque Neuromancer vibe to the artwork here that has been done to death at this point in the game, but I think it’s executed well, and has nice aesthetics that compliment the music within “Controlled Machines” well.

Despite using Cubase to capture all of the sounds heard here (and for post production), Deckard 88 boasts using an array of hardware synths on “Controlled Machines. There’s a real tangible feel to the overarching sound of this album showing that Deckard 88 has a good understanding of the tools he has available. I happen to enjoy the fact that a PO-28 was used on this album. As an aside, Teenage Engineering, most well known for the legendary OP-1 unit, has some other extremely affordable hardware synths, especially in their Pocket Operator line. For anyone looking to get into that side of the game, they’re definitely worth checking out. Other synths that Deckard 88 used here include the Volca Kick, the Roland TR-8 for some of the 808 related percussion, and the Korg Minilogue.

Anyway, onto the music!

What does Deckard 88 sound like? Well, rather nostlagic, but with the right level of modern sound design. There’s a slight fuzz draped over the entire production of “Controlled Machines” giving it that analogue style grit, but it’s also very clean sounding at the same time. I drove around the city over the weekend blasting this album in my car, I listened to it on my tinny old computer speakers, from my phone (while I washed dishes), with a pair of headphones, and on my studio monitors. What’s unique to “Controlled Machines” is that it sounds nice everywhere I took it. “Summer Time” highlights the range this album has from it’s atmospheric soundscape, to its heavy distant and spacey pads, dreamy silver sounding keys, and a warm low end that kind of just takes you away into some starry nebula somewhere in the vast cosmos of space. In general, I found “Controlled Machines” to be most powerful when I was relaxing. I even did a nice little meditation with it running in the background and didn’t feel like it was agitating me.

Of all the tracks available here, I quite like “Interlude (1989).” It’s epic, but it’s low key epic. There’s a nice subtle build-up to this short track that sort of sums up everything I enjoy about what Deckard 88 has done here. “Mono no Aware” sticks out to me as sleeper hit from this album for a few reasons. First of all, it highlights one of Anthony Michael Hall’s most famous lines from the “The Breakfast Club,” which for some reason has become a staple in this type of music. For as many times as I’ve heard this “friendship” line it doesn’t get old. Every time I hear this exchange from John Hughes finest directorial moment I feel like life is breaking up with me. Profound sadness. Second, despite being really low key, “Mono no Aware,” is one earworm of a song. When the initial build-up of the music fades somewhere north of the 1:36 mark it embraces you in it’s nostalgic light just hoping to evoke some sort of genuine feeling from your dead lifeless body. Thirdly, the harmonica sounding synth is wonderful. “Arcade Rush” is one of the few tracks on “Controlled Machines” that’s a little more upbeat, and features some neat EQ tricks to give the song a little more texture than your average straight forward Synthwave affair. The one song I really wanted to like more on this album was “Broken Reality,” but the “One Small Step for Man,” Neil Armstrong quote took me out of it’s vibe as soon as I heard it. Not that there’s anything wrong with Neil Armstrong, I just think it’s one of the most sampled quotes in music at this point.

Overall, Deckard 88 has done a nice job here. I would’ve like to have heard some more analogue style distortion on this album, but I definitely couldn’t have produced something as good as this myself. So it gets a HELL YEAH from me. I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to spend some time with this album. “Controlled Machines,” is a solid listen, and I think if you’re legit into Synthwave you’re going to absolutely love this one.

STAND-OUT TRACKS: “Mono no Aware,” “Arcade Rush,” “Interlude (1989),” and “Summer Time.”

RECOMMENDED FOR: Synthwave-heads, fans of 80s cinematic music, people looking for something relaxing and low key.

Album Color Profile: #D500F9

You can find all things Deckard 88 at https://deckard88.bandcamp.com/

Elay Arson is the brainchild of Daniel David Larson. To those unfamiliar with Larson’s work, I would like to prepare you, because Elay Arson doesn’t take notes from any other artist in the darksynth/retrowave scene. These guys do their own thing. And with the imminent release of their second full-length in 2020 (holy shit two LPs in one year), “Franz,” they continue to push the limit of what I’ve come to expect as their norm. Unlike a lot of the stuff I’ve reviewed this year, Elay Arson is a project that I’ve been actively listening to since the release of their seminal “Rites of the Damned” album from way back in 2017. I’ve had the pleasure of watching Larson’s career grow with great interest.

