I’ve said it before. Twice. Here it goes again: we’re living in an age of nostalgic obsession. Everything old is somehow becoming new again. Vinyl is back and reportedly increasing in popularity. Cassette tape labels can be found in droves through online platforms like Bandcamp. A certain show on Netflix and other strange communities of the Internet are dedicating themselves to this kind of nostalgia, and for whatever reason, it’s selling like hotcakes. But within this kind of nostalgia, there are multiple scenes and trends one can follow. No doubt, they are all cut from the same fabric, but each one is singularly unique in its particular style. We’ve covered vaporwave and an obsession with old analog gear, but today, we’re covering something known as synthwave (or “outrun” by some artists). This is perhaps the most popular form of this nostalgia, and you can find its river streaming back through entertainment like Com Truise and Nicolas Winding Refn’s modern classic, “Drive.”
What can you expect from this genre? If vaporwave satirizes and critiques the excessive commercialism and capitalism of yesteryear’s popular culture, then synthwave faithfully reproduces and exploits it. Vaporwave oozes nostalgia, but with an ironic and warped sense of humor. Synthwave oozes nostalgia to the point of retro sentimentalism and yearning for those long-gone decades. Yes, you’re thinking it right: the gauzy film soundtracks of action blockbusters, the visuals of cyberpunk cities akin to “Blade Runner”, and the Phil Collins drum sound are back in vogue. There are hundreds of artists doing this sort of respectful reproduction, and the latest offering comes from London-based composer Mike Lane, otherwise known by the alias “Wolf Arm.” “Digital Fingerprints” is his self-released debut, and it’s a promising effort filled with high-quality production. Even the edgy neon-lit album artwork fits the mood of the music perfectly!
“Launch Windows” opens up the widescreen noir soundscape with pulsing neon synths, soaring guitar solos performed by the artist GLBRT, and reverberated drums that bring back the days of Phil Collins and “Top Gun.” “Pulsewave” continues the vibe with glistening DX7-like bells and massive bass drones, and feels right at home with the epic soundtracks of 80s action films. You can almost imagine this as a theme song for the hero/heroine of an epic action saga. “Star Raider” contains an interesting interlude of arpeggiated Nintendo-style chiptune music that throws the listener back to the early days of Super Mario and Sonic, while robotic vocals reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” shine front and center on “Cloaking Mod.” Filmic slow-burners “Nice Toys,” “Synth Disposal,” and “Electric Skies” help to slow the pace of the album while providing shimmering atmospheres, soporific rhythms, and the distant chatter of police radio.
“Tangos for Cash” begins to drive the adrenaline slightly, as though something suspenseful is happening for the hero to fix. “Wire Veins” is my favorite song on the album, as a gorgeous chord progression is strung out by orchestral-like pads and brassy timbres over a thumping rock beat. It feels as epic as any movie scene where the hero finally arrives to save the day. By contrast, “Nothing Traceable” feels as gloomy as any high-tech hacker drama where information is stolen and tracks are covered up. “Fatal Chase,” technically the finale of the album, is also its fastest. Opulent atmospheric synths gauze over chugged power chords and high-octane electro beats, providing the gratifying background for the final high-stakes chase that decides whether our hero fails or wins victoriously. However, bonus track “Tape Blazer” should perhaps be the fitting epilogue, as it switches to major chords and bright synths that suggest a happy, victorious ending. Furthermore, it contains a slightly humorous and unexpected breakdown in the middle that sounds like someone stopped the tape, ejected it, and then placed it back in. It’s a tiny moment of nostalgia that helps to finally glue together the monumental retro feel of the album.
Wolf Arm’s “Digital Fingerprints” is filled with the kind of music we didn’t know we needed. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but as a faithful reproduction of the overly dramatic and rambunctious synthesized soundworld of the 1980s, it overwhelmingly succeeds. Those who grew up in the era will no doubt recognize the brightly colored, yet sometimes noir-muted palette here, while audiophiles and modern listeners alike will be pleased with the album’s clean and sparkly production. Since when do you hear this kind of music without the flutter and wow of worn-out cassette players? Not too often. While very few may regard this music as kitschy and a niche, “Digital Fingerprints” is the latest offering in the new wave of nostalgic 80s obsession and is perhaps one of the better albums since this whole trend started. Tune into it and go back in time. For all its sentimentality, you’ll thank me later.
Artist: Wolf Arm
Title: Digital Fingerprints
Available for digital download at https://wolf-arm.bandcamp.com/releases!