As synthwave is so heavily influenced by a very specific aesthetic, it’s rare when we’re surprised as to what we find when we look at a synthwave album’s inspirations. We’re probably going to see neon colors, hot rods, scantly clad women (too often, sadly) and men, sunglasses, pixel beaches and the such. And that’s definitely the case when you first glance at Rodgers Dameron‘s latest release, Pits of Utumno. The cover is satisfyingly retrofuturistic and rightly colored and the figure on it is clad in something you might expect David Hasselhoff to sport on Knight Rider. But wait, Pits of Utumno you suddenly ask, imaginary reader who’s well versed in Tolkien’s legendarium. “But that’s Melkor’s underground fortress!” you exclaim, of course, as I did. And yes, Dameron’s latest release, as steeped in synthwave aesthetic as it might be, contains several references and influences from Tolkien’s work.
References range from “Ungoliant” on the first track, through “The Grinding Ice” (the segment of ice connecting Aman and Middle Earth, through which the Noldor went into exile) and “Eldamar” (where the elves lived in Aman, also called Faerie by the hobbits). That last one is especially interesting since the track itself shifts to fit that which it is describing; the synths become super sweet and dreamy while the vocals are ethereal and dream-like, as befits an idyllic land closed off from mortals. That is, the track name is not just a reference thrown out as an after though, but a real inspiration to the music being played.
It also helps that the music is damn good. Whether on the more intricate and dreamy “Eldamar”, the furiously dark “Nienna” (the Queen of the Valar), or the build up on the following “Melted Time” (calling to mind the excellent Stellardrone), this album is amazing. On the latter, extremely loud bass slaps dot the super cool guitar lines as the synths paint a futuristic landscape in the background. Also present is an incredible vocal guest spot by one Leah Shaw, who lends her excellent voice to two different tracks on the album. Dameron makes clever use of her voice, whether presented without too many effects or chopped up and re-processed for added cybernetic punch. His use of her reminds us of Floex or Crowns, who also traffic and the kind of tripped out, futuristic soundscapes that Dameron works out of.
Overall, this album is a double pleasure. It’s fantastic synthwave in and of its own right (we haven’t even covered the title track, arguably the best on the album) that isn’t afraid to go hard when needed but pull its blows when a lighter touch is more fitting. But it also draws on an unexpected source of inspiration in Tolkien’s work, a refreshing departure from the usual aesthetic of the genre. The end result is an album that’s both danceable and immediately relatable, a true hallmark of great synthwave.