I want to put “Franz” into perspective for listeners who aren’t familiar with Elay Arson’s previous work. First of all, looking at Elay Arson’s back catalog, “Franz” sticks out as strange. While there’s always been some level of what I’d like to call “epic cheese” to Elay Arson’s music, I can’t say that it’s ever waded into the waters of camp like “Franz” has. I’ve always perceived Elay Arson to be the sort of project, and I mean this loose terms, that embraced serious types of cyberpunk aesthetics and subject matter. “Franz” completely sheds that hard high-minded cyberpunk ideal for something much more playful. There’s a “Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water” meets Die Antwoord level of absurdity with “Franz” that isn’t so much out of place for Elay Arson as it is bizarre.

Similar to their previous full-length “Dusk Incarnate,” “Franz” is a concept album. Only this time instead of focusing on the distant future, Larson wrote this album zeroing in on one of my favorite topics of conversation—cyberpunk, as we’re living it now. “Franz” is a darksynth/hip-hop/metal opera that uses Elon Musk’s ABSURDLY designed Cybertruck as the primary focal point of the album. “Franz” treats Elon Musk like some kind of Dr. Frankenstein character in an effort to resurrect the consciousness of designer Franz von Holzhausen into a Cybertruck. Modern problems require modern solutions. Anyway, some shit happens and Franz begins killing/terrorizing the citizens of Fremont. If this sounds like Child’s Play meets Christine, meets Portal, you aren’t that far off the mark. The whole idea behind “Franz” as an album sounds like something that Larson came up with as a joke whilst dabbing tangie with Devin Harrison on the third floor of a Colorado ski resort. The last thing he probably remembered was going comatose, (as you do) but when he came to, “Franz” had been fully fleshed out, recorded, and ready to go. At that point he had no choice but to commit to the project.

Production wise, I think that Elay Arson has really stretched their producin’ legs this go around. Where “Dusk Incarnate” still felt slightly faded in an indie kind of way, “Franz” is much more polished, and more listenable. There’s a good variety here, though if I had to pick one point of weakness for the album I would zero in on its percussion. While there are already a lot of collabs on “Franz” I think that this album would have benefitted by outsourcing some of the “beat making” responsibilities to a proper hip-hop producer, especially on “Billionaire, Boyfriend, CEO,” and “They Call Me Crazy.” The songs themselves are two of the most memorable tracks on “Franz” but I’d like to hear both of these with some howling, car shaking 808s to make them sizzle in that acid/rave hip-hop kind of way. For songs that leaned more into the metal side of things, like “Kill the Truck,” “Icon of Evil” and “Humanity is Fired,” I think making the drums and bass little more front and center in a melodeath Gothenburg style could’ve benefitted the overall feel of the album, by making those moments a little more organic sounding.

In terms of how “Franz” is structurally envisioned, I think that it really shows just how far Elay Arson is willing to explore in an effort to create interesting music. Larson doesn’t stay in one place for too long on this album, and because it’s so widely varied it became more memorable each time I gave it a spin. I knew that this album had its hooks in me when I started singing “Billionaire, Boyfriend, CEO” to myself in the shower a few days after my initial listen. Goddamn, I fucking love that song. It’s gothic and thug simultaneously! (Think Ghostemane). I was particularly drawn to the collabs Larson did with Hard Men Working Hard. Vocally, both songs (“Icon of Evil,” and “Humanity is Fired”) featuring those cool cats from down under were really memorable songs. Their style was perfectly in line with what Elay Arson was trying to get across here. “Kill the Truck,” harkens back to Elay Arson’s style on “Dusk Incarnate” a bit more as does the opening instrumental “Pointy Steel Overture.” Synth-maiden Czarina makes a memorable appearance on “No One is Getting Out Alive,” with an almost operatic performance Her voice has a slight Amy Lee vibe to it. My favorite track from the album was Becca Star’s Yolandi/Fergi-esque collab on “They Say I’m Crazy.” I’m not averse to a full album of this type of thing…maybe next time we’ll get some more. I can only hope.

Daniel David Larson and Devin Harrison (Elay Arson)

The last thing I want to talk about with regards to “Franz” is how genius it is to sing about something so prevalent in popular culture in the moment. For all intents and purposes, Elay Arson is still underground, but I feel like in a world where people go viral all the time, “Franz” has potential to make things happen. All it’s going to take is Joe Rogan, Franz von Holzhausen, or Elon Musk himself to catch wind that there’s an album like this out there and Larson could be trending overnight. I think from a marketing stand-point it’s a crazy idea that has some hairy ass fucking legs.

