The 80’s in America seemingly brought about a sea change in the way mainstream culture was perceived, disseminated and evolved. Up until that point, decades were complex events, filled with combating images and cultural movements. Just think of the 60’s for example, on one hand imagined as this drug filled haze dream but on the other scarred by wars, civil protests and upheavals. The 80’s however, at least culturally, seem to be the dawn of monolithic images, single tastes and flavors that seemingly dominate our memory. This is obviously revisionism, as the 80’s were just as intricate as any decade (an arbitrarily assigned distinction in any case). Perhaps because so many of the current trend setters, “millennials” as the current mode would dub us, were born in its embrace, the vision towards which retro-movements for the 80’s share is surprisingly cohesive.
Naturally, alongside Kung Fury, neon-pink hats, VHS tinged music videos and weirdly thin cigarettes, there’s music. Dubbed retrowave, the genre which harks back to the 80’s draws its inspiration from myriad sources. Action movies, old progenitor video games, advertisements and even machine glitches all mix into a brightly green-blue-pink haze. This music is heavily electronic but also decidedly dark, often utilizing guitar tones and drum arrangements that explain its kinship with metal. Perhaps it’s also a shared birthing pool, as metal spawned in the 80’s alongside (and sometimes in direct response) to these aural phenomena.
The music has also enjoyed some out-of-genre popularity, with soundtracks to games (like Hotline Miami) or movies (like Turbokid or the aforementioned Kung Fury) enjoying wide spread popularity. And so, to aid the perhaps ill-informed listener, we ask: but what is retrowave? Instead of just writing about it, we’ve chosen three examples from the genre. While some of these choices might be obscure, none of them deviate from the mainstream, fundamental basics of what makes retrowave what it is today. It’s worth mentioning two things: first, there’s wide variation within this genre, so your mileage may vary. Secondly, we’ve left out some truly monumental selections from this list (like Pertrubator) exactly because they are so well known and seminal. We aim to shine a light on the basic elements of the genre but to not be stale and repetitive. Without further ado, let’s dig right in.
OGRE – 195
OGRE is perhaps the most ambitious of the artists we’ll talk about here. His 195 is nothing less than an electronic concept album, tracing the struggles of a protagonist and his motorcycle (in true 80’s fashion) as they battle some sort of ominous, inherently electronic threat. Musically, the album spans the field between upbeat, aesthetics tinged urban thrillers to contemplative and brooding electronic scapes. As will quickly become apparent, the main weapon of the retrowave artist is the full range that a synth can accomplish. By creating intentionally artificial sounding, MIDI-drenched effects, he is able to effectively call to mind and heart the days where those effects were all that was available. However, unlike those times, he does not treat them as restrictions but rather as jumping points into interesting melodies, interactions and progressions. Just take a look at “Interceptor”.
Utilizing several synth layers, OGRE creates a variance within which the track is born. The main “piano” line, sweet and fake as can be, is the main driving point of the track, lilting in and out of the other lines. It is coupled with audible “Caribbean” drum effects to augment the urban, plastic, computerized feel of the entire track. The drums in 195, and in retrowave in general, are vastly important. They usually feature extremely unnatural kick drums and paper-thin cymbals, most echoing those cheesy effects used in arcade games and dozen-a-dime sexploitation movies. However, if you think this tinfoil exterior is everything that OGRE is capable of, you’re sorely mistaken.
In tracks like “Above the Euromechopolis” (just feast on that name for a second) or “Fireside Reminiscence” he uses the exact same elements to create nostalgic, warm and expansive musical environments. The synths become more “open”, more classically used and the drums are either absent or subdued. The tracks themselves still hang on a singular line but this time, it’s not pummeled into us but softly speaks to us, with the synths again doing most of the talking. This tension, between straight forward, in your face, unapologetically cheesy segments and more emotional passages that play on longing and fondness is what makes OGRE, and retrowave, so great.
Dan Terminus – The Wrath of Code
OK folks, it’s time really dig in now. OGRE is a great artist but there’s something slightly restrained and reined back in his music. Not so Dan Terminus whose Wrath of Code tells you all you need to know about this album. It handles the same samples and vibes which we identified as the basis of retrowave but it turns them up to eleven. You won’t find many contemplative or dark tracks on this album. Instead the drum lines transform into electronic fury, melding with plenty of industrial-sound samples into an album that will constantly have your heart racing. Think of that scene in 80’s/early 90’s manga when the hero(es) ride off on the super highway towards the skyline of the city. That’s this entire album, a backdrop to surmounting action, to a ferocious pitch of movement, heat and Plexiglas.
It also introduces another historical influence on retrowave and that’s the golden of retro science fiction from the 70’s. Deep breath, this gets a bit convoluted: in the 70’s there existed a movement within science fiction, the precursor for steampunk, that imagined the future as a progression of 50’s aesthetics and technology. Confused yet? Just listen to the opening track from this album, “Cherenkov Blue Overdriver”. It invokes not only those harsh cityscapes I described above but also the vast reaches of space, traversed by a spaceship of sleek design. This is accomplished once again by invoking rich synth textures and playing them against each other but this time, unlike in OGRE, they’re aimed at creating a sense of continual motion and adventure rather than an intricate, darker place.
This immense feeling of adventure repeats again and again in Dan Terminus’s music. It speaks to an element of retrowave we have already touched upon: nostalgia. But here, the nostalgia is not to the quasi-dystopian existence of the 80’s but rather beyond, to an imagined and longed for approach into space and exploration. Near the end of the track, we find a tidbit of music which encapsulates this and, indeed, a lot of the power of retrowave. It is found in the opening passages of “Pegasus Pro Ultra Fusion”. Close your eyes and let those first few seconds of synths take you away to another place. The track then follows up on that by fleshing out the experience itself, infusing it with many variations on the original, opening theme. This is what Terminus does best, transforming a simple line into a sprawling, expressive tapestry only to return to it near the end and remind us what retrowave is all about.
Megadrive – Haywired V1.4
In the nature of all great dialectics, our last example of retrowave is a synthesis of the above two examples. Last year, one of the genre’s most prominent artists Megadrive, announced that he has remixed his seