Anniversary · Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Miami Vice – Palm Haze, 2013

While he vanished before we knew it, Miami Vice left a definite mark on like-minded producers and helped define vaporwave. In it’s year-long span, his music came in fragments that went from one early trademark to the next with surprising ease. You had spacy ‘mallsoft’, sinister funk riffs, smooth jazz, and in this case, self-composed v-wave before that was so common. On the other hand, the thing that insists to haunt the whole project is this blurry, downbeat view of ‘paradise’. Where his debut’s ‘paradise’ was uneasy to the point it would fit an obscure 80’s disaster film, Palm Haze seems to steep itself in the heartbreak that can come with nostalgia.

It’s so sweetly eccentric on the surface; even with the groovier bits, each sound warbles and shimmers softly like an odd creature. Imagine melting synthwave into seafoam and you get something like this. Like the best vaporwave, MV opts to use lo-fi as a smooth balm that renders this weird sensation we call the eighties in a more tender and luxurious light. Once I listen close though, I get the feeling this isn’t a paradise meant to last or regain it’s old glory. As much as the synths burst with that eighties pastel, the melodies give an idea that they can’t keep nurturing and entertaining us. Whether it’s the voice of a broken toy, a worn VHS or the beach itself, they aren’t here in spirit. They’re intent to sulk and hide. The pleasure is empty then, but the refreshing part is that Miami Vice doesn’t look past the emotional weight. Palm Haze isn’t another edgy e-boy gazing off into the dystopia. The way MV does it, I can feel the innocent dismay in this scenario.

Whether you’re talking it’s period acccuracy, emotions or ghostly presence, that extra mile MV took in ‘dubbing’ these songs to real VHS makes everything three times as effective. When you render the 80’s sound that unmistakable magnetic decay and not another Com Truise polish-overload, not even a fanatic like Fire-Toolz can tell this was self-composed until I tell them. It brings this gushing, detuning effect that turns already eccentric sounds surreal while leaving them too ‘choked-up’ to clearly ‘speak’ out their sadness.

Take that lead on “Palm Haze”; the way it chirps and frolics around is just adorable, while the melody nears depression. It tries and tries to feel better and it doesn’t work despite it’s own sweetness. Move on to the farewell that swallows up “HyperColor”, ironically using the same bubbly synths as before, until it fades into “NeoSynth”‘s quiet abandonment. The outro to “Tropics” brings the most sublime textures on the album just as a tiny bell pleads to me and drowns it’s sorrows. The whimsy sits at odds with grief here. Is this how it feels to watch good memories wash away against my will, or burst a young person’s innocent bubbles? All I can say for sure is: it feels eerily fitting to revisit this when I’m approaching 20.

While “Tokyo Negative” was quick to strike a nerve with me through that forlorn twinkling, I’d call it the album’s ‘refuge’. I can see shores flourishing in a calming, cinematic slo-mo. Someone wraps themselves in a blanket, concerned for their future but grateful to have someone to help. (like the pair on the cover?) Even if they’re yet to the fix the problem, they can persevere through their support for each other. I want a 80’s movie with an outro like this.

Miami Vice didn’t intend it as a swan song, but Palm Haze wound up fitting the bill in more ways than one. Really: with a sound this lonely, coming from a project that wound up floating by itself on the internet, to haunt whoever finds it? This really is vaporwave’s lost sea shell. Fitting, but I have to sigh a bit when it promised so much for his future. Why do the best vaporwave artists have to go poof?

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Errors – New Relics (2012) & Lease of Life (2015)

 

More like this – Laurel Halo, GAMES, Washed Out’s Within And Without

Bored of all the interchangeable synthwave? I’d suggest listening to Errors.  As former ‘post-rockers’, I figure the little hype around these albums is a lack of the right crowd. It’s a shame they didn’t find one, since I know it’s not every day I hear synth-pop this expansive. Their songs deviate from verse-chorus structures, building as they go with relentless, hypnotizing progressions. Even shorter songs like “Putman Caraibe” turn a semi-normal verse into a mini-symphony. Meanwhile, “Pegasus” evolves from 4AD dream pop to Tangerine Dream in six minutes. They have me wishing ‘progressive synth-pop’ was a genre.

