The Upshot: Synthwave rules, natch.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
As previously discussed, it’s been both strange and rewarding to see the rise once again of the kind of active instrumental synth rock that used to wash over the landscape in the wake of Tangerine Dream. Much of the artists creating it labored in near-obscurity for years before the axis shifted their way once again, including S U R V I V E. The quartet has toiled away in the shadows of Austin’s music scene since 2008 before suddenly being thrust into the spotlight when two of its members provided the soundtrack to the Netflix hit Stranger Things. While well-deserved, the success of that series has overshadowed the band’s big-league recording debut RR7349. The group’s second album flows like the score to an obscure 80s science fiction flick, the kind that thrived on VHS and is remembered more for the music than the visuals. The creamy “Dirt,” the hazy “Sorcerer” and the pulsing “Wardenclyffe” utilize gorgeous electronic tones and enigmatic atmospheres that encourage you to make up your own bizarre 80s filmic artifact. RR7349 deserves to be spun as often as Stranger Things.
Zombi has been at the forefront of the synthwave revival for years, and, as with S U R V I V E, one of its members has a side gig as a soundtrack composer. The Mind’s Eye is Steve Moore’s latest (though the film came out in 2015), following Cub earlier this year. As such, it’s much harder to divorce from the visuals it’s meant to accompany than his work with Zombi. That’s not to say he’s not a master of texture and movement – a tune like “The Shot” brings on the perfect atmosphere for the horror flick it supports, with just enough energy to keep from being wallpaper but not enough to distract from the action. Most of the pieces are under two minutes, so they die before they get old, though the closing “End Credits,” which encapsulates most of the ideas Moore put into the soundtrack, is a significant exception. Though not as compelling as Moore’s work with his main band, The Mind’s Eye still catches the ear.
Mysterious ensemble Magic Sword also produces a soundtrack with Legend EP, the group’s second release. But it’s for a comic, instead of a film, one revolving around a strange, powerful weapon and the Keeper charged with guarding it. Fortunately, having the pages turn in front of you isn’t necessary to enjoy the sounds of these three tracks. A steady electro-pulse and buzzing bass tones keep the rhythms percolating as synths and guitars exchange melodies with dramatic flourishes. On paper it sounds like progressive rock, and there is some of that ambience, though the sonics favor early videogame music just as much. Opener “Legend of the Keeper” sets the tone perfectly – if it grabs your ear, you’re all in.
The product of Belgian musician Ronald Mariën, Stratosphere goes back to the S U R V I V E model of scoring the imagination with Rise. Funny thing about the project’s third record, though – although it favors a shimmering, hazy sheen and lush washes over a steady pulse that keeps the clouds moving, there’s not a synthesizer anywhere on it. Instead Mariën uses a guitar, a bass and a shitload of pedals to create ringing, keyboard-like tones and sweeping soundscapes with a foot in ambient music and another in some sort of cosmic odyssey. Stratosphere is at its best when the songs move, a la the opening “Melancholy.” But even the more stationary objects, like “Desolation” and the appropriately named “Hypnotic,” cast a spell. Gorgeous and absorbing.
DOWNLOAD: “Dirt” (S U R V I V E), “End Credits” (Steve Moore), “Legend of the Keeper” (Magic Sword), “Melancholy” (Stratosphere)