So yeah, “Franz” wades heavily into batshit crazy side of the pool—but you know what? “Franz” feels like legit entertainment. And it’s all the better for it. That said, the first time that I listened to “Franz” I fucking HATED it. It’s not wildly different from Elay Arson’s previous output, but it was different enough to make me feel uncomfortable with it until I listened to it several times. That said, I love “Franz” now that I’ve spent a good two weeks with it in an honest effort to understand what it’s doing. “Franz” is original, fresh, and injects the darksynth genre with precisely what it needs in order to overcome the current stagnation occurring in the scene. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had more Carpenter Brut style distorted resampled saws than my body has room for. It was great while it lasted but that style has been done to fucking death. Thankfully, Larson has spared us from anymore of that, and still stands, at least to me, as a pillar of a scene crumbling underneath the weight of its popularity amongst edge-lord high-end production worshipping whores looking to piss all over actual artistic expression that doesn’t conform to their idea of what makes a good music. Where those type of people will forever remain stains on the scene for being negative because they crave credibility, Elay Arson will be over here making true art by pushing the limits of the genre by transcending “the standard.”

If “Dusk Incarnate” is a fully realized ultimate version of the style Elay Arson cultivated on “Rites of the Damned,” then “Franz” has given Elay Arson the realization that they aren’t beholden to that style or any other genre or style of music. “Franz” is the start of something truly wonderful. I am super excited to see where Elay Arson takes us next.

Album Highlights: “They Call Me Crazy (feat. Becca Starr),” “Billionaire, Boyfriend, CEO,” “Icon of Evil (feat. Hard Men Working Hard),” “No One is Getting Out Alive (feat. C Z A R I N A),” and “Kill the Truck (feat. Hard Men Working Hard).”

Recommended for: Tesla Fans, metal heads, and sentient Cybertrucks.

Album Color Profile: SHINY AND CHROME

You can find all things Elay Arson at https://elayarson.bandcamp.com/

Dimi Kaye needs no introduction to those of us familiar with the indie Synthwave scene. Hailing from Greece, Dimi Kaye has been producing all things retro since 2015. Dimi Kaye is a frequent flyer when it comes to sick guitar collabs, my favorite being the fabulous Team Sweatwave which arrived just in time for the lost Summer of 2020. His latest solo effort is a four track EP entitled “Mechanical Psyche.” It was released on October 15th, 2020.

The cover image for “Mechanical Psyche” was illustrated by artist Alex Delgado. It features what appears to be some kind of skinless pleasure model leaning up against an automobile surrounded on all sides by brush and overgrowth. A city lies in the background which seems to insinuate that upon leaving it, the android lost it’s ability to continue surviving. In Dimi Kaye’s cyberpunk world it would seem that free-range androids are uncommon outside of city limits. I quite like the color scheme, I think that the blue fits in well with the vibe going on with this EP. I also like the android’s soul leaving it’s body in the form of ghostly butterflies.

The first two things I should note about “Mechanical Psyche” is:

  1. It is entirely instrumental.
  2. It is also completely devoid of guitar. Which is weird because Dimi Kaye, at least for me is a name I associate with guitar.

Looking back at Dimi Kaye’s backlog, he’s no stranger to instrumental music. Surprisingly, he is also no stranger to creating music without guitar. In fact, his first album, “Dream Sequencer” is very similar to “Mechanical Psyche” in both respects, and honestly, it wouldn’t be until the release of his “Shadow Run” single that we would get a preview of the guitar centered sound we got with his more recent work. So before anyone says, “HEY DIMI, WHERE THE GUITAR AT?” know that Dimi Kaye doesn’t limit himself when it comes to writing the music he wants to hear.

In talking a little bit to Dimi about “Mechanical Psyche” it is an EP that is conceptually based on a poem he penned way back in 2007. The poem reads like this:

“Leveling cold machines to independent status
Giving birth to artificial intelligence
That distant future is closing fast

Like a mirror reflects vanity of man
A new species is being born by metal
Factories carry children with iron flesh

In the years to come
Mankind’s hope should come down to this
That though nature of man is violent and merciless
Mechanical Psyche will be more compassionate.”

When I read this for the first time, my initial thought was “wow, how can machines be more compassionate than humans?” And then the ugly truth hit me. I think it’s safe to assume that machines have an exacting, cold, logical, analytical, black and white, perception of the world around them. And to suggest that speculative A.I.s still have more compassion than humans despite all of that is a wild idea. In so many words, this poem basically frames how incredibly fucked up humans can be to one another. Going into “Mechanical Psyche” without considering the finer details of why it was written the way it was. Dimi told me that he intentionally “wanted an artificial/electronic sound to go with it, just like an android would be.” That makes sense to me.