Both Relics and Lease use many trademarks like Linndrums and FM bells, but it’s all about how they arrange them. They center on weirder, extra-kitschy tones over the obvious Com Truise gloss. Without reducing their color, Errors find the danger in these sounds and take them to a metaphysical space. Songs like “Relics” and “Ammaboa” wield bubbly arpeggios like a plant’s thorns.

 

The way they process vocals enhance this effect. Most songs fill them with reverb, fading them in until the lyrics only come in shards. “Slow Rotor” and “Dull Care” show this best with guest singer Bek Oliva repeating cryptic, sometimes tragic omens like ‘if nothing I can think about is real’ and ‘I’ll never get to sleep again’. The meanings aren’t clear, but they know how to stick around and keep me guessing. Their singing along with voxes and bells adds a cyborg-like contrast of feeling v.s. unfeeling.

Errors mutated synth-pop into a sinister, strangely beautiful vortex with these albums. They’re another group that show how emotive this music can be no matter how virtual it sounds. I’m hoping they can return soon given how long it’s been since Lease of Life.

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Be Forest – Earthbeat (2014)

dream pop / post-punk / ethereal wave

RIYL – early Cocteau Twins, 4AD, post-punk guitars, Chelsea Wolfe, Tamaryn, Them Are Us Too

Be Forest have a truly haunted and forlorn guitar sound that smolders over their songs like embers and fireflies. It sounds like an update or even the ghost of the usual eighties guitar twang. They manage to call on classic post-punk while finding their own ground within it.

Earthbeat is my favorite BF album since it doesn’t lose itself in the fuzz like Cold. or a bland, formless void like Knocturne. Earthbeat leaves some room for true songs and melodies to unravel. They merge gentle acoustics and thorned, distorted edges for an ideal autumn-campfire mood piece. Erica’s organic rhythms are the wooden logs and trees, Costanza’s bass lines are wolves and old memories lurking in the distance; their singers hum quietly like they’re telling you a secret about their past. In classic dream pop fashion, they create strong images and feelings without clear lyrics.

Earthbeat is one of the most evocative albums I’ve heard in this decade’s post-punk scene. Be sure to check out “NTR” from their debut too.

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

George Clanton – 100% Electronica, 2015

synth pop / chillwave

RIYL – Brothertiger, Eyeliner, Luxury Elite’s With Love, Esprit Fantasy – virtua.zip

George Clanton’s past making eccentric vaporwave as ESPRIT Fantasy informs his pop songs in interesting ways. He may sing and arrange his songs into verses and choruses now, but vaporwave’s neon shades plaster themselves all over just as they did before. He developed a great ear for that glittery pastel side of eighties synths on the part-composed, part-sampled ESPRIT album virtua.zip, and that stays his strong point here. His tones resemble sea creatures jumping from digitized sea in euphoria; it’s a hugely endearing effect.

George’s vocal style gets overbearing on occasion, but he does bring a lot of energy to these songs. As on Brothertiger’s new EP, it’s refreshing to hear a ‘chillwave’ vocalist this dramatic. Instead of drifting along a shore, he reaches for the stars, bringing this album to metaphysical peaks even at a slower pace (“Wonder Gently”).

By far my favorite is “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, where adorable peaks of synth propel his easygoing melodies into pure bliss. The momentum he builds toward the first hit of the chorus makes it so much more exciting.

