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Art could best be described as a time machine. A photograph or paining captures a moment frozen forever, while motion pictures and literature can transport its audience to any era, planet or dimension of its maker’s choosing. Music, too, has the power to take its listener back in time, either to a fond memory a song can be associated with or a particular genre that an artist has paid homage to in their work. Often times there are movies or songs that remind its audience of a past decade, one that can recall a childhood or adolescence when life seemed more simple and removed from the challenges of adult life.
In recent years pop culture has once again developed an obsession with the 1980s, a decade notorious for its excess, preposterousness and flamboyance, but also one rife with imagination. It was the era that gave us E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Terminator and Back to the Future, saw groundbreaking advancements in home video and computers and saw rise of a new art form known as the pop video. The music trends of the previous decade would evolve into popular genres of the 1980s, with disco laying the groundwork for dance and punk progressing into gothic rock and new wave.
The sounds and visuals of the 1980s have returned to pop culture with a vengeance over the last decade, not only with movies and TV shows like Bumblebee and Stranger Things but also with modern music, whether its the electro throwback of Taylor Swift’s 1989 or the hair metal homage of Steel Panther. ‘Every decade seems to have its retro twin,’ claimed the Guardian. ‘The syndrome started in the 1970s, with the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll revival and it continued through the 1980s (obsessed with the 1960s) and the 1990s (ditto the 1970s). True to form and right on cue, the noughties kicked off with a 1980s electro-pop renaissance.’
While modern mainstream dance owes a debt to both 1970s disco and the British big beat movement of the 1990s, the sub-genre that most shamelessly wears its 1980s nostalgia on its sleeve is what has now become known as synthwave. First introduced to the public through its dream-like use on the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 drama Drive, in which Ryan Gosling’s stuntman moonlights as a professional getaway driver, the score would play a significant role in the success of the movie. ‘Effective and memorable soundtracks need to either introduce you to new music that works on its own or transport you into the world of the film. Drive manages to do both,’ praised Pitchfork in their review of the accompanying album, one whose legacy would rival that of its parent movie.
The artists that would follow in the wake of its success would establish their fanbase online via such modern publicity tools as YouTube and Bandcamp, their reputation spreading through word-of-mouth and websites like New Retro Wave and Post-Punk. Without either the support or influence of major record labels the subgenre of synthwave was self-created and its musicians nurtured within its close-knit community. Despite attracting the occasional interest of the tabloids, it has remained something of a cult oddity; known by few but by adored by those who have become seduced by its sultry allure and hypnotic ambience. Often a synthwave song or album can play out like the soundtrack to a non-existent science fiction picture, some kind of cyberpunk thriller that would have made its way straight-to-VHS in the mid-1980s, under the banner of Vestron or Cannon Films.
The inspiration behind this new kind of retro music can be traced back to a number of sources, from early video games to long-forgotten commercials shown on heavy rotation on MTV, but the most likely of forefathers of synthwave were several musicians who first rose to prominence during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arguably the godfather of dance music, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder would become one of the leading figures in funk and disco before turning his attention to composing film scores. At the height of his popularity he would be responsible for the themes of such classics as American Gigolo, Midnight Express and Flashdance, although it would be through his collaborations on Take My Breath Away, Together in Electric Dreams and the Donna Summer hits I Feel Love and Hot Stuff that he is most associated with.
Emerging from Berlin in the 1960s before eventually finding success a decade later through their scoring of the 1977 thriller Sorcerer, Tangerine Dream‘s reputation would be established soon afterwards with the Tom Cruise breakout hit Risky Business. While hardly a household name, the group have released over a hundred and fifty studio albums, making them one of the most prolific music artists of all time. ‘The connections they made between electronic music, New Age and classical, the way they bridged mainstream and avant-garde and fused psychedelic improvisations to industrialism, all still makes them ahead of their time,’ declared MTV in a 2016 retrospective.
