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?

hidden treasure

Metal Mother – Ionika, 2013

electropop / gothic / art pop

More like this – Grimes’ Halfaxa & Visions, Fever Ray’s self-titled, Zola Jesus, Gazelle Twin’s The Entire City, Drab Majesty

I only got to know Metal Mother seeing Pastel Ghost promote her on Twitter. As much as I love PG, I didn’t expect this to floor me given the er, Hot Topic flavor of her other peers. I was wrong. MM ticks countless boxes in my taste, and the same goes for most people who love their moody electronic ‘avant-pop’. I know you’re out there. Ionika knows just what I want from this stuff: an amorphous fog of synths, elaborate vocal layers, thundering rhythms and an ear for adventure. I can’t decide if it takes place in a magical glade or some dark future world. You could call those opposites and I’d agree, but this makes no difference to her!

What gets to me is how MASSIVE Ionika sounds. Let me get this clear: Mother’s production values are amazing. She gets an orchestra’s impact from vocal, synth and computer alone. With each song I’d give up with trying to count the layers as I tend to; I was too busy riding the adrenaline rush. This deserves to soundtrack a movie, not gather dust on Spotify! (It had two ratings total on often thorough Rateyourmusic by the time I listened.)

I had many pleasant callbacks to my other favorites (Fever Ray vocals in “Windexx’d”; early Grimes vibes in “Tactillium”) but it’s gloriously hard to box as a whole. It can fit so many contexts: a goth club (“Doomdome”), a cathedral performance (“Little Ghost”), a forest celebration (“Mind_off”). Tempo and volume flex to Mother’s whim, sometimes within the same song, yet nothing sounds misplaced.

Her vocals have a way of gliding around like a gust of wind. She adapts to both light and dark, from a fairy’s soul-searching mantra (“Prism”) to a creeping siren song (“Iona”). With something as dense as “Tactilium” she could be weaving spells around crumbling mountains. As I hoped, her music matches her name.

For all the wacky witch-house aesthetics, Ionika has a lot more going on than doom and gloom. MM likes to explore, even combine various emotions; something I wish more modern goth music did. It’s closer to a powerful exclamation from a cliff. You’re in touch with your spirit etc. and the waterfalls, releasing something deep inside. It has such a wonderful sense of harmony, freedom.

Deep Cuts

Brothertiger feat. Laura Ornella – “Further On” (Future Splendors, 2013)

Phased synth chords like holographic tears, dripping into a river to form some kind of dance. Then, the most gorgeously trembling verses I’ve heard in some time. Many thanks to Laura Ornella for guesting here. Gave you all of my life and you told me we’d never survive / My heart burns heavy tonight / If you hold it up to the light / You will see all of the memories of a million lives. Such a regretful atmosphere, yet such dedication and hope when the chorus hits. When Brothertiger made his name with happy-go-lucky songs like “Lovers”, this reveals a compelling new side to him.

What is it about synth-pop that makes it PERFECT for bittersweet, vulnerable ballads? Ignore the cliche that ‘synths have no feeling’ as usual. To think this is the ‘lesser album’ from a ‘lesser artist’ in a ‘fake’ genre (chillwave)… If that’s true, why did I play this 20+ times in January? More important, how wasn’t this a single?

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”
hidden treasure

Bibio – Silver Wilkinson, 2013

bibio

folktronica

More like this – Bibio’s Green EP, Goldfrapp’s “Clowns

I love a good electronic+folk mixture, and this is one of those precious examples of where it works in album form. Silver Wilkinson is an ideal spring-time album due to this, recalling fresh morning air, vegetation, grassy fields and other pleasant outdoor imagery very nicely. Bibio decorates the songs with a spacious reverb and emphasizes the most organic possible sounds. Nature FX, grainy sound quality and other details add to the effect. Like a lot of my favorite guitarists, he makes regular use of effects and layering to expand the instrument’s range. Some songs will come close, but it’s far from your usual twangy ‘chill-out guitar’ mush.

Several critics and fans deemed Silver Wilkinson unfocused with the way it shifts in sound at semi-random points. I do agree the flow could be better, but I felt it’s this variety that helps it work as an album. For instance, I like how it begins with these reflective guitar-based pieces, but if every song was like this, it could get stale. His understated knack for synths helps keep it interesting at very least, as in “Business Park” with it’s jagged techno drama or “Look At Orion”’s odd vortex of reverb and sampled voices. At some points he also blends the synths + guitars in a more subtle fashion, like “Dye The Water Green”’s instrumental fade-out.

As much as this album escalates, few songs lack that refreshing springy mood Bibio does best. With “Mirroring All”, I can almost feel that misty outdoor air through mere listening. I could say the same of Bibio’s own favorite “Dye The Water Green”, a haunting melody contrasted with some luxurious guitar shimmers. With the single “Curls” sounding a lot closer to this than his recent ambient/drone work, I have a good feeling about the incoming Ribbons album.

♥︎ – “Dye The Water Green”, “A Tout a L’Huere”, “Mirroring All”, “Business Park