Reviews

03 Mar 2020

Synthpop EP Review: "Whisper of Light" by Honey Beard

Review of New EP Whisper of Light

Whisper of Light is an EP full of floating atmospheres and soaring synths that dance around heavier and darker lyrical content. I’d describe the overall content of this album as darkly ethereal. The lyrics combine melancholy, introspection and emotion and the sonic landscape is drenched in atmospherics. There’s a light touch on the synths, but it is counterbalanced by the rumble of the bass and the propulsive force of the percussion.

The EP's Mood

Catchy, hooky melodies are not a part of Whisper of Light, but in this case I don’t think they are necessary. Some listeners might want more infectious melodies but the mood of this EP really wasn’t meant, in my view, to be pure pop. That isn’t to say that the melodies are lacking, just that they aren’t these shiny, happy sounding things in the same way as they might be on something with a more saccharine pop-oriented sound.

The musical bed for this EP has been well produced and it acts as a firm foundation for the song craft that’s on display. The showcasing of the emotional content is achieved with sounds that keep the ear engaged, reflecting the sentiments being expressed.

The lyrics are carefully crafted and well-performed. There’s an aching and a yearning, almost painful that comes through in the words. I feel that a sense of loss pervades much of the album. It is counterbalanced by the sonic energy that pushes the music forward. Layers of arps, pads, drums and bass create a real fullness to the sound that is in contrast to the words.

This album has a strong flavour of the kind of ‘80s synthpop that I really enjoy. It combines light and darkness, sadness and warmth in equal measures. It holds up the torch for synthpop and pushes it forward into this new era where hope is a little more tarnished and things seem less clearly to be making progress than they did back in the ‘80s.

My Favorite Tracks

Under the Ferris Wheel is a track that sounds like it might be a piece of retro nostalgia, until one actually listens to what the lyrics are saying, and then we find ourselves in a much less comfortable place. Somehow, the soft washes of sound that swirl around it only serve to emphasize those discomforting elements in the song.

There is something about the track entitled Full of Stars that catches and holds my attention. I can’t precisely pinpoint it, but the overall mood has such a quality of aching to it that I find myself constantly putting it on repeat.

Honey Beard's Use of Melancholy

Melancholy is a necessary part of this EP. I think one of the reasons that Whisper of Light works out so well is the fact that it isn’t totally positive and upbeat. The hints of darkness and thwarted emotion are a strong element that holds the whole EP together. There is, at least for me, an element of catharsis in this kind of melancholy.

Why You Should Listen to This EP

The combination of the emotional punch of the lyrics with the driving beats, drifting pads and sounds that sometimes soar, and sometimes touch the depths, make Whisper of Light an enjoyable listening experience.

03 Mar 2020

Synthwave EP Review: Fight or Flight by S.C.A.R.T.

S.C.A.R.T’s latest EP Fight or Flight is a study in contrasts between warm, soaring synth melodies and powerful driving beats, between light and darkness where shimmering arpeggios sparkle over a heavy rumble of bass. Fight or Flight offers up intriguing changes of key, rhythm and melody that keep the ear engaged. I’d say that it has moved onto a different plane than the music which kicked off the genre. Perhaps the difference has more to do with exploring a broader sonic palette than anything all that directly tangible, but I feel that the difference is what makes Fight Or Flight work.

A big part of why I found Fight or Flight an interesting listen is how S.C.A.R.T manages to create layers of sounds that grow one on top of the other. Just when you think you know what’s happening, a new sound or a new rhythm comes along to change your direction. It isn’t done in a way that’s disconcerting, but it does mean that boredom isn’t something that happens here. In my view, S.C.A.R.T has an affinity for creating soundscapes that seamlessly integrate a wide variety of textures and shadings.

I like the way in which each of the elements that make up Fight or Flight have been carefully considered. The synth melodies fit nicely into the tracks and interact well with the bass, the drums are prominent but not overly so and the arps have the right sort of glistening quality that one expects from them. It’s clear that he took his time in setting out the various elements to create a harmonious whole.

What’s interesting here is the way that some of the sounds that can be found in other synthwave tracks are combined. They don’t produce the sort of classic synthwave sound, but instead something that has a simmering tension and sinister elements without actually spilling over into darkwave territory.

For an EP, this feels extremely cohesive and complete. As a work, it has a good sense of being all of a piece. One track flows into another with no jarring transitions or strange juxtapositions to upset the flow. Some people like EPs to be a little more eclectic as if to showcase many facests of a producer/musician’s work but I am rather happier when it gels and hangs together.

I recommend Fight or Flight for anyone who wants an imaginative journey through varied and unique auditory landscapes whicih are able to elicit emotional responses in the listener. It takes the building blocks of synthwave but assembles them in a way that is fresh. S.C.A.R.T is a producer for whom I will keep listening out and awaiting his next exploration with interest.

03 Mar 2020

Synthwave Album Review: "The Good Fight"—Alex Vecchietti

The first thing that struck me about about Alex Vecchietti's new album The Good Fight has to be his guitar playing. The man can shred, dance, and absolutely fly on the guitar. This adds enormous listening value to the album. Since so many synthwave artists have roots that encompass metal and rock, it isn’t as if guitar is rare on synthwave albums, but I feel that Alex Vecchietti's guitar playing is on a higher plane than more generic guitar work. There’s something special about his sound that really makes listening to his playing addictive. But, there's so much more that makes this a phenomenal album.

The Lyrics

Even though his guitar work is phenomenal, it doesn't wash out the power of his voice, which is strong, clear and able to deliver the emotion behind his lyrics. This is a very passionate album. The lyrics are well-constructed and he’s clearly put a great deal of his soul into this album.

The Album's Main Theme

While much of synthwave has taken a turn into darker, more dystopic territory lately, The Good Fight has turned away from the darkness and instead focuses on positivity. It's a meditation on how one might seek the light. Of course, Alex Vecchietti doesn’t shy away from challenging themes, like his discussion of ignorance and the turning away from knowledge, but most of the album is a call to embrace the light and to hold onto those things for which we feel love and passion.

I especially liked the balance between darker sounds and some very warm and gentle moments. It felt like I was being taken on a journey. These contrasting moments kept my attention for the entire album.

The Instrumental Tracks

The instrumental tracks are a good chance for Alex Vecchietti to showcase his skills as a guitar master and his overall ability to compose a powerful, energetic and at times, beautiful instrumental tune. When he’s not shredding, there are lyrical passages with well-crafted melodies.

His Use of Synthesizers

The choice of synthesizers he uses on this album are well-considered. Whether they are light and airy or dark and crunchy, the synths only bolster the sound. When combined with strong melodies, the overall effect is really enjoyable to hear.

The Mix

The other thing I’d note is that the interplay between the guitar, synths, percussion and bass is well-judged. While the guitar is definitely showcased, it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the recording. Everything sits nicely in the mix.

Overall Review

Overall, I feel that The Good Fight is a strong mixture of well-written lyrics, smokin’ guitar licks, strong melodies and singing that delivers emotional content very effectively. It feels like a strong expression of the things that animate Alex Vecchetti as a songwriter and as a human being. If you’re looking to be lifted up and hear a musical vision that turns towards hope in spite of the darkness, I’d definitely suggest checking this album out.

03 Mar 2020

Synth Single Review: Dark Smoke Signal, "Tearing the Wings Off an Angel"

Alex Pope (Dark Smoke Signal) is a synth music producer from Bristol in the UK. His music is influenced by "'80s hair metal guitar, served with a twist of Yamaha DX7 and lashings of reverb." His single “Tearing the Wings Off an Angel” definitely has the psychological weight that one would associate with metal, along with lyrics that take a dive into dark territory. What’s interesting is that, in spite of all that heaviness, there’s a rising, soaring melody that seems in direct contrast to the darkness explored here.

Pope has a strong singing voice that can stand up to the layers of synth, bass and drums that interlock and interact on this track. His voice also has the punch to deliver the undeniably dark lyrics that he’s written for this song.

The lyrics themselves have some extremely powerful moments in them. I was especially taken by verses like, “Silhouettes in a line, a thousand shadows dancing at a time/Dripping blood red wine.” The imagery that these words generate really resonates with me. I was also taken by the line that gives the impression of a jagged wound barely held together by “feathered tar” which in and of itself has the connotation of being cast out.

The chorus is interesting because it starts with a reference to tearing the wings off “an angel” and saying, “there’s a black mark running through my heart” the first time and then switching it to “tearing the wings off your angel/now the black mark is seeping through your heart.” It is as if whatever is making the black mark in his heart is contagious and he’s infecting the other person with that contagion.

Musically, this is a song of contrasts, from the ethereal and shimmering introduction to the thick, heavy bass and between little sparkles of synth and the weight of the lyrics brooding in and around them. I’m struck by how the main melody soars in contradistinction to the darkness of the words that Pope is singing.

I found the balance of elements in "Tearing The Wings Off An Angel" gave this single a really intriguing, ear capturing quality. There’s something about pairing darkness and light, weight and airiness that ended up holding my attention throughout. It’ll be interesting to see how this song fits into the album of which it’s a part.

03 Mar 2020

Synth EP Review: "Ventura Blvd" by The Subtheory

The Subtheory has created a dark, futuristic auditory world on his Ventura Blvd EP. It evokes a city full of corruption, danger and crime through its cold, technological and sometimes sparse soundscape. This is a recording full of mood and atmosphere that generated strong imagery for me as it unfolded each track.

Ventura Blvd’s musical content is definitely full of cool shadows. Those shadows come from the thick bass that rolls underneath the music, the synths that project cold and sometimes mechanistic tones and the sense of menace that oozes from the minor key melodies that move through that dark background.

The dense net of heavy drumbeats and weighty bass is an important part of the mood of Ventura Blvd in my view. The way those two elements interact produce a sensation of threat and menace that permeates all of the tracks and adds to the gritty picture painted by the other elements of the music.

I alluded to the synth choices that The Subtheory had made earlier because I think they had a strong effect on the feel of this album. Rather than going for the warm tones that analog synths can produce, he has focused on icy, robotic or tech-y sounds that create a more minimalist and threatening feeling. I think that Ventura Blvd’s ability to create imagery wouldn’t be as effective without having taken that route.

The production values on this recording are worth commenting on. It has a crisp sound to it that really conveys each musical element clearly and also manages to emphasize the drum and bass sounds without allowing them to take over the whole EP.

As this is an EP, I’ll comment on each of the tracks on Ventura Blvd in turn and discuss what I found interesting about them.

To preface the start of the aural “movie” that The Subtheory has created, “Shiny Things” starts off with a retro TV announcer to introduce the recording. All of the sonic elements glide coolly on this track. The tech-y synth sounds flow in waves and the dark bass and drums add an element of shadow to the music. The repeating synth pulses and expanding arps add a sweeping feeling to this track.

“Two Years” opens with spinning arps that rise and fall over crunchy synth bass. It has a coldness to it and the electric guitar on the track adds a certain bite to the music, although it is kept a little back in the mix. The distance of it only adds to the atmosphere here. The high, computerized sounding synth melody that comes into the track reinforces the sense of futuristic darkness that fills this EP.

The combination of pulsing bass, thumping drums and slightly hollow sounding arps with a minor key melody creates a sense of tension on “Ventura Blvd.” The extending synth chords add shadings of more darkness to the track and the flow of the synths contrasts with the unrelenting drum and bass movements underneath them.

“Venger’s Revenge” combines a darkly throbbing beat, a unique metallic sounding synth and a certain amount of dissonance. The synth notes have a hollow, cold tone as they move through the track. The synth melody here is dense and has just a hint of distortion at points which further cements the menacing feeling of the track.

The Subtheory has managed to, in a short space, paint a sonic landscape that had quite a bit of depth to it on Ventura Blvd. It is full of shade and weight, swept by cold and computerized sounds and drenched in an atmosphere of barely contained threat. It’s a sonic world I hope The Subtheory will return to again.