So after all this pretense, how does “Mechanical Psyche” sound? Well, it reminds me of a moody 80s synth based soundtrack. I tend to think it’s a little more Tangerine Dream than John Carpenter, and a little more John Carpenter than it is Jan Hammer. This isn’t an EP about sunsets and beaches after all. It’s very apparent from the getgo that “Mechanical Psyche” is an arpeggio leaden cyberpunk/sci-fi sort of mini-album. “Viral Vector” shows off a little bit of everything here, featuring some Juno 60 vibes in nearly every aspect of its sound design. “Soul Transduction” follows similarly, although where “Viral Vector” sounds much more threatening and dangerous, “Soul Transduction” has a shroud of mystery around it’s sound. It’s simple and straight forward with a calm beat that never fully builds up (by design). This is only further enhanced due to the absence of a snare drum until a little after three minutes into the track. “Takwin” is the most VGM sounding track of the bunch, giving me some old Command and Conquer vibes. It’s a track that fills my mind with anxiety. There’s also a neat exploration element to “Takwin” that feels like endless leaving. The final track “Mechanical Psyche” is the most cinematic song of the bunch. Like, visually it feels like listening to a sun that will never rise. There’s also some atmospheric movement going on with the first bit of the track that reminds of driving through a dimly lit highway on a lukewarm autumn evening.

My final impressions are this: I don’t think there’s anything here that we haven’t heard before. That said, when considering Dimi Kaye as an artist, where he’s taken us in the past, and comparing this all of that, I think that “Mechanical Psyche” is well worth a listen. I think that this not only shows Dimi Kaye’s artistic range expanding, it also shows how he’s grown as an artist on a technical level. The production quality isn’t super high-tech but it doesn’t have to be. Everything is clear, concise, and right where it needs to be. I gave this one quite a few spins in the last week, and I think you might too if you give it a listen. “Mechanical Psyche” is calm, atmospheric, and full of forward motion that makes me excited to see where Dimi Kaye plans on taking us next.

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of Synthwave, Outrun, and Cyberpunk centered music.

Stand-out tracks, “Viral Vector,” and “Mechanical Psyche.”

Album Color Profile: #00796B

You can find all things Dimi Kaye at https://dimikaye.bandcamp.com/

MacReady is a trio of electronic programmers/musicians from Los Angeles. Johnny handles synth duties, Justin the guitar, and Hayes the drums. I first became aware of MacReady in September of 2019 with the release of their Tokyo inspired full-length entitled “KIBA.” I quite enjoyed that release, so I thought to myself: “Hey Nikoletta, I think it’s time to review some MacReady.” Since “KIBA” MacReady has released a short EP, and two singles. Later this month, on October 20th, they will be releasing another EP entitled “A.D.”

In comparison to their previous releases, I feel that the visual style presented in “A.D.” is MacReady’s strongest showing yet. On the cover is an arrangement of flowers in what looks to be the shape of a “J.” Now as to what that “J” stands for is anyone’s guess. Regardless, I quite like this image as it’s a departure from the more cartoony look/feel that MacReady presented us with before. Having a good image, at least to me, is everything. And this time, I think MacReady has figured out a visual style that suits the music contained within the release it’s associated with.

“A.D.” is a pretty standard sized EP clocking in at around sixteen minutes. The first thing that strikes me about this release is how similar it sounds to video game music of the 16-bit era. There is a YM2612 Sega Megadrive sort of glaze around “A.D” that pretty much defines the sound here without sounding too lo-fi. While much of “A.D.” is fully programmed, there does appear to be the presence of guitars here. From what I can tell, it’s very likely that Justin actually plays these guitars, but you never know in the post-Toontrack, post ReFX era of sound design. There is something EXTREMELY familiar about how the guitars sound. Part of me feels like they are reminiscent of the guitars TWRP’s “The Device.” That said, I feel like the guitar performance on “A.D.’s” closer “Requiem” is an exact phrasing or production quality I’ve heard in something before. It’s actually been driving me a bit nuts over the last week!! In any case, I think the production quality here is pretty good. There’s nothing that sticks out as especially distracting.

Composition wise, I quite enjoy “Requiem.” Considering that the rest of the EP features shorter form songs, I welcomed “Requiem” into my heart willingly. I like when the beat picks up around 4:13 into the song, giving me Ys vibes all around. Structurally, it’s also the most interesting of all the songs available here. I think the lead synth could’ve been a little less compressed, and probably turned down slightly but outside of that, this is the highlight of “A.D.” All of the songs here are sometimes spacey, combining a slightly Neu Deutsch Welle, meets Kraftwerk, meets Yuzo Koshiro. The EP’s opener “Everything’s Heavy” is a nice little opener that left me wanting more. The lead synth in the song reminds me of an electronic erhu seen through the lens of the Mass Effect universe. It’s a pretty atmospheric song that channels the feels without relying on the nostalgia of a bygone era to hook you.

