Sci-fi Synth Rock Mega-Review: Zombi, Majeure, and Maserati
Three bands. Three new albums. All synth rock, all day.
I called it. I called it early and I called it well: 2015 has indeed been the Year of Sci-Fi Synth Rock. So far, we have seen releases from the legendary John Carpenter (his first solely musical venture), GosT, Dan Terminus, No Spill Blood, Disasterpiece (with the fantastic It Follows OST), several releases by synth-lord Steve Moore, and none other than the genre forefathers Goblin (under the guise of Goblin Rebirth). Needless to say, it has been a very exciting year for sci-fi synth rock, one that will most likely be looked upon as a defining moment for the genre since its reemergence from decades-long obscurity.
To mark the occasion, I have compiled a mega review of three releases by bands that are crucial to the genre — all three of which have released albums in the past month. Each of the albums presented here span the scope of the sci-fi synth rock genre: from sprawling retro-futuristic soundscapes to progressive-minded cyber jams to spacey post-human-rock. If any of this intrigues/interests/arouses you, then read on.
First up is Zombi’s Shape Shift, which ends a four year absence of new material. Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra team up once again to co-produce a full length collection of dark grooves that are distinct from the artists’ varied solo projects. On the whole, Shape Shift is, as cliched as the concept tends to be, a “getting back to basics” record. The eleven tracks on display share far more with 2006’s Surface to Air than 2011’s Escape Velocity. For those unfamiliar with the band’s previous output, Shape Shift represents a return to a stripped down and bare bones approach, more representative of their two piece live-show and earlier sound than the denser meandering ambiences of more recent albums. This approach foregoes expansive synth layers and cinematic scope in favor of indulging in simpler arpeggiated passages augmented by minimalist leads (“Diffraction Zones”).
Moore and Paterra
This clear stylistic shift will definitely bring back a number of fans who may have faded away with the more recent releases; however, I had a difficult time adjusting to this throwback sound, despite my love of their earlier material. The album-wide reliance on effected bass guitar (an element that had been absent from their core sound for quite a few years) can be, at times, too much. It is as if the excitement at the rediscovery of the instrument overrides an effective integration into the songwriting. Listen to “Mission Creep” for the most egregious abuse of the bass line in the genre. In addition, Shape Shift’s production is outstanding: tight, punchy, and modern; but one tends to miss the huge, cinematic spaces that previous albums emphasized. It is not gone completely, but it is noticeably restrained, leaving one with the impression that they are in the live room with the duo rather than floating into a new dimension of time and space with the band.
But for all of my pains in readjusting to the throwback sound of what I consider one of my all-time favorite synth rock groups, there is still a lot of on Shape Shift. The final act of the album, comprising the last three tracks (“Shadow Hand,” “Metaverse,” “Siberia II”), is crucial listening. The sheer amount of prog swagger on display in those tracks is impressive: it would be hard — nigh impossible — not to nod along to some of these laid-back grooves as you cruise along a desert highway at night.
Despite my reservations, Zombi’s Shape Shift is a solid entry in the band’s already fantastic catalog. The minimalist throwback style may not necessarily increase replay value, for me at least, but it certainly bodes well for the future of the band as a two-piece live unit. As such, it just increases my seething jealousy of those of you who saw them perform at this year’s just-wrapped Housecore Horror fest (looking at you, San Antonio people).
3.5 / 5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Next up is Majeure’s Union of Worlds. Majeure is the side project of Zombi’s drum maestro, AE Paterra; it is distinct from Zombi in a number of ways, notably the lack of acoustic percussion, yet it is still rooted firmly in the synth rock tradition. The core sound tends to indulge less in the Zombi-esque prog rock and more so in the ambient or sound design aspects of the genre, bringing back that crucial element of big spaces and vastness. For this release, Paterra relinquishes the drum throne and sits instead in front of his collection of vintage analog synths, arps, drum machines, samplers, and other retro-futuristic classics that made their musical debut several decades ago. The result is a lengthy LP of oscillating sound and rhythmic repetition in the vein of John Carpenter’s early experiments with modular synthesis and programming, a now reemerging musical trend that seems to be the nostalgic crowd’s response to EDM. But what sets Majeure apart from the general spate of trendy ambient projects that seem to saturate the genre at large today is the commitment to era displacement: from the instrumentation to the artwork and format presentation, Paterra really drives home, in all aspects, the idea that Union of Worlds could in fact be a lost album from the 1980’s. In fact, I bought into the gimmick immediately by purchasing one of the limited edition cassettes that coincided with the digital release. Now, if only I can find my old-ass tape player.
