Instead of ushering us into the sci-fi predicted future, the new millennium has brought us a great deal of nostalgia. Trying to revive the aesthetics of the 1980s and the 1990s, heavily inspired by films, video games, cartoons of that time, and artists like John Carpenter, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream, retrowave — or, synthwave, if you prefer, — is taking over the popular culture of the mid-2000s. The sounds of the past became the sounds of the future.
What Made It Popular
For years, retrowave has been modestly making its way into the mainstream, until the release of the movie Drive in 2011 opened the door for it. Featuring several synthwave artists, the movie’s soundtrack drew millions of new fans to the genre and inspired many new artists. The signature track Nightcall was written by Kavinsky who has been named one of the most popular artists in synthwave in 2014. Kavinsky’s darker sound has won him followers among artists too — his style has been carried on by artists like Power Glove, Waveshaper, and Perturbator.
Since 2015, retrowave and all its diverse subgenres have reached a broader audience from different backgrounds all over the world. Surprisingly, goths, metalheads, and geeks were also drawn into the retro-futuristic sound of synthwave, bringing together a fanbase from various subcultures.
One of the most recent successful retrowave events was the critically acclaimed television series Stranger Things, with the first season released in 2016. The show’s clear tribute to the visual style of the 80s and the 90s was completed by the score — Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the synthwave band S U R V I V E took care of the deeply atmospheric soundtrack which took the synthwave appreciation to the next level, getting epic levels of praise from both the public and critics.
So, who owns the retrowave scene these days? As we already mentioned, James Kent aka Perturbator became one of the pillars of noir retrowave and slowly stepped up from sharp-edged synth raves to some dense and dark electronic. On his new surprise EP New Model, he explores the future, as Kent himself writes in a press release, “but this future is one based in our own eerie reality and not the retro-futuristic fantasy explored on I Am the Night, Dangerous Days or The Uncanny Valley.”
Photo: Constantin Flux
As dark as its title foresees, the track Vantablack is the centerpiece of the record. This piece of industrial-pop throbs and pulsates, pierced by the creepy vocals of Jim, member of the French electro-band OddZoo. The whole record is a hard-hitting piece of music that easily transcends Perturbator’s previous work. It brings a new level of futuristic thinking like never seen before.
”In short, the narrative puts the listener in the point-of-view of an omnipotent AI — the New Model — a piece of human technology so advanced that it transcends concepts such as life, death, time, space, sense or language,” Kent says. “The New Model is everything and everywhere at the same time. It was created to help mankind and save it from war, disease, pain, and mortality. This creates a paradox for the god-like AI, who understands the only way to prevent humanity from hurting or being hurt is to erase humans from existence.”
Of course, there are many other names in synthwave worth mentioning. Inspired by New York street strolls, Russia’s four-piece Tesla Boy have presented the single Avoid earlier this year. In their creativity, high energy dance tracks go along a new breed of music — slightly darker, edgier, more mysterious songs with some neatly hidden nuances that require reading between the lines.
Meanwhile, Klayton and Nick Kaelar formed Scandroid, a project aiming at creating 80s-style music with what they themselves describe a Neo-Tokyo theme. A new album called Monochrome is due to be released on October 27, 2017.
One of the leaders and a big player of the retro new wave scene is Carpenter Brut. Originally, he started writing music under this alias to mix sounds from horror films, metal, rock, and electronic music. He draws his influences from 80s TV-shows and B-movies heavily loaded with synthesizers. In June of this year, he released CARPENTERBRUTLIVE, an expressive compilation of live played tracks that are prime examples of the newly hyped ‘heavy electronic’.
Blade Runner 2049
Another big fish in the retrowave game is the new Blade Runner 2049. 35 years ago, the iconic Blade Runner score by Greek composer Vangelis captured the imagination of a generation of electronic musicians. Since then, the neon dystopia has never been such a big part of popular culture as it is now, with the release of the sequel.
The scope of Blade Runner’s influence on music has been and is immense — it has infiltrated pop, hip-hop and beyond — but it’s the electronic musicians who were captivated the most by the murky futuristic visions of the movie. The movie’s soundtrack became renowned, as the movie itself.
Completed with an exquisite coloristic solution, Blade Runner 2049 is the perfect fusion of retrowave manifestations from different kinds of art and not just music.
Back To Future
Retrowave has gained some ground in recent years, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to go away in the nearest future. There’s plenty of reason to expect more not only in the music department but in the whole retrowave culture it brings along — with fashion and movies being the prime sidekicks.
Confidently harnessing the sound of the 80s and filling it with the rebellious spirit of the new age, retrowave is a genre that brings a whit of nostalgia with a dystopian flair of the future. Despite the traditional connection of retrowave and synthwave to the 80s and 90s, it’s only the aesthetics and the sounds that are borrowed from the era, but it’s the future that dictates its contents. Good, worthwhile music is timeless, and this genre can and will keep proving this every time.