Sci-fi Synth Rock Mega-Review II: The Reviewing
2016 is shaping up to be a good year for the sci-fi synth-rock genre. Let’s take a look at some of the year’s new releases.
Mogwai — Atomic
Scottish post-rock veterans Mogwai have released their reimagined and expanded soundtrack for Mark Cousin’s film Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. The film documents our tenuous, yet incredible, relationship with nuclear energy, from the terrifying Cold War period of mutually assured destruction to the beauty of the atomic realm and its application in science and progress for all humanity. Mogwai seem to have captured the dual nature of atomic energy excellently in this soundtrack. As such, the sound oscillates between the light, romantic arpeggiated sequences of the space age (“SCRAM”) and a moody sense of nuclear dread on tracks that feature big distorted synths that crush down on the space created by previous songs (“Fat Man”).
Most tracks begin with terse analog lines that bloom into dense arrangements of shimmering guitars, strings, synthesized drums and glitches, and an eclectic array of other instrumentation (“Ether” prominently features a french horn in its central melodic theme). Atomic does, however, forego vocals, as its original form was a soundtrack; this allows the band to make space for the instruments to shine on their own. And Atomic’s arrangements do indeed shine, bright as our sun, or even as a blinding flash of light from a nuclear detonation.
It should also be mentioned that Mogwai seem to have made a great effort to make the music on Atomic both ambient and engaging, something that many soundtrack artists struggle to achieve. As such, the soundtrack succeeds on this point where other soundtracks have faltered: the music herein can serve as excellent background listening or it can demand one’s full attention. All in all, the band has presented a big, beautiful, and, at times, disturbing soundtrack/album of synth-driven post-rock that is worthy of its grave subject matter.
4.5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell out of 5
DANCE WITH THE DEAD — The Shape
DANCE WITH THE DEAD are quite prolific: they have released five full length albums, including The Shape, released in February this year. Despite the lengthy back catalog, The Shape is my first encounter with them, so I am judging their sound based solely on this newest album. And I have to say, if you are looking for some horror-infused, throwback electronica, these guys are for you.
Like Perturbator, Dan Terminus, GosT, or a number of other groups that have shown up on Bandcamp in the last few years, DANCE WITH THE DEAD focus their sound on the electronica side of the synth rock spectrum, with rock solid four-on-the-floor beats, classic electronic drum fills, and enough airy, acid leads to fill your entire quota of 80’s inflected cheese for the whole year. However, The Shape gets very interesting with their heavy incorporation of metallic guitar lines into the synth-driven arrangements. From time to time, listeners are treated to heavy, down-tuned chugs or even the odd guitar solo. This immediately separates DANCE WITH THE DEAD from the rest of the pack — making for a unique listen, where some of their peers seems to have gotten stuck in a feedback loop of the same old synth phrases and beats.
With that being said, DANCE WITH THE DEAD seem to be rising quickly through the ranks of the Bandcamp throwback electronica elite. Just from this new album alone, it is this writer’s opinion that they should be placed right up there with some of those aforementioned artists. The Shape may not be everyday listening, but when you get that 80’s horror electronica itch, you gotta scratch it, so reach for The Shape.
3 Flaming Toilets ov Hell out of 5
John Carpenter — Lost Themes II
The cinematic master is back, and it only took him one year to do so! Lost Themes II is John Carpenter’s second solo album. I suppose one cannot even really call it a solo album since he was not necessarily in a band to being with, but this does mark even more of a departure from the big screen to the recording studio for him.
This time, Carpenter has expanded his sonic palette to include a wide array of non-electronic instrumentation as his go-to’s for creating songs. He has incorporated acoustic drums into the process (“Distant Dream”) and really emphasizes his skill at writing emotive melodies on keys (“Virtual Survivor”), while guitar leads come in every once in a while to add that vintage cinematic quality for which his music is world renowned.
There is a lot more diversity in the songwriting on display in Lost Themes II, but it is, perhaps, not as memorable as the debut album. I find myself listening back through the album without even the slightest hint about which song is actually playing or distinguishing them by title; the songs don’t hold up on their own this time around — at least not like on the first album. Songs like “Vortex” and “Night” from the first Lost Themes are instantly recognizable, their arpeggiated sequences and melodies stuck permanently in my head. But it is hard to distinguish tracks on LTII, even with the diverse range of instrumentation on display. Maybe I need more time with the album, but until then, I might just stick with Carpenter’s other musical themes.
3 Flaming Toilets ov Hell out of 5
Contact — “Moment”
Contact have released a “Moment,” the single from their upcoming sophomore release, Zero Moment. I may not have the full album yet, but I had to write a blurb about this band, as the duo are my sci-fi synth-rock heroes. A collaboration between film composer Paul Lawler and Zombi’s own beast of a drummer, A.E. Paterra, Contact is the culmination of everything I love about this reemerging genre: Goblin-esque grooves, fat analog synths, space age themes, and those huge cinematic moments, like the ending fade-out of “Moment,” that belong in the closing credits of a Dario Argento film. Gotta love it. So, check out “Moment” and pre-order the full album on Temporary Residence’s page.
Plus, there is plenty more coming out during the second half of the year. Weigh in on some of these tunes in the comments, and check out my previous mega-review here!