Synthwave is often described as music that has the nostalgic flavour of the 1980s in both its atmosphere and its production characteristics. For me, the music has a special resonance that’s largely driven by the sheer quality of the music being produced by people creating within the broader genre.
Over the last while, I’ve interviewed a wide range of talented synthwave artists. So, attempt to let them, in their own words, and give a rundown on the genre.
Which Features Distinguish this Music
In the view of the Canadian synthwave artist Chad Williamson — Moonrunner83 — synthwave is “simple and unapologetically fun” music that’s being created by people who’ve become disillusioned by mainstream music. He adds, “Everyone’s got a different vibe to their mixes because that’s what gives the music its life.”
From the perspective of Canadian synthwave producer Full Eclipse, synthwave has a “slick, polished, digital” sound. However, that doesn’t mean that it can’t touch deeper human experiences. He explains, “Artists like Bart Graft, Hello Meteor and FM-84 are really trying to tap into a more emotional, passionate feeling within the synthetic. I think it’s a noble pursuit because, when you’re using a lot of digital technology, it’s very difficult to sound human and emotional.”
Alpha Chrome Yayo is a producer from the UK In his view, synthwave is a catch-all term that’s less about pigeonholing a genre of music and more about using music to paint scenes. He elaborates, “It could be the sound of a rain-slick street in a crime-ridden metropolis, the stomach-twisting excitement of junior prom or the trigger-happy intensity of a corrupt cop with morals decaying faster than his office decor.”
For the members of the band Tom Selica, synthwave is all about the images it can conjure up. They explain, “As huge nerds growing up alongside one another, we’ve always had an appreciation for sci/fi, horror, and adventure. Synthwave embodies all of those things plus the nostalgia of the era where it all came from.”
Why Synthwave has Strong Appeal to the Musicians Who Create it
For synthwave vocalist Tali Dennerstein — Night Vision — the appeal of synthwave lies in the emotional response it elicits in her. She says, “I’d been disillusioned with mainstream music for many years and discovering retrowave music felt like a breath of fresh air. It brought me back to memories of the good times I had as a kid when life was much simpler.”
Full Eclipse points out that part of the appeal comes from the overall ‘80s aesthetic in synthwave. He says, “We can look back and see now that the ‘80s were, at times, a shit show of raging capitalism, superficiality, vanity, and greed, but… some of the looks, some of the styles and some of the feels of that era are undeniably slick, cool and fascinating.”
Daria Danatelli is a singer/producer based in Russia. For her, the sense of connection in the synthwave scene is what really draws her into it. She says, “I love how supportive everyone is. I have very many friends from many countries and I love how strongly they’re connected and how much they’re collaborating. Every problem we have, we’re eager to discuss it. I’m lucky to have the friends that I do.”
The reason why Alpha Chrome Yayo is so excited by the music is related to his sense that synthwave is music that, “takes the excitement and overblown pomp of that era (the ‘80s) and twists it into something fresh and vibrant.”He adds, “Rad, soaring axe solos, fast supercars, and smoky arcades aren’t cool just ‘cos they were about in the ‘80s. Like velociraptors and monster trucks, they’re cool simply because they’re cool. The takeaway shouldn’t be that cyan/magenta is an awesome colour scheme (even if it is), it should be that the era this music has its roots in was one of the endless possibilities and that’s worth celebrating.”
Of course, no music scene is perfect and some of the artists/producers to whom I talked had their fair share of criticism about where parts of the scene are at right now.
Ray Jimenez and Dacotah Stordahl make up the band Best Korea. Dacotah observes that synthwave can suffer from a tendency toward the formulaic. He says, “It feels like a lot of up-and-coming producers fall into a trap of all trying to sound like the guys that pioneered the sound. I understand why, but at the same time, I’d love to see more people pushing the sound forward and experimenting a little.”
Ray adds, “The backlash to Carpenter Brut’s new album is a great example of that. We love Leather Teeth! I have it on vinyl. I’ll get on Reddit and people will comment that it’s not the old Carpenter Brut. That’s good! Artists should branch out.”
Tom Selica points out, “The scene and its producers and artists need to take care to not let the sound stagnate. The only way growing musical genres can survive is by cross-pollinating and evolving, not pumping out the same things time and time again.”
So where is synthwave going in the future?
The fact that synthwave artists are selling physical recordings, as opposed to merely streaming their content, is something to celebrate in Chad Williamson’s view. He says, “A whole bunch of synthwave artists is selling records, pressing vinyls, and cassettes and that appreciation for the retrowave movement has invigorated my desire to keep working in this genre. Selling records? C’mon! Even that concept is retro.”
Full Eclipse is excited to see the directions that synthwave might take in the future. He explains, “The ‘80s was a fantastic era for electronic music when it was becoming refined and making strides, but there was so much in that sound that didn’t get explored then, so let’s see what we can do to push that sound even further and go in directions that weren’t broached at that time while maintaining the moods, atmospheres and artistic spirit of the era.”
The Canadian synthwave producer oceanside85 is excited for the potential future direction of synthwave as a genre. She hopes that “the unique styles of synthwave create many more fans of the genre and keep it fresh for those who are tired of the same cookie-cutter formulas. There need to be fewer gatekeepers and more thoughtful regard for the effort, tears, and passion that it takes someone to put their creation out there for all to hear.”
Benny Rose, from the band Neon Arcadia, is feeling positive about where synthwave’s going as a genre. He says, “A synthwave scene is an ever-evolving machine that will never be the same. It’s one of the few genres that has a vast number of subgenres that continues to grow. Seeing more and more people embrace it along with the demand for live performances shows that the future is bright.”
The conclusion that I’ve drawn from all of this is that synthwave is one of the most musically diverse, fastest growing and positive contemporary music scenes going. The future for this energetic, vibrant music really does look to be as bright as the neon light that permeates the genre itself.
Karl Magi is a freelance writer based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has an Applied Degree in Communications with a specialization in Journalism from Mount Royal University. And he’s passionate about writing on music!