♥︎ – “It Makes The Babies Want To Cry”, “Never Late Again”, “Keep A Secret”

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Tesla Boy – The Universe Made Of Darkness, 2013

synth pop / synthwave / dance-pop

More like this – Tesla Boy’s Modern Thrills, Betamaxx’s Lost Formats, Tommy 86′s “Back To Basics”, Glass Candy’s Warm In The Winter

With most of their output gaining such little traction outside Russia, Tesla Boy deserved far better than they got. This album has almost everything a synth-pop fan could want: melodic and flexible synths decorate every corner like a gloss, nearly every song has a stylish, radio-friendly urgency, and the vocals adapt the flamboyant charisma of classic synth-pop groups like a-Ha and Visage. Their detailed production adds just the right amount of extra glitter.

Special mention has to go to “M.C.H.T.E.” for its ecstatic, gigantic chorus that addicted me from first listen, “Paraffin”’s dizzying electro-funk riffs, and the beachy xylophone accents of “Undetected”. As the whole, this is one of the most consistently impressive and fun albums I’ve heard in this niche.

♥︎ – “M.C.H.T.E.”, “Split”, “Fantasy”, “Undetected”, “Paraffin”
Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Soft Metals – Lenses, 2013

synth pop / dream pop / minimal synth

More like this – Glass Candy’s Beatbox + “I Always Say Yes”, Robert Gorl’s “Mit Dir”, Pink Industry’s Low Technology, HTRK’s “Chinatown Style”, Nouvelle Phenomene’s “Caresse”, Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame

Some cliched 808 aside, Soft Metals show a great ear for that colder edge of analog synths the minimal wave fans crave without getting obvious. Like their own name suggests, it’s all about the contrast of softness (as in airy/gentle) and metal (as in sharp/gritty).

Thankfully, they’ve cut out most of their debut’s repetition for a subtler and more flexible sound here. Hypnotic arpeggios in the vein of a lost sci-fi OST merge with a slick bass pulse and immersive pads to find a middle ground between EDM’s energy and space music’s weightlessness. The occasional hint of Glass Candy is another plus.

The 100% synth setup is a great balm for Patricia Hall’s already elevated vocals. She has a bit of a dream-pop approach that gives even uptempo moments like the acid-house “In The Air” a sense of flight. Not the most distinct singer of this kind, but refreshing to hear in a minimal synth context.

♥︎ – “Lenses”, “When I Look Into Your Eyes”, “Hourglass”, “Tell Me”
Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Eyeliner – Buy Now, 2015

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synth pop / sequencer & MIDI / vaporwave / synth funk

More like this – Eyeliner’s High Fashion Mood Music + Larp Of Luxury; Kobayashi Yamoto’s 商業的な仕事 1993 – 2004 + 快い亡霊 OST; Luxury Elite’s Fantasy

Eyeliner’s crystal-clear sound revitalizes late 80s/early 90s electronic music with optimal charm and without reducing it to another snarky joke. Instead, Buy Now takes you to an easy-going virtual world of polka-dots and pastels. Like the giddy cover art, the album doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it doesn’t need to when we’ve had this many vaporwave projects sulking in cyberpunk/ambient gloom.

That said, his research of this music is serious, interpreting a full rainbow of sounds and moods with accuracy. These include ambitious electro-disco (“Pinot Noir”), hold music, hints to library music, new jack swing (“Sneakers For Men”), a cross between The Knife and 80s funk (“Showbiz), and Miami Vice tension (“Pictionary”).

Some striking cool-down moments (”Payphone”, “Venetian Blinds”) and soulful flutters aside, Buy Now highlights the toy-like gloss of digital synths over more accepted analog tropes (to most amusing effect on “Toy Dog”).  Oh, and if that drunken Seinfeld intro had you doubting the powers of slap bass, this is the album to convert you.

