So, I’m not gonna lie: it feels, lately, like the synthwave universe is ganging up and trying to get me back into writing this column by sheer force of will. The release of FM Attack‘s latest full-length, New World, this past Friday marks the second time in the last three weeks that we’ve been graced with drop-everything, appointment listening from an absolute genre heavyweight. And dammit, I did drop everything and make my listening appointment. And now I’m here to tell you about it, because it might be the album to beat in synthwave this year.
FM Attack, of course, is the stage name of Vancouver-born producer Shawn Ward, who’s been releasing music under the moniker for a decade plus. In that time, he’s put out four full-length albums (including New World) and an EP, remixed artists like Tegan and Sara, and even got name-dropped by Ryan Gosling in an interview around the time Drive came out. The guy’s made his mark on this scene.
And that’s down to the obvious care with which Ward handles each release. Look at the range of influences he’s working with. While FM Attack’s primary musical palette paints in shades of classic ’80s synthpop, you might also hear bits of everything from outrun to funk to darksynth on an FM Attack album. (There are more than a few bits on New World that even make me think of Daft Punk? Thought that might just be me.)
In short, Ward incorporates a pretty broad spectrum of sonic touch-points. It’d be all too easy for such a spectrum to send his project off the rails if mishandled. That he’s not only able to tie everything in tastefully, but also to keep each release relatively taut and no-bullshit, is a testament to why an FM Attack album feels like a capital-E EVENT. He’s just really, freaking good at this stuff.
New World delivers on all of that over a relatively interesting arc. After several listens, its ten tracks have come to feel like they’re best divided into / processed as three “movements”.
The first — comprising the album’s first four tracks — serves up arguably New World’s best pure “pop” moments. “Dark Blue Sky” uses chorus-laden clean guitars and heart-melting synth leads joining forces to create a terrific, melodic cadence, while “Let You Go” rides a steady, four-to-the-floor beat to funk heaven. Later, the airy “Stranger” gets an excellent (duh) guest vocal spot from Mecha Maiko’s Hayley Stewart, and turns it into arguably the catchiest chorus — maybe even the catchiest song, period — on the album.
The middle third of the album — from “Ultraviolet” through “Shadows” — is a more mysterious beast. There’s a subtly darker template at play here, and a slight sense of urgency emerges on “Ultraviolet” that carries us through the next couple of tracks. By the time “Shadows” comes around, Ward’s kicked that urgency into overdrive and jumped into full-on outrun mode. The song makes excellent use of its steady, energetic beat and drops tasteful arpeggio after tasteful arpeggio on us, cementing its status as one of the album’s biggest highlights.
New World‘s final section — which, for lack of a better designation, I’ll just call “the Blake Voss section” — brings a different kind of energy. Ward calls Voss in from one of the acts on his Starfield Music record label — California post-punk/darkwave revival act Vandal Moon — to sing on the album’s last three tracks. Voss operates as something of a vocal shape-shifter, starting off with a stoic, post-punk turn on the title track, and gradually morphing into something vaguely resembling Robert Smith by the time “Mixed Emotions” closes us out. But regardless of style, it ends up being an inspired guest spot that helps the album sustain its momentum and close on a high.
In the end, just about everywhere Ward takes us throughout New World‘s 50-odd minutes ends up being a delight. It’s hard to find fault with much here; gun to your head, you could argue that the slightly-too-long “Ultraviolet” and somewhat meandering “Cosmic Dance” create a bit of a mid-album lull, but it’d be a stretch — and at any rate, even that resolves nicely with “Shadows.” It’s just a terrific listen, from front to back.
We’re nearly halfway through the year, and while we still have a lot of new synthwave to come, we’ve also already seen a lot from the genre: Lost Years, Waveshaper, AWITW…you name it. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that FM Attack is the king of the hill so far. Ward’s done it again on New World. Your move, fellow synthwavers.