Here’s a trip into history: In the 1970s, electronic music started to come into vogue. While the Beatles experimented with avant-garde tape loops and effects before Beatlemania ended, a group of Germans attempted to abandon the influence of American rock and roll entirely. Humorously titled “Krautrock”, it described the style of several bands that were combining rock and roll rhythms with experimental electronics, psychedelic rock, funk, and improvisational jazz. Many people do not know of this music, and they should: if it weren’t for the Krautrock of yesterday, today’s music would not exist.
Many of the most influential electronic acts of all time were either once part of this scene, or have been heavily influenced by those involved. Tangerine Dream was part of the movement for a brief stint before turning towards atmospheric pads and heavy synth arpeggios. Those sounds made it on many 1980s film scores such as “Risky Business” and “Firestarter,” as well as influenced later EDM genres like trance. Likewise, Kraftwerk was part of the experimental scene and released three albums. Shortly thereafter, they pioneered a brand of electronic pop music that has remained fresh, forward-thinking, and commercially successful today. Their influence cannot be overstated enough: techno and later genres are heavily indebted to their music, and they were honored in 2014 with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Why mention all of this? It’s worth repeating: the current culture is obsessed with analog nostalgia. As much as these bands pioneered electronic music as a whole, current electronic music has become obsessed with the sounds of those earlier generations. You need not look any further than “Stranger Things” and the development of vaporwave to see it. Yet for some, this trend has been happening since the 1990s. Warp Records and other labels released several forward-thinking albums that kept its roots in early electronic music, such as Boards of Canada’s “Music Has the Right to Children”. This music tapped into a rich nostalgia of warped VHS tapes and library music that seemed unmatched to many critics and listeners, even while today’s trends are going right back into it. They would say that the current obsession is not new. It’s simply commercialized.
With that as the setting, Voice of Saturn is a musical project that relishes in such an obsession with analog sound. Producer Travis Thatcher is the sole man behind the project, and visiting his website is an interesting trip of its own. Not only does Thatcher write and perform ambient, drone, and techno music under this name, but he has a real knack for designing and building analog synthesizers and effects. One such noisemaker, the eponymous Voice of Saturn Synthesizer, is a fairly popular DIY synth that people can either build themselves or purchase completely built through outlets like Synthrotek. Given this sort of experience, Thatcher knows how to make an analog synth sing, and on his newest album through DKA Records, “Shapeshifter”, the synths really do sing.
Album openers “Monolith” and “Exitstrategy” feel like homages to the electronic film scores of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In both pieces, gliding melodies contrast washes of chords and distorted drones that flow underneath. While “Monolith” contains a lonely bass drum beating underneath the hypnotic arpeggios, “Exitstrategy” introduces the bloops of techno and deep basses to support the airy interdigitating melodies throughout. If you thought the imaginative sounds of Tangerine Dream and old Italo horror films like “Suspiria” were long forgotten, think again. It’s revived for a new era of listeners, and both tracks serve as a great intro to this gargantuan journey of an album. “Rechnenderraum” and “Trim” take the listener leftfield into acid techno territory, as 303-esque square waves squelch under funky chords, Kraftwerkian melodies, and minimal atmospheres rivaling the best Plastikman records. Likewise, “Contunnel” keeps the same momentum, but with catchy melodies and lush reverb that would make any lover of Actress and Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works 85-92” smile.
In terms of cinematic beauty and abstract science-fiction sound design, the album is full of such moments. “Ionoco” is easily the most majestic and emotional piece of the album, as melodies soar over floating symphonic pads and a slow-burning analog beat. Likewise, “Planarfix” is an interesting downtempo piece that seems to bear the best elements of producers like electro-duo Justice, the aforementioned Boards of Canada, and psychedelic beatmaker Tobacco. Following the gorgeous ambient interlude of “MK IV” are the Tron-like melodies of “Flock,” which feels like a flight through the mainframes of old supercomputers. Lastly, “Lowpath” is perhaps the album’s most abstract composition, as esoteric effects and wavering synths interweave above a constant arpeggiated melody and minimal beats.
In the album’s finale, the music reaches its climax with “Shapeshifter” and “Duplex”. The timbres that modulate and move throughout the title track aptly fit the track name, and recall at times the cosmic atmospheres of early Krautrock music (i.e. Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra”). While a techno beat enters halfway through, it doesn’t distract the focus from the spacey atmospheres of alien languages and glossolalia that chirp throughout. In the closing “Duplex”, listeners are met with a massive ambient piece filled with calming chords and distorted drones akin to “Monolith”, which seem to clear the listener’s palette of what they’ve experienced on this analog journey.
In general, Voice of Saturn’s “Shapeshifter” is a fantastic masterpiece of analog synths and classic techno rhythms drenched in widescreen themes of 1980s cyberpunk and science-fiction. It’s worth noting from a genre standpoint that most of the sounds on this album are not new. They’ve been heard before throughout the last 45 years. Most of the time, the production itself is often low-fidelity and feels slightly noisy and gritty, as though it was recorded straight from an old cassette tape. Yet as old as the album sounds and as much as it respects its early electronic influences, the way Thatcher constructs and combines these sounds are wholly unique. To my knowledge, there are no other albums that combine drone, ambient, cinematics 1980s synthesizers, Krautrock, and acid techno all in one using solely analog gear. That’s precisely what makes this album exciting. “Shapeshifter” is a forward-thinking album that not only reintroduces the power and beauty of analog technology for today’s digital realm, but it also creates an enjoyable sonic journey for all who listen to it. Here’s to hoping the future will be filled with more music like this.
Artist: Voice of Saturn
Genre: Analog electronics/synthwave/acid techno/”kosmische musik”
Available for digital or limited cassette purchase at https://dkarecords.bandcamp.com/album/shapeshifter!