Also emerging from obscurity during the mid-1970s was French composer Jean-Michel Jarre whose third album Oxygène would bring both critical acclaim and commercial success, while Rendez-Vous, released almost a decade later, would once again return him to the charts. An array of film scores would also help to popularise electronic music during this time, with the synth soundtracks to Tron and Blade Runner providing the groundwork from which synthwave would ultimately thrive thirty years later.
Yet there would be one individual whose influence can be felt throughout the genre. Having been raised in a musical household before turning his attention to filmmaking by enrolling at the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts, John Carpenter would gain both the respect of his peers and the adoration of his audience following the release of his first professional feature Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976. Opting to compose his own scores out of necessity more than desire, Carpenter’s reputation as a musician would rival that as a director, often being closely associated with both. Over the course of the next decade he would create both the striking visuals and iconic soundtracks for such cult classics as Halloween, The Fog and, perhaps the true ground zero for synthwave, Escape from New York.
‘I had no clue about computers. When I first did my early scores, I worked with a guy named Dan Wyman; he was an electronic music teacher at USC. And he had all these tube-amplifier synths, so I ended up going to his studio for my early scores, like for Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween,’ Carpenter told Interview Magazine. ‘The equipment kept improving, the sonics kept improving, everything kept improving. The early study was pretty crude.’ In recent years Carpenter appears to have semi-retired from filmmaking to focus on music, releasing his debut album Lost Themes in 2015 at the age of sixty-seven. Since then he has toured the world with his live group, performing a mixture of fresh material and themes from his classic movies, introducing his music to a new generation raised on the artists who had grown up on a diet of John Carpenter movies.
The 1980s renaissance would begin soon after the millennium, when franchises from twenty years earlier were resurrected and brought back to the big screen, with underwhelming sequels to The Terminator and Die Hard only serving to remind audiences how effective their first instalments were. Pop music also saw a return to the 1980s with The Killers and Goldfrapp harking back to the days of new wave and synthpop. ‘It all began in the mid-2000s, when gamers and horror nerds took a liking to French house artists like Justice, Kavinsky and College, who were creating sounds inspired by ’80s film score legends,’ proposed the New York Observer. ‘That satisfied-but-anxious feeling you had watching The Terminator for the first time, that inexplicable sense of comfort you got every time the Beverly Hills Cop intro came on, these sensations might just bubble up again when you hear the dark aggression of artists like Perturbator and Mega Drive or the pure ’80s worship of Mitch Murder and Miami Nights 1984.’
Cruising through a playlist of synthwave compositions would immediately provoke nostalgia for any listener who had grown up during the 1980s, with not only the retro artwork but also titles that heavily reference the era. With artists boasting such monikers as Marvel83′, Timecop1983, Power Glove and Crockett (the latter most likely a reference to the popular theme from Miami Vice), coupled with songs names like Arcade Summer and Outrun 1985, everything about synthwave is designed to transport the listener back to the neon-drenched days of mullets, leg warmers and Jane Fonda exercise videos. The music of Dreamers Avenue, Pylot and Neon Nox would not have been out-of-place in any one of the John Hughes-scripted teen comedies that populated the cinemas during the 1980s, or the low budget sci-fi movies that would attempt to emulate the style and success of Mad Max 2 or The Terminator, only to find a cult following on VHS in later years.
At the turn of the century dance music had established itself as more than just the gimmick some critics had dismissed it as in earlier years and had now become a fully-developed art form. British artists during the 1990s such as the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and Underworld had expanded on the formula of house to incorporate real instruments and respected vocalists. But by the early noughties French producers had begun to dominate the scene following the international success of Daft Punk and in their wake the likes of Cassius, Modjo and Étienne de Crécy would emerge.
‘Starting in the 2000s, after the success of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, attitudes towards the ’80s shifted from parody and ambivalence to that of homage and reverence,’ recalled Nicholas Diak in the book Uncovering Stranger Things. ‘For the artisans, musicians, writers and other creative types of this generation, elements of their youth found their way into their output and ’80s retro began to take off. In the world of music, this channelling of ’80s retroism fuelled a variety of genres. The umbrella term, retrowave, came to encompass these genres, which included the likes of vaporware and synthwave.’
