Retrosynth Roundup: Inverted Crosses and Neon

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“Whoa, hey what’s all this about synthesizer music?” I hear you say in your room full of Rotting Christ bootlegs, clad in beer and blood-stained battle vest and sporting fresh a “Metal 4 Lyfe” tattoo on your forehead, still red and tender. “Those damned computer bleeps and bloops don’t belong on a Metal blog!” On principal, I might agree with you. But there are two points to consider: (1) I emailed the editor and he totally said I could write this, and (2) I want to talk about the interesting ways that retrosynth music and metal culture are intersecting lately.

First thing’s first, let me define the music that I’m talking about. “Retrosynth” is one of a number of blanket terms for modern music made with 1980’s synthesizer sounds. Some artists in the genre take their inspiration from corny synthpop jams that your older brother probably listens to in secret, but the majority of the scene apes 80’s movie soundtracks created by the likes of John Carpenter and Goblin. The genre has seen an explosion in the last 5 years, and has done what all genres do when they reach critical mass: spawn sub-genres. These neon grandchildren of the days of cocaine and creative wasteband placement are split largely along movie genre lines. Exploitation and action movie jams have become “outrun,” the soundtracks to pornos and chick flicks have evolved into the hazy soundscapes of “dreamwave,” and horror movie OSTs have turned into “darksynth.”

I’m here to talk about darksynth. In an effort to sound progressively more menacing and evil, darksynth musicians began using harsher and louder sounds, more occult imagery, and horror-inspired personas. This evolution led some artists to gazing lovingly at metal’s door, some to knocking on it, and others to carving it up with a chainsaw. Musicians like Gost, Perturbator, and the incomparable Carpenter Brut, are unmistakably synthesizer acts, but they sprinkle their art with inverted crosses, tour and play festivals with big names in metal, and stir up real live mosh pits full of card-carrying metalheads. If you need irrefutable proof that darksynth has moved past flirtation with Metal, check out these logos for two darksynth acts from a few years ago, compared to the logos on their recent t-shirt designs.

The difference between this phenomenon and things like dungeon synth is that this genre was not born from the foul, blackened womb of metal. It was born of movie soundtracks and stumbled its way into metal-ness. Some musicians have thrown all pretext aside and begun incorporating drums and electric guitar into their live sets. Others have begun using guitars in the studio with such prominence that formerly dyed in the wool retrowave acts could easily be mistaken for normal metal.

Is this flattery by way of imitation? Is it appropriation? Is it a bid at a legitimacy that electronic music lacks? Or is it just dark music running its natural course? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I adore this music, and if it’s a trend, I want the Toilet Ov Hell to be ahead of the curve. That’s why I’ve decided to write “Retrosynth Roundups,” a rundown of the best evil synthesizer music released in the past month or so. Here, to catch us up, are five gems from 2017 that I’ve discovered.

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DeadlifeBionic Chrysalis (Lazerdisks Records, March 17, 2017)

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This is my retro album of the year so far. It’s a sci-fi synth opera about a dead woman’s ghost haunting her android servant as he searches for her killer. This silly premise is given surprising weight by a thick, sexy atmosphere and deceptive sense of melancholy. Each track includes frequent narration by the titular ghost, who whispers encouragement and exposition into your ear in a subdued and sultry register. The plot is essentially experienced in first person. You are the android, and your specter drives your forward into increasing desperation and violence. There are implied dream sequences, battle scenes, and even a boss fight in the second to last track. The track “Avenge Me” is particularity effective in this regard. Halfway through the tune, the ghost’s voice distorts and cracks as if she’s crying, while she shifts between apologies and accusations. This speech is punctuated by an edge of anger creeping into her voice as she blurts out the title of the song, right before another savage, pitch-bent synth beatdown. The music builds fairly typical electronic jams around strange and unique synth sounds. Deadlife is equally unafraid to flirt with airy house music vibes and use ugly, dissonant sawtooth throbs, both of which are present on the more energetic tracks like “Trash.” I can’t overstate how much I love this record. I give it ten mangled robot corpses out of ten.