Overall, “A.D.” is a nice little appetizer. I personally would’ve preferred to have an entire album of songs in this style, and maybe MacReady will one day do just that. But for now, this is what we have. I also think that adding Depeche Mode style vocals to this would’ve made it much more memorable. That said, I think that “A.D.” shows some meaningful growth for MacReady as a trio, despite the fact that it was written primarily by Johnny. Maybe that’s what the J on the cover stands for. Or maybe the J stands for Jenkins. Anyway, Leroy yourself on over to MacReady’s Bandcamp if any of this sounds good to you.

For Fans of: Atmospheric instrumental, video game inspired tunes.

Stand-Out Tracks: “Requiem,” and “Something Heavy.”

Album Color Profile: #E8EAF6

You can find all things MacReady at https://wearemacready.bandcamp.com/

Even though I discovered it in 2020, XENNON’s 2019 album “Miami Cop” represents one of the most memorable Synthwave moments from the last few years. It boasts solid songwriting, a high quality, no bullshit production, and well-performed, on point vocals inspired by Geddy Lee. When I heard that XENNON was working on a follow-up, I was excited. XENNON’s “Dark of a Distant World,” finally landed on October 2nd, 2020 via TimeSlave Recordings via MiniDisc (awesome AF) and cassette, which are unfortunately at the time of me writing this, completely sold out.

Artist Travis Wright has returned to not only help XENNON create the cover image for “Dark of a Distant World” but also to pen the concept behind the album. In so many words, the story behind “Dark of a Distant World” takes a lot of cues from mid 80s cheese including “The Neverending Story” and “Masters of the Universe.” The way that the story comes off to me feels like a “Masters of the Universe” prequel that zeroes in on when He-Man was a boy. I think it’s a pretty cool concept, and honestly I would’ve loved to see a short graphic novel accompany this album, because it would’ve worked (there is an artbook, however, which sort of fills this niche). The color scheme of the album diverges a bit from the neon aesthetics of “Miami Cop,” but it is unapologetically what the scene has come to expect of XENNON’s visual style.

In so many words, this album is an event with a several dedicated hands coming together in order to create a memorable and immersive nostalgic soundscape. The production quality of “Dark of a Distant World” is very similar to “Miami Cop.” This isn’t at all a bad thing. Even though this album is a logical continuation of what he has done in the past, it’s awesome when an artist understands their own style well enough to pull it off again. A lot of Synthwave producers create similar sounding music, so similar in fact that it’s sometimes difficult to tell who wrote what. I don’t have that problem when I listen to XENNON since the sound he has is uniquely his.

I think that XENNON’s experimentations with additional vocal processing (especially in extreme pitch correction) on “Dark of a Distant World,” comes off well. He does so with careful consideration, only when it enhances a song, and only when it’s necessary. “Nanna’s Song,” is a good example of this, with heavy pitch corrected vocals making a brief appearance three minutes into the song.

There are creamy OBX style modular synths dotted throughout “Dark of a Distant World,” especially in it’s first half, that are like textured walls of maudlin sound. The tasty C# Major vibe that the album’s “Force Ten” style opener “Roboknight Theme” is brought into the stratosphere by this type of synth showing off a little bit of everything that “Dark of a Distant World” does. “A Battle Inside” sounds really similar to “Hold Your Fire” era Rush, and features some nice back and forth between guest vocalist Allie and XENNON himself. “Skullfunk” is another Rush-alike, and mostly memorable for it’s catchy chorus arrangement. “Hilt” was the first single that XENNON released off of this album, and I can understand why as it is perhaps the most unique track on the album in terms of sound design. That said, I think this song works better within the context of the entire album rather than standing alone. There’s a lot of pointed texture here that cuts through the synths. The atmosphere on this track is only further enhanced by one of the best vocal performances of the album. I jammed the hell out of this song in my kitchen.

My favorite moment from “Dark of a Distant World” would without a doubt go to “Reflections.” While it has an 80s taste to it, it also feels like XENNON got a little bit out of his comfort zone by tastefully exploring a more postmodern song structure that is very reminiscent to Muse’s “Something Human”–only executed correctly. Like, don’t get me wrong, I dig “Simulation Theory” but there were several missteps on that album that prevented it from being what it could be. Primarily in how un-80s it sounded, despite being presented as such. XENNON takes that same sort vibe and does it right with “Reflections.” Also, the lyrics for this song gave me chills by making me long for a simpler, more innocent timeline than the one we’re all currently having to live through.

Here’s the first verse:

“Looking back over the years
A past we leave behind,
But never forget,
The moments that make us smile and cry.
They form and shape to an extent,
But never will define,
The future we make,
Those choices are yours and mine,
The odyssey doesn’t end out there.” 

