I, myself, am not a very hateful person. Generally speaking, if I find a genre I don’t particularly like, I pin that down to not having found the right artist for me yet. Alternately, if I have a genre I don’t like, but everyone else does, then that is fine with me too. I have zero issues with people liking stuff that I don’t; the only time I do have an issue with it is when the stuff in question is problematic for one reason or another.
And yet, despite all that, I can confidently say with a firm hand that I vehemently despise the genre of Synthwave.
Now. As a general rule of things, I preemptively ignore or block out any new “-wave” genre that appears. The reasoning behind this is largely due to the fact that when it does happen, it’s usually an otherwise useless label for an already existing sub-genre of music. The other reason is that it’s usually either a joke (see: Simpsonswave) or just a made up sub-genre that an artist applies to themselves for flavour or description (see: Slasherwave.)
Of course, in recent years there are two -wave genres that have gained massive popularity and prominence over the years to the point that they’re classed as proper sub-genres. There’s Vaporwave, which is by all means both a sub-genre of Plunderphonics and also a family of different sub-genres used to describe the style or feel (Mallsoft, Hardvapor, etc.) And then there’s Synthwave, with its dark moody tones and excessive plastering of the faux 80s aesthetic. It’s the latter one that we’re going to be taking a look at today, if that wasn’t clear enough.
Synthwave, for me, is by and large a musical berserk button.You bring it up in a discussion to me and I will probably chew your ear out with how much I hate it. There are three main core reasons behind why I have such a violent distaste for it.
REASON 1: CONFUSION, CAUSED BY BOTH LISTENER AND ARTIST ALIKE
Yeah, this one is a bit more nitpick-y than the others, sorry. But Synthwave as a genre title is often paired closely with the well established, but completely different, sub-genre of Synthpop. This wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t mind Synthwave but the two are so completely different that it frustrates me to no end when I think I’ve just stumbled into a cool new Synthpop artist, only to be met with the dark Synthwave sounds. Here’s a comparison:
Disasteradio’s “No Pulse” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGhsoS0hDxk
Perturbator’s “Raining Steel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6qaFJ1w9zA
Synthpop is called that because it is poppy, it is light and it is honestly what I would call closest to how pop music actually was in the 1980’s. Synthwave on the other hand is by and large dark and moody and is mostly trying to replicate synth based soundtracks from action movies of 1980’s and 1990’s. The two are not even remotely the same and it annoys me to no end to see people just swapping them out.
REASON 2: THE AESTHETIC BASED CIRCLE JERKING
Short explanation: SYNTHWAVE COULD NOT BE ANY FURTHER FROM HOW THE 80’S ACTUALLY WERE.
Long explanation: Ok, look, if it’s not the musical aspect I hate, it’s the fucking constant faux-80’s aesthetic it has. Personally for this one I blame a combination of Perturbator and Hotline Miami for popularising this shit, but like…The Synthwave aesthetic is such an overblown exaggeration of both real 80’s style and also 80’s futuristic settings. Not everything was Blade Runner (though don’t fucking get me started on the generic cyberpunk style, please.) This reason honestly goes hand in hand with the third reason and only serves to further cement it in. Every single Synthwave adjacent thing has the exact same style going on: Neon colours (predominantly pink), A dude with overly futuristic clothing or gadgets (maybe even a gun), a car is probably in there somewhere along with a road and some palm trees. The only artist I know of that didn’t go anywhere near that is Carpenter Brut, which I respect. The overall appearance of Synthwave only serves to bring up the bottom of the barrel internet stuff like bots that post rubbish like “Do you remember Rubik’s Cubes” (A thing that is still sold today), or even Ready Player One. I could not state how much I am tired of seeing this same boring look on everything. Come to think of it, I can only recall one actually decent use of the style, which was in Jackbox Games’ “Bracketeering” – It wasn’t overdone or even used for the sake of the faux-80’s style. It was merely because it fit well with the game. Radical Heights however…
REASON 3: AOL KEYWORD “GENERIC”
That is the word I would use to sum up the genre as a whole. Generic. There is no other way about it. Synthwave is by far the most generic genre of music on this planet. It’s not the most repetitive, though; that award would perhaps go to artists like Daft Punk* or something. But every single interaction I’ve had with the genre has sounded the same.
This is the main issue with Synthwave. There’s not enough creativity or differences between songs. My girlfriend, who is a fairly big fan of the genre and has a huge playlist full of it even agrees; “In all honesty, I can’t tell the style differences between individual songs and artists in these Synthwave collections.” Sure, a song may have a different intro or melody, but largely every Synthwave song will use the same kind of drums, or the same dark moody synth line. I don’t even think the genre sounds explicitly bad – It’s purely down to the lack of variation in it’s sound.
Here’s the thing – when Noise music or Minimal Techno has more variation in one song than an entire album of Synthwave? That’s not a good thing.
Allow me to give you another example. There’s an absolutely fantastic German producer called Wolfgang Voigt. He’s been doing music since the early 90s and has put out tons and tons of stuff under loads of different aliases. The one we’re going to look at here is called GAS. Now, GAS is a very highly regarded ambient project of Voigt’s. It’s an on-going series of albums that is largely based off his experiences of being in a local forest whilst high. Despite that description, a majority of his work under the alias is very warm and comforting, and each album provides a new feeling and sound. The tracks we’re going to be looking at in particular here are the first two tracks from his fourth album, Pop.
GAS’ “Pop (1)” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJg5tY8QZLk
Pop was an interesting album as it traded off the previously established Gas sound of muffled drums and strings for more clarity. In the album’s first track, we really get a taste for it. This song is an amazing example of how good Voigt is at producing music; this song is incredibly complex, layering multiple different sounds and samples over each other…yet not once does it feel crowded or chaotic. I’ll allow you a few minutes to just let this song sink in as I think it’s truly special.
Now, coming back to the discussion at hand. Please take note of how this song sounds, namely the samples that are used and how they are used. Now, take a listen to this:
GAS’ “Pop (2)” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfqDE9V-t1U
Notice, how this song appears to be pretty much the exact same song as the first one, albeit now slowed and pitched down. The fascinating detail about this is that it takes on a completely different form, just from this simple bit of editing. We get to hear each sample a little more clearly, everything has taken a more relaxed pace compared to the almost running speed of the first track. It’s the exact same song, so surely that should bother me…but it doesn’t. The slow down on this track causes it to feel like a completely unique experience in itself.
How about an alternative example of his work? This time, let’s focus on a repetitive song that remains engaging throughout.
Studio 1’s “Gelb 1 (aka “Silver”)” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHjbGjKq-aU
While I have much less to say on his work under the Studio 1 alias, it’s still very much of note. This album stands by far as one of the most repetitive things I’ve ever heard, and yet it’s easily one of my all time favourites. The key note in it all is that, whilst there’s very much a base “loop” of the drums and the main synth, there is a very very subtle hint of progression. Perhaps a song will start with a simple little synth loop, maybe 30 seconds in he’ll introduce a drum beat to it. fast forward on, around 1:30 there’ll be a sudden little change to the synth loop which will continue on through the song, perhaps introduce a new element to the song all together. It’s these small minute changes to the song that manage to keep it fresh and engaging throughout.
Now yes, there is a definite counter point to be made here of Wolfgang Voigt being a professional artist who has been doing this for years, thus it is somewhat unfair to compare these new artists to him. This is very much true, and I agree. However, there is something to be said for a lack of innovation within Synthwave as a whole. The fact that these songs have only little changes done to them yet feel so different from the rest is an important factor in it all. It’s not that I have a problem with a genre having a defined image and sound, because otherwise I would be angry at far too many genres to count. It just needs someone to go “Hey, why don’t I try mixing it up a little?” Because by all means, Synthwave does actually have something there – It’s just waiting for someone to set it free. It’s waiting for someone to be different.
ADDENDUM 11th July: Turns out that Josef Kenny, a good friend of mine on Mastodon, came out with his own Synthwave album back in 2014. And I gotta say, it’s absolutely wonderful. It perfectly hits what I said above about the genre needing someone to approach it differently. It hits a good moody and slightly dark tone with the sound, but instead of falling back into the cliche faux-80s style decides to kind of stick around the area it starts in and flourishes into this really gorgeous soulful and heartfelt piece of music. It’s kind of like if you married the slightly melancholic “New Romantic” era of Synthpop with the sensibilities of Synthwave. The album is titled Parallax, I highly recommend it and can be found here for a mere 5 bucks: http://music.josefkenny.com/album/parallax