After what feels like an eternity in the “development” stage — damn you, nursing school! — we’ve finally gotten our Retrocution column going here at Nine Circles. And damn, does that feel killer. I’ve gotten to a point in my music listenerdom where I’m listening to as much of this stuff as I do metal, if not more — and my attempt to build out this column certainly isn’t going to change that trend.
But, one thing said attempt has done is, it’s gotten me to look back at exactly how I got into this stuff. For a long time, I couldn’t — or never really tried to — pinpoint that. If asked why / how I got into the genre, I’d give a generic answer about “the aesthetics” or something, and just shift the topic to the genre’s latest offerings. And to be fair, “the aesthetics” are certainly part of the equation — but the music is the truly important part, and I’d never given any real thought to my foundations on that side.
So, let’s change that, shall we? Without further ado, I present The Nine Circles ov How I Became a Synthwave Fan.
A note before we begin: This should not be interpreted as a list of “the best” in synthwave, or “my favorite” in synthwave or anything like that. I mean, there’s some stuff here that doesn’t even qualify as synthwave. What we have here is simply a selection of songs that got me into synthwave music, either directly or indirectly. And they’re presented chronologically in terms of when I first heard them. Cool? Cool. Here we go…
Ice Choir — “A Vision of Hell, 1996”
MID-2012. I’ve given it quite a bit of thought, and I think my interest in all this music stems from the first time I heard Ice Choir. Headed by Kurt Feldman — formerly of NYC shoegazers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart — the group debuted in 2012 with the standout album, Afar. Up to that point, I’d never heard pop music that so blatantly emulated the very dated sounds of the ’80s. And “A Vision of Hell, 1996” has always been the standout for me here. It’s got all the hallmarks of good retrosynth — melodic swells, rhythmic handclaps, you name it — and an eerie, minor key feel that sets it apart from album’s other, mostly saccharine tracks. On the whole, it’s pretty difficult to resist Ice Choir’s charms throughout Afar, but with this song, it’s just about impossible to do so.
Jan Hammer — “Crockett’s Theme”
MID-2014. I returned home from a Steel Panther show — I know. I know. — and was overwhelmed by a desire to immerse myself in ’80s things. I immediately downloaded the iOS port of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and went wild. After a couple of hours of play — and a couple of hours surfing through the game’s all-time-great soundtrack — I came to Jan Hammer‘s “Crockett’s Theme,” originally recorded as part of the Miami Vice soundtrack, and it was pretty much game over for me from there. Everything about the song screamed “’80s” — the airy swells, the synthetic key and sax lines — but its biggest asset was the catchy, enigmatic feel of things — which pulled me back in for listen after listen, and pretty much singlehandedly got me interested in wanting to go back and watch Miami Vice.
Perturbator — “Perturbator’s Theme”
LATE 2014. Needing a break from heavy things, I turned to the hellsite we call Twitter to try and crowdsource some new, non-metallic earworms. Within a few minutes, someone stepped up and tweeted some fire my way in the form of one James Kent, a.k.a. Perturbator, who’d just recently released his landmark album, Dangerous Days. This was a different beast from the other retro-styled synthesizer music I’d heard before. The sensation went beyond merely “revisiting the ’80s” and into full-on “getting-sucked-into-the-Tron-video-board.” It was dark, it was futuristic, and it was totally badass. (It was also pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp, so I quickly dropped a few coins and loaded up on the rest of Kent’s discography. One listen to “Perturbator’s Theme” and you’ll probably wanna do the same.) [Read our interview with Perturbator here.]
M83 — “Road Blaster”
MID-2016. After Perturbator, the synthwave fandom development stalled. (It wasn’t that I’d lost interest in the genre; it was just that my getting into Perturbator coincided with this blog beginning to take off and, thus, my music listening becoming monopolized by metal for a year-and-a-half.) But then, in April 2016, French producer Anthony Gonzalez, a.k.a. M83, released his seventh studio album, Junk. Widely “meh’d” at the time of its release for…I dunno, not being Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming 2, maybe?… the album resonated with me for its loving tribute to the music, TV and films of Gonzalez’s youth in, you guessed it… the ’80s. And “Road Blaster” quickly became my favorite track. It’s light, exuberant, and basically impossible not to dance to. Junk‘s got a ton of highlights — a guitar solo from Steve Vai on “Go!”, the addictive refrain of “Bibi the Dog”, etc. — but none give off more pure energy than this one. [Read our Rainbows in the Dark piece on Junk here.]
Miami Nights 1984 — “The Getaway”
MID-2016. A few weeks after finding that M83 tune, I came across Vince Neilstein’s “Synthwave Sunday” series over at MetalSucks. Having accumulated, at the time, the beginnings of a synthwave collection via #metalbandcampgiftclub, I promptly DEVOURED said series. And while a lot of the artists within — Carpenter Brut, Dance with the Dead, etc. — would come to rank among my favorites, it was a post about Miami Nights 1984 that really stood out to me. Up to that point, most of my exploration in the synthwave genre had been in the more jarring, sci-fi / horror inspired breed known as darksynth; I had no idea there were producers out there who were so…poppy? At any rate, MN84’s Turbulence — and “The Getaway” in particular — felt like the perfect soundtrack to a night of mischief in…well, 1980s Miami. Mission freaking accomplished. (Also of note: MN84 mastermind Michael Glover also co-founded Rosso Corsa Records, probably the best all-around synthwave label out there. The dude is a MASTER of this stuff.)
Absinth3 — “Trust is a Curious Word” (Feat. Chelsea Owen)
MID-2016. Not long after that, my usual wanderings down the synthwave rabbit hole on Bandcamp led me to teenage producer Ethan Gray — a.k.a. Absinth3 — and his then-new album, Retropolis. Now, y’all know how I generally feel about vocals on synthwave tracks — not great, Bob! — but Retropolis was the first record to convince me that there could, in fact, be some good eggs in that basket. “Trust is a Curious Word” — featuring guest vocalist Chelsea Owen (a.k.a. Oceanside85) — took the cake on that front. Let’s not mince words, here: it is a perfect pop synthwave tune. Bouncy chord shapes give way to an achingly sweet, bell-driven melody line, before Owen’s vocals come in and take you to teased-hair, teen movie heaven. (I mean this as a compliment of the highest order.) This thing rules hard, and you should really drop what you’re doing and listen to it now.
Dream Fiend — “Electric Isle”
MID-2016. By now, you’re getting the sense that I enjoy my poppy synthwave, yes? Well, good, because that continues here with Dream Fiend. The Melbourne producer’s Electric Isle EP, released in April 2016, impressed me for its ability to blend retrosynth sounds with upbeat, pitch-bend-enhanced funk. It hooks you right from the get-go with its title track, which…might have the most addictive keyboard leads I’ve ever heard. Seriously. I don’t know what-on-Earth kind of patch the dude came up with for that slick, high-pitched gravy that leads the way here, but I need it injected into my veins continuously for the rest of my life. And oh yeah, the rest of the EP’s pretty great, too!
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein — “Stranger Things Theme”
LATE 2016. The timing of this whole, burgeoning synthwave fandom thing coincided pretty nicely with the debut of Stranger Things on Netflix. The show became a fast hit for its loving homage to ’80s sci-fi and horror, and varied but captivating cast of characters. (Except for Barb. Fuck Barb.) But for me, the synth-driven score from S U R V I V E‘s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein was another huge selling point. At the time, I hadn’t really gotten into the cinematic end of synth music yet; I knew of Tangerine Dream, Carpenter and other heavyweights in that world, but I’d never lent ’em my ears. The Stranger Things score opened up that door for me. It was catchy, yet haunting, and it suited the show perfectly. As both a fan and a composer/producer of my own synth music, I haven’t looked back since.
Robots with Rayguns — “Feed the Rhythm”
LATE 2016. By now, I’ve up a decent synthwave collection on Bandcamp. On one of my daily deep-dives through the site’s Discover feature, I came across Robots with Rayguns, who’d just a new full-length album. Said full-length, Wild Style, had one of the loudest, most eye-catching covers I’d seen — in synth music or otherwise — in years, so I bought it sound unheard. And good lord, what a ride. More than anyone I’d heard in the genre to that point — and probably since — RWR mastermind Lucas Patrick Smith impressed me with his ability to juxtapose a synthwave feel with things like hip-hop and house music, and songs like “Feed the Rhythm” and “Gone” quickly made their way into regular rotation. Nearly two years later, I still revisit Wild Style a couple of times a month. As both a fan and a composer, it’s the perfect reminder that this music doesn’t have to sound like any one thing or fall into any one specific style. You can make it your own, and Smith continues to do so admirably.
Like what you heard here? Great! Check out the “Retro / Synthwave Inspiration” playlist I put together on Spotify. (Included at right) On it, you’ll find all these songs, plus a bunch more from artists like Timecop1983, Carpenter Brut, FM-84 and tons more. Some skew darker, others lean into dreamier soundscapes. Some even have vocals!
What I hope you takeaway from this list — and our Retrocution posts, I suppose — is that, while this genre may seem gimmicky to outsiders, there’s a great deal of diverse and excellent music being made in the vast realm of synthwave. Go into it with an open mind, and chances are, you’ll find something bodacious enough for you.
So dust off those aviators, hop in your Testarossa and cruise back in time — and let us know what you find!
Keep it heavy,