Overall, “Dark of a Distant World” is a triumphant, inspiring, and energizing experience. It made me feel like I was twenty years younger. That said, it’s impossible to not draw parallels to their previous effort “Miami Cop.” I would be curious to hear what XENNON would sound like if he began including live drums, guitars, and some funky slap bass to his winning formula. In any case, if you enjoy Synthwave, especially Synthwave with vocals it would be a disservice to yourself to skip out on this. This album has a lot of wonderful deep cuts bookended by memorable songs that you’ll want to listen to again and again. I highly recommend giving this album a spin or two, or ten.

My Favorite Songs: “Reflections,” “Nanna’s Song,” “Roboknight Theme,” and “Hilt.”

For Fans of: Vocal heavy synthwave and Rush.

Album Color Profile: #9C27B0

You can find all things XENNON and more at https://xennon.bandcamp.com/ and https://timeslaves.bandcamp.com/

Your Sister is a Werewolf is the Synthwave project of producer Josh Molen from Knoxville, Tennesee. YSIAW first burst onto the scene in February 2019 with their debut album “C.H.A.D.” Their latest album is entitled “Captain Video.” It was released on August 28th, 2020.

On the cover is a really wonderful image by Chrome and Lightning. It features someone standing in front of a video rental store in tight jeans and Reeboks. For those of you who have never experienced the absolute joy of entering one of these fine establishments, let me just tell you, it’s thrilling. This image perfectly captures the sheer level of excitement I used to feel going to the movie store. The blinding lights. The smell of buttery day old popcorn. The sticky floors. That weird plastic smell that strangely reminds me of petrol. Man, I miss the 80s and 90s. What a time to be alive. I feel truly blessed to live nearby one of the remaining video stores in the U.S. I still make weekly trips down there in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly enough, there still exists an actual Captain Video store in San Mateo, California. Now whether or not Molen took inspiration from this former Bay Area franchise, I’m not sure. Regardless, I love this album cover. It’s says a lot without saying much.

So how does “Captain Video” sound? Extremely authentic. It’s on point for the time period that it’s trying to emulate. This is a function of using the right tools in the correct context. From the word “go” “Jumping the Turnstiles” serves as the penultimate YSIAW track. It shows off a little bit of everything that this album does. And what this album does, it does well. I particularly enjoy the pointed synth that comes in at 2:12. I was almost instantly reminded of John Carpenter’s opening theme from Escape from New York.

While the presentation of “Captain Video” seemingly takes a lot of influence from early 1980s soundtracks its general vibe is much more akin to similar music being produced in the mid-eighties. You know, when producers of the time really started to get a little more comfortable with the tools at their disposal. The way that Molen was able to make “Captain Video” breathe is nothing short of amazing. Ironically enough, “Breathe Easily” highlights this quite a bit through some exceptional compression, reverb, and EQ choices that make the track come alive in such a way that feels effortless and easy to listen to. There’s nothing more satisfying than a little bit of audible air. My ears are in love with “Captain Video” because of it.

There are so many nuanced and deliberate details coming together here in order to create a fantastic nostalgic vibe. The nervous system of how “Captain Video” sounds so authentic lies in three key points: its wideness in the stereo field, it’s warmth (greatly aided by pitchbendiness), and the analogue sounding distortion that appears throughout the album.

In my opinion, “Neon Illusion” demonstrates the wideness of this album well. At 1:38, the bells and plucks sound three dimensional amidst the backdrop of a synthesized Juno-106esque sax. As this part continues the sax itself feels like it’s shifting from a more synthesized sound to a much more realistic version of itself. It’s quite impressive to hear if you’re paying careful attention.

Tasteful distortion and warmth are also incredibly vital to how the ear perceives whether or not music sounds vintage or not. And let me just tell you, Molen is a goddamn wizard when it comes to his command of how to implement these two things into his music. “Digital Image Correction” highlights an example of how to use warmth and distortion correctly. Good golly Molly the pads scream on this album. Listen in at around 1:30 to see what I mean.

Overall, what Your Sister is a Werewolf has done here is perhaps the most enjoyable Synthwave album that I’ve heard all year. This isn’t Synthwave in name only, this is actual Synthwave that was carefully crafted to accurately emulate a specific period of time. For serious, “Captain Video” was such a goddamn treat to listen to. Mr. Molen discounts nothing on this release, and uses the entire spectrum of hearable sound to make a memorable album worthy of your time. Please check this one out.

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of Mitch Murder, fans of movie soundtracks from the mid-eighties, Synthwave heads looking for authentic vibes.

Stand-Out tracks: ALL! But if I had to pick, listen to “Jumping the Turnstiles,” “Slow Going (feat. Gab Manette),” “Neon Illusion,” “Digital Image Correction,” and “Late Fees.”