♥︎ – “Toy Dog”, “Showbiz”, “Payphone”, “Private Hospital”, “Pictionary”

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Javiera Mena – Mena, 2010

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synth pop / dance-pop

More like this – Prissa’s Ni tú ni yo, Bertine Zetlitz’ “Girl Like You”; Annie’s “Greatest Hit” + Endless Summer EP; Sally Shapiro’s ”I’ll Be By Your Side

Thanks to a lack of English information, I knew little beyond the title of ‘Chilean queen of electro-pop’ the evening I first heard Javiera Mena, but I was right to trust the album’s shower of acclaim. “No Te Questa Nada” (a divine cross between sophisti-pop and Cocteau Twins) proved the perfect match for the fading sunlight outside my window that day, and the grandiose energy of the album’s second half kept me engrossed until the end.

Other highlights include the fierce climax of strings in “Hasta la Verdad”, the endlessly soaring choruses of “Luz de Piedra de Luna” and an A+ Miami-freestyle resurrection in “Aca Entera”. The latter is adorably kitsch but topped with affirming light and sincerity.

As “Aca Entera” demonstrates, there’s something genuine about Mena that sets it apart; like Nite Jewel and Twin Shadow, I get the impression Javiera’s approach comes more from respect for her synth-pop roots than any kind of mockery. Her strong ear for melodies and glittery synths make this a satisfying album.

♥︎ – “Hasta la Verdad”, “No Te Questa Nada”, “Luz de Piedra de Luna”, “Sufrir”, “Aca Entera”

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Lumeet – Lucitania, 2014

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electro-disco / synthwave

More like this – Lumeet’s “Metacharm” + “Lyonesse Zero” + “The Lucidist”, Cyber People – “Void Vision”, Laser Dance – “Power Run”, Explorer – Explorer

Finnish synthesist Lumeet’s music is what I hoped Lindstrom’s would be. I’ve tried listening to so many Lindstrom projects yet somehow each failed to excite me. Lumeet, meanwhile, takes a similar cosmic disco style and condenses it into something more melodic and exciting. I do adore a handful of tracks on his first album, but I found the sadly forgotten Lucitania more consistent.

Each song has an endless burst of sci-fi synths, possessing that carefree energy that benefits almost any retro electronic album. A few longer tracks remain but they don’t ramble as much as they did before. “Cloudspinner”, for instance, manages to go for 7 minutes without getting tedious, evolving through dizzying arpeggios and maintaining an entrancing groove through it’s whole length. “Bloom” also stands out by replacing the uptempo rhythms with a mood of calm but whimsical fantasy. I absolutely recommend Lucitania if you have any interest in electronic disco.

♥︎ – “Cloudspinner”, “Bloom”, “Prismweaver”, “EPYX
Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Ice Choir – Afar, 2012

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synth pop / new romantic / synthwave / sophisti-pop

More like this – Ice Choir’s “Unprepared”; early Depeche Mode, Roxy Music’s Avalon, ABC’s Lexicon of Love, Duran Duran’s Rio

Part of a new column on the highlights of my search through the oceans of 80s synth pop-inspired modern music. I give special focus to albums with a creative or genuine approach, along with hidden gems.

Kurt Feldman’s Ice Choir project is one of the most accurate recreations of the original new romantic/synth pop sound I’ve heard, one with a refreshing lack of irony. The synths have a glittery, almost pastel sheen to match the pink of the cover – complete with hints of  fretless bass and Cocteau guitar, Afar’s sound design should be a treat for anyone fond of romantic 80s pop. To top it off, Kurt Feldman’s vocals resemble Martin from Depeche Mode, if having a more refined tone.

 

The resulting songs are incredibly blissful in such a way that fits well with the grandiose luxury of hit albums like Lexicon of Love or Avalon. With both relentless energy and soaring melodies, I’m convinced “Two Rings” is one of the most extravagant synth pop songs to come from this decade. “Peacock On The Tall Grass” brings some of those angelic yacht-like heights of sophisti-pop to mind. The chorus of “Teletrips”, meanwhile, is the musical equal of a utopian morning walk.

♥︎ – “Two Rings”, “Teletrips”, “Peacock On The Tall Grass”, “The Ice Choir