As to the quality of the sounds therein, Union of Worlds is not a very engaging listen. In fact, I suspect that the tune-in-and-drop-out philosophy of ambient sound design is a big part of Paterra’s MO here. “Appalachian Winter Blues” is symptomatic of this mindset, as it seems to meander along a singular, unsettling analog lead line throughout the song’s nine minute running time without resolution or perception of a pay-off, as listeners of more traditional music might term it. “Physis,” with its aggressive drum machine pounding and urgent arpeggios, is a unique standout from the rest of the laid-back material on the record, but it locks into familiar groove that, while seemingly adding dynamic layers of intensity, really does not go anywhere in the end.
While I like the album, it is certainly not something I will reach for often. This being said, it certainly has its place in the contemporary sci-fi synth rock pantheon. It is an entirely introspective affair that potentially shows signs of a man just noodling around with his beloved collection of analog gear from a bygone era of electronic music production. However, it is this genuine love for the craft and for the genre that is expressed therein that makes it a worthwhile venture. Ultimately, while not entirely impressed by the album on the whole, it is an adequate entry in the Majeure discography meant for those interested in long spacewalks on some cosmic beach.
3 / 5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Maserati are back with a new full length of their signature brand of post-human-rock. Rehumanizer is an excellent surprise amid a year of releases that all tend to emphasize their “dark” or “heavy” qualities above all else; the album’s throwback disco grooves certainly suggest a lighter, or perhaps more optimistic, worldview. Whatever the tonal intentions may be, Rehumanizer is a clear indicator of a band embracing their veteran status and having fun with their tunes.
For the most part, Maserati’s formula of riding a riff or melodic theme throughout a song serves them very well on Rehumanizer. Songs like “End of Man” and “Montes Jura” showcase the trance-inducing grooves that the band is renowned for with a confident swagger. I say “for the most part” only because the final two songs — the “Rehumanizer” suite — indulge in the motif a little too much (i.e. the reoccurring muted guitars above the backbeat in both songs). I can also sympathize with those who might get a bit tired of the heavily effected guitar lines in every track: the delayed guitars tie the tracks together thematically, but tend to be derivative to the point where listeners may find it difficult to distinguish one song’s guitar lead from another. One could also justifiably accuse the album of being a little too light in its content, constituting an EP instead of a full length, but the quality craftsmanship and production of the songs themselves really do make up for the lack of more diverse material like on previous records.
Despite the minor songwriting glitches, Maserati have crafted an album that I would consider to be an apex achievement in the seamless blending of synth elements into a post-rock sound that is neither forlorn nor tragic (as most post-rock is) and instead emphasizes the “rock”. Rehumanizer’s faux-retro and throwback sci-fi presentation triggers a crucial element of my consciousness upon listening — one that hearkens back to all of the science VHS’s I watched as a kid. You know, the ones with the very distinct synth logo-tones and soundtracks. Rehumanizer immediately recalls bad science fiction from the 80’s and front screen projection, walls of synthesizers and black light cosmos posters. It’s not always great to dwell in nostalgia, but Maserati makes it all worthwhile.
It may be more of a “feel thing,” for me rather than a hard, objective look at the band’s newest effort, but I assure you, Rehumanizer is fun as hell and has some killer tracks that’ll send you into your own retro-futuristic utopia too.
4 / 5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
October was a defining month, but 2015 is not over yet. We shall see what else the Year of Sci-Fi Synth Rock has in store…