Album Color Profile: #EBDEF0

You can find all things Your Sister is a Werewolf at https://yoursisterisawerewolf.bandcamp.com/

Swayze is a synthwave/funk project by an unnamed producer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Swayze first burst onto the scene in April of 2019 with his single “Overdrive.” Since then he has released three other singles, “A Little Story,” “Your Love is Like a Lone Wolf,” and “Sidewalk,” all of which are prominently featured on his recently released debut album entitled “The Beginning.”

On the cover is our producer-hero standing in front of his trusty Roland Juno-106. He is surrounded by all sorts of nostalgic Patrick Swayze memorabilia, including movie posters from “Roadhouse,” “Dirty Dancing,” and “Point Break.” There’s also a rogue vinyl of Prince’s “Purple Rain” sitting right next to a VHS copy of “Ghost.” It’s pretty clear to me that the producer Swayze holds Patrick Swayze in high regard. Patrick Swayze is not only Swayze’s muse, he represents a way of life for this producer. And let’s just be real, who can blame him? Patrick Swayze belongs on Mount Olympus with all of the other gods for the tremendous work he did (especially in Roadhouse) during the 1980s and early 1990s. The man had an amazing career. It’s a goddamn shame we lost him so soon.

The one thing that blows me away about “The Beginning,” is the fact that it is a debut album. Even though all of the singles were previously released over the course of about a year and a half, having all of those songs–as well five new songs, in one place feels good. I know that some people in “the industry” might not agree with taking that approach of re-releasing singles onto an album later down the line, but I happen to feel that it’s a perfectly acceptable strategy to help grow an audience.

From a production standpoint, “The Beginning” is very retro sounding. I spent a good deal of time listening to this album outside while working out. My weirdo neighbor even popped her head over the wall in my garden just to tell me that she “listened to this when she was younger.” I replied “isn’t it wonderful?” instead of calling her out on her bullshit. It’s telling that a complete stranger to Swayze’s music can pick up on a general vibe that has permeated through a few generations.

I’ve really tried to sit down and identify possible oversights on “The Beginning” that give it away as a postmodern interpretation of that familiar 1980s vibe, but outside of the overall loudness of the album, it’s difficult for me to find one. I did notice when played back on my stereo system that the vocals on “Sidewalk” were a lot more pushed back into the mix than your average 80s track, but not to the detriment of the song. So aside from the loudness and the vocal production on “Sidewalk,” “The Beginning” feels genuine.

The highlights of this album include the blazingly epic title track, the post-Motown tribute “Nothing on Me,” and the charmingly romantic “Oh Jenni.”

To me, the title track rounds the album out with a small taste of what’s to come. This song leans a little more on a darker sound, but not so much so that it was making me want to pull my eyeliner out. It sounds groovy and triumphant. This is Swayze’s proclamation that nothing can kill his funky vibe, no matter what.

“Nothing on Me,” is my favorite cut from “The Beginning.” This was the song that really channels “Thriller”-era Michael Jackson. This song really made me smile, because I feel like it accurately captures that youthful hearthrob sort of feel. This song is passionate and genuine. Swayze’s vocal performance here comes off as effortless, almost like they were done in one continuous take. There’s so many small details that paint a bigger picture in this song. Couple this with a lot of musical interaction between Swayze’s vocals with the rest of the music and you have a recipe for one hell of a song.

“Oh Jenni,” is interesting primarily for it’s lyrical content. This is a song that appears to be a love letter to Jennifer Grey and the relationship she had with Patrick Swayze himself. In a way, it’s sort of spine-chilling, primarily because I get the feeling that the producer Swayze is somehow communing with the actor Swayze from beyond the grave. Either that or Swayze is Patrick Swayze’s living avatar. As far as how the song sounds it’s textured, slow, and romantic. I’d honestly like to hear an unplugged version of this song. Hey Swayze! Play us an unplugged version of “Oh Jenni” if you ever decide to stream. Then tell us a story. You know–about a girl you knew.

Overall, “The Beginning,” is a solid debut and in spending a lot of time with the album over the last week, it has a lot of replay value. I appreciate the attention of detail Swayze and his production team gave to this album. This is well EQed, Juno infused, TR-808 conga using, vigorous kind of music that uses plenty of reverb and the right amount of tasteful compression that lovingly massages the multiple sounds going on here. There’s so much vibrant youthful energy in this release that will appeal to nearly everyone. Especially ancient vampire ladies like myself.

Please check this one out, because “The Beginning” is the direction retrowave should be going.

Album Color Profile: #FF1744

STAND-OUT TRACKS: “The Beginning,” “Nothing on Me” (my favorite), and “Oh Jenni.”

RECOMMENDED FOR: Funky retrowavers looking for a positive feel good release that fucking bangs.

WARNING: this album might compel you to throw your panties at the stereo.

You can find all things Swayze at https://swayzefunk.bandcamp.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/

CONNÖR is something of a mystery to me. Apparently they’ve been around in the Synthwave/Darksynth for awhile now. The funny thing is that I can’t seem to find any of their releases before their third album from 2019, entitled “Part III: Living in a Movie.” The mind behind CONNÖR is a producer who goes by the pseudonym “EFX.” Their social media presence is also rather light. EFX resides somewhere in the “deepest Bavarian forest” which, to me, means somewhere in south or southeast Germany. CONNÖR’s latest album, “Out of Traumaville” was released on August 21st, 2020,

“Out of Traumaville” is a fascinating album. Just looking at the liner notes, it’s pretty clear that it had a good financial backing, and that several people were involved in it’s creation. While EFX themself wrote and produced the songs found here, it would seem that White Sea Studio’s Wytse Gerichhausen had a lot to do with the post-production (both mixing and mastering) of this album. Wytse is most well-known, at least to me, for his audio “snake oil” videos on Youtube. Another notable contributor to this album was saxophonist Hugo Lee.

On the cover is artwork by Vladyslav Tsarenko, which features an image that looks like something you might find at one of those spray-on t-shirt shops that were the rage in the late 1990s. It has a girl getting pulled down into a manhole by various creepy crawlies. I think that it’s good artwork, but I don’t think it matches the spirit of the album. I would’ve preferred something a little less cartoony, especially considering the high-quality content found within “Out of Traumaville.”

There are a lot of interesting things going on composition-wise on this album. As I was listening to this album I couldn’t help but ask myself: “Who exactly is this person who created this?” It’s fairly clear that the work EFX has done with CONNÖR isn’t their first rodeo when it comes to writing music. Structure-wise there’s a lot to love on “Out of Traumaville.” While most songs follow a clear cookie-cutter pattern common to both Synthwave and Darksynth, there are a few incredible moments here. The album’s opener, “83. A.T.E.” does a lot in under six minutes. If I had to compare it to something, picture Carpenter Brut’s “Escape from Midwich Valley” with vocals. Similar to “Midwich” there is a slow build up on “83. A.T.E.” leading up to a surprising bass drop (at 4:00) in the last third of the song. Lyrically, this song is absolutely wonderful. I found myself singing it to myself for a few days. There’s just something so satisfying about saying the word combination “Woke up in fear.” “Total Darkness” is another certifiable ear worm that has incredible lyrics, and an incredible overall sound. Like–real talk, this song is just so smooth, and so pleasing to the ear. I honestly had a hard time keeping it together the first time I heard it. “The Fire in Me” which features a memorable sax performance by Hugo Lee and stunning vocals by Winona Drive. This is probably my favorite track on the album. If you aren’t sure about checking this album out, have a listen to “The Fire in Me.” It doesn’t disappoint.

In terms of aesthetic, I think that the first five songs on “Out of Traumaville” and the title track itself are all A-rank, maybe (at times) even S-rank level Darksynth. All of the other songs on the album really aren’t on the same level though from a compositional point of view. “Born to Shine” feels a little too preachy to me, and sounds less like proper Darksynth and more like something you might hear from a mainstream pop group like Imagine Dragons. Ick! Don’t get me wrong, from a technical standpoint I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s definitely not the type of song I would willingly subject myself to.

If I were an executive producer for this album I would’ve cut “Born to Shine,” the two “Holy Wood” tracks, and probably “Tomorrow.” I would’ve kept “My First Bossfight” though, primarily because it fits in with the context of the first five tracks of the album. If this album would’ve only included those seven tracks I think that this could’ve been a classic Darksynth release. The bloat filled in by the tracks that probably should’ve been cut mess with the overall vibe of this release. I’m also little disappointed that CONNÖR didn’t include lyrics on Bandcamp, because while I can easily understand what each vocalist is saying, I like reading lyrics for context, especially when it comes to a concept album like this one.

In conclusion, CONNÖR released some real gold here with the first five tracks on this album and the title track “Out of Traumaville.” Please check those songs out ASAP if you get joy-joy feelings from well-crafted Darksynth.

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of Carpenter Brut and Perturbator.

STAND-OUT TRACKS: “83. A.T.E.”, “Total Darkness,” “The Fire in Me” (these three songs are FUCKING INCROYABLE–TREMENDOUS WORK).

Album Color Profile: #FF6699

You can find all things CONNÖR at https://connoer.bandcamp.com/