The Synthwave Radioshow
from apes to angels
'let the light in'
Best track: grain barge
click album cover to listen
Having just spent four consecutive days listening to synthwave whilst ‘celebrating’ the Easter holidays on lockdown, I found myself all synthwaved out and casting my mind back to that famous quote from ‘The Simpsons’, “No beer and no TV make Homer something something”. ‘Go crazy’ I imagine some of you are saying. Well I wasn’t far off! Writing reviews during these tough times has given me some welcome relief from reality but eventually I had to pick an album that manages to stray far enough from the genre without totally letting go. ‘Let the Light In’ by ‘From Apes to Angels’ was the aptly named album that came to my rescue.
Before I get in to the details of this compilation, I will warn you now that it’s not a synthwave album, more a complex mix of synthpop morsels and electronic music with classical elements and even some cinematic soundscapes…crazy mix right? What if I told you there’s fragments of ‘CHVRCHES’, ‘Kate Nash’, Sombre Moon’, ‘M83’, and ‘Enya’ too? Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s proceed.
As ‘Head and Heart’ starts things off, you’ll be punching yourself as to who they initially sound like. Let me help you with that…it’s CHVRCHES. They were one of my early gateways in to synthwave as some of their best songs come mighty close to it. The title and lyrics suggest the subject is the on-going tug-of-war between what we think in our heads and what we feel in our hearts. And despite the slightly negative connotations, this is a very uplifting piece of music with some joyful synths. This song was actually released four years ago…prime ‘CHVRCHES’ time that!
When this pair of creative electronic musicians reached out to us, it was to showcase ‘Motorway’. With its catchy melody and sweet vocal line, it was a good choice to grab our attention. We said on the radio show that it wasn’t synthwave, but its bang on the sort of sound you would hear in abundance on ‘Artefaktor Radio’, retro electronic synth. The interlude is gorgeous and builds nicely to a crescendo wrapped in layered vocals. ‘No Reason’ and ‘Works Out’ also fit in to this retro electronic poppy stuff. In fact, the latter reminds me of some of the sounds and mixes between ‘Kay Burden’ and ‘Fused’, designed to get someone up on their feet for a bit of a dance.
‘Why Don’t You Come Back Home’ is tinged in sadness with apologetic and understanding vocals that read like a love note. These are enveloped in some dazzling synths whilst the percussions take control of proceedings throughout. ‘Perfection’ follows with a superb ‘world music’ sound to the guitar used, perhaps a resonator type. I honestly don’t know what it is that’s making this wonderful sound but its heavenly! Unfortunately, the rest of the song fails to match the dizzy heights of this brilliant intro, although I am a fan of the grand finale.
It’s not until track five ‘Turn the Dark On’ that we hear our first out-and-out synthwave track. There’s a very recognisable synth riff that commences on its own and remains throughout the song. It took me ages to remember who the bloody hell used the same riff back in the noughties but after about 90 minutes (yes 90 minutes) of searching I found the originators, ‘Doves’ with the song ‘Words’. From the synth riff, some soft backing vocals ensue with a prowling bass synth line. This enhances the slow tempo of the track to a point and coupled with the constant backing vocals, it’s quite a relaxing piece.
A listen to what’s being sung will introduce you to the newest craze sweeping the scene…’Humpty Dumpty-wave’. Okay I’m being silly, but I wanted to really hit home that the lyrics have been borrowed and tweaked from the classic nursery rhyme we've all come to know and love and it’s really well worked in to proceedings. The last minute or so is nothing short of euphoria as all the constituent parts of ‘Turn the Dark On’ fit together like a perfect puzzle. Without a shadow of a doubt this is proper synthwave and one of the best tracks I’ve heard in 2020. And yet, it’s not my favourite track from the album. Say whaaa?!
‘32 Degrees Above the Celestial Plane’ is the second definitive synthwave track from the list and doesn’t it have one of the coolest titles ever?! It’s a short instrumental if you ignore the brief one-liner near the end. It’s full of positivity by way of a radiant underlying synth accompanied by a similar bass line as that used in the previous track. A steady set of ‘shutter’ sound percussions barely change from start to finish in this neat little interlude.
‘Femmepop’ lends her vocals to the track titled ‘Fly’. Her name carries some real substance in the scene having collaborated with ‘Timecop1983’ so to bring her in is a cracking scoop. Her voice lends a certain tenderness to things and intertwine very well with those from Millie throughout the song. I’ve stated in a couple of reviews this year that I love a reprise, and although it’s a very short one, ‘Motorway’ is the lucky track that receives its very own makeover with vocals removed and a tiny segment of the original simply reiterated in beautiful fashion.
‘K.I.S.S.’ is probably my least favourite track. Despite some nice singing from ‘CHRØØNICV’ It doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album in that there aren’t any obvious features that can be classed as synth or even retro for that matter. It’ll probably be an easy sell to a lot of people outside of the scene, perhaps to fans of ‘Christine and the Queens’.
And now to my favourite, and I'll tell you this, I’ve been looking forward to writing about this one so much. it’s the concept track titled ‘Grain Barge’. It’s a beautiful and bold endeavour that starts out as a cinematic piece that ‘M83’ would be supremely proud of. There’s a slight hint of ‘Euryhtmic’ style to the spoken vocals that evoke a real ‘Bladerunner 2049’ sound. The best part comes immediately after, with a stunning organ-style synthesizer accompanied by soft and heavenly operatic vocals that’ll stir many different memories of the most beautiful places you've been lucky enough to bare witness to.
Part two if the track moves things to a more progressive and alternative sound, in fact Millie sounds a heck of a lot like ‘Kate Nash’ for this section (remember her?) due to the proper english accent. Hard hitting drums then begin to crash all around as the tempo gets taken up a few notches before the underlying piano comes to the fore in the form of a buzzing synth that gets increasingly grainy to the point where it feels like it's drilling through your brain, you almost beg for it to stop. Every band has their ‘Purple Rain’, I’d be inclined to say that this is theirs. I simply cannot describe how much I love this track to all of you, I just implore you to listen to it through a decent set of headphones as attempting to listen through tinny little in-ear pieces of crap simply won’t cut it.
This really is an interesting album that should probably be plugged in some of the other music scenes due to its complicated mix of sounds. Listening to it has been a welcome deviation from proper synthwave and I challenge you all to give it an in-depth listen and perhaps you’ll deduce different things from it. It will divide opinion for sure, not in the sense of whether it’s good or bad, but more to do with its construction and layout. I don’t think I’ve reviewed an album where I’ve been able to name so many similar artists in terms of sound and style before and it’s been fantastic having a good ol’ reminisce back to one’s glory days. joe ward 8.5/10
a visual representation of the album:
if you're in to this, you'll also like:
m83, ladytron, priest, chvrches and sombre moon