With the focus of the new genre being less about the lyrics and more on the atmosphere and emotions created by the music, synthwave has proved to be predominantly instrumental, often representing the kind of song that would have played over the end credits of a movie. But without words to explicitly describe a concept to its listener this creates new challenges for an artist wishing to explore a narrative or theme. While John Carpenter had the visuals and dialogue of his film to tell a story, the electronica artist inspired by his work must convey this purely through sound. What worlds do these musicians imagine as they are composing? What retro-futuristic scenarios play out in their head as the music comes to life through their synthesisers?
‘I always loved bands like Queen and Genesis. Their visual identity was ultimately linked to their music,’ synthwave artist Carpenter Brut told Classic Pop. ‘The theatrical side of music, the cinematographic universe, concept albums – all this has always attracted me. The idea that music can exist beyond notes. In the end, it helps me a lot to compose; I start from a scenario idea, I visualise the film and I compose.’ Dan Haigh of Gunship elaborated in an interview with Vehlinggo how music is used in this respect,’ ‘You can effectively communicate emotion with it and that is a huge part of the attraction for me. However, you can also communicate atmosphere, a sense of place and project imagery somehow.’
The twenty-first century synthwave artists are the children of Vangelis and Jan Hammer, creating brooding-yet-seductive works of electro bliss that provoke feelings of nostalgia while sparking the listener’s own imagination. Shock rock legend Alice Cooper once said that, ‘A concept to me is like a multi-media project’ and perhaps that is where the future of synthwave lies; an album that is accompanied by a feature film and a graphic novel, all working in unison much like an extended universe to allow its audience to enjoy the concept on a number of levels across numerous mediums.
Daft Punk flirted with this notion when in 2003, two years after their sophomore record Discovery, they released a companion piece entitled Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, a feature length animated movie set to the sound of the album that told of a popular alien group that are abducted by a sleazy manager and taken to Earth, where they are forced to work as musical slaves while their captor reaps the financial rewards. Despite its ambition, the idea of adapting an album into a motion picture could then have been extended to a graphic novel and even a video game.
While ambitious in scope and a financial risk, from an artistic point-of-view a multi-media concept album would be an inspired move and one that would lend itself well to the synthwave ethos, especially as the genre drew inspiration from all manner of 1980s pop culture. ‘Perhaps synthwave fans couldn’t find satisfaction in revisiting the actual games of the ‘80s, so instead they created a new and imaginary vision of what games like OutRun were,’ stated PC Gamer. ‘Neon Drive achieves a heightened sense of ‘eightiesness’ by making the music an essential part of the drive. Rather than pulsing away at the periphery of the experience, the beats in Neon Drive propel the whole world forward, creating a rhythm-action racer in which you’re not so much driving the car as dancing with it – perfect synergy between sound and visuals.’
With synthwave still in its relative infancy and the movement yet to break into the mainstream, how the genre will evolve over the coming years is impossible to predict yet, as with any other cycle, to remain fresh and innovative it must take risks and expend on its framework to become a lasting force in the music industry. On occasion artists have produced songs that boasted the kind of commercial hook of an ’80s synth hit, such as The Midnight‘s lush Los Angeles or IndiGhost‘s dance number Pastel Sunset, yet the popularity of Drive and its soundtrack proved that there is a wider audience for this type of music. Yet arguably part of its appeal is how it has grown and thrived away from the major labels and has been cultivated by independent artists who make music not out of some desire for fame and fortune but to create the kind of art that inspired them when they were young. After all, synthwave, like all forms of nostalgia, is a portal back to our youth, one which we can’t help but to view through romanticised eyes. As an article by SyFy explained, ‘Nostalgia provides us with a chance to look inward and to more deeply understand the pop culture that made us who we are.’