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Occam’s LaserAscension (Independent, February 21, 2017)

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Ascension” is the third in a trilogy of albums by the delightfully named Occam’s Laser that is dedicated to retelling Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century poem, the Divine Comedy. The other two albums, Nine-Circles and Purgatory are aurally and visually cohesive with their conclusion, so it’s worth checking out all three records as one body of work. Occam’s Laser adopts the satanic sound and atmosphere of many of his contemporaries in the genre, but trades their dense, almost orchestral compositions for a simpler, more focused structure of two to three synth harmonies over understated drums. These synth sounds are pitch black, with an underlying aggression that the straightforward production serves to highlight, not dampen. Ascension is a slow-burning menace.

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CoutouxHellicoprion (Kill All Music, March 31, 2017)

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Kill All Music, a new darksynth label out of Hollywood, has garnered a bit of a reputation for twisting retro synthesizer music together with metal, punk, and pop in ways that make purist monocles pop and lovers of difficult music swoon. Coutoux (koo-too), a defector from France to California, has an impressive collection of EBM and “horror techno” EPs under his belt. For his most recent outing, however, he has dived into extreme metal with both feet. Hellicoprion, named after what is objectively the most fucked up looking prehistoric shark, adopts the pace of doom metal and gurgling black metal shrieks, layering them on throbbing, fuzzy darksynth. In fact, during the first seconds and even minutes of each lengthy track, one could be forgiven for assuming this was a metal record. As each track evolves, they become more explicitly electronic and melodic, revealing slasher soundtrack sensibilities buried underneath the cold chaos. This element is especially prevalent in the title track, where a plodding, funeral dirge plows into a synthwave hook in slow motion. The artist has stated that Hellicoprion is a concept album about the titular shark, using the monstrous, alien nature of the creature as a metaphor for his own contempt for mankind. This album certainly is alien and contemptuous, and the synth sounds present are so organic and brutal, I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of guitars on the record.

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Microchip TerrorMicrochip Terror (EP) (Independent, January 17, 2017)

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Microchip Terror is a new darksynth producer from Singapore who released this little terror of an EP at the top of the year. He is fairly unknown at the moment, but I have a feeling that will change. His style takes now-familiar Perturbator worship and elevates it with some industrial rhythmic styles and a healthy dash of cinematic flair. The title track is loud, driving, and aggressive, but miraculously preserves the genre’s nostalgic flair. The rest of the tracks show an encouraging range, with “Cyber Tyrants” being an especially pleasurable mixture of melodic chaos and odd percussion. SurgeryHead stops by for a remix that takes a gloomy road from industrial ambiance to straight-up gabber, and the final track, a Fabio Frizzi cover, is a fantastic closer that sounds like it should be providing an emotional through line for a much larger record. This EP packs a lot of ideas and originality into a short run time. If you love darksynth, this guy needs to be on your list.

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TimestalkerPandemonium (Independent, April 10, 2017)

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Swiss producer Timestalker takes a lot more “traditional” darksynth sound than the others on this list. Pandemonium is a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist. From the enigmatic cover art, to the horn sounds trumpeting the arrival of the first track, to the sense of climactic finality of the last tune, this album tells a distinct story through vague methodology. Huge tempo, mood, and instrumentation changes intercut every tune, making the distinction between individual tracks less relevant. Pandemonium is best heard as a whole, maybe while reading a cyberpunk novel or making a Pinterest board of demon woodcarvings. The genre of film this album is emulating isn’t easy to nail down. There is an obvious sheet of spookiness draped over the bass synths and track titles, but the dreamy, cosmic melodies hint at space travel and strange airships. Perhaps “Lovecraftian” would be the best way to convey the mood of Pandemonium.

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If you enjoy any of these albums, please consider supporting the artists. Many of these records are available on cassette tape if you’re a filthy freak and you’re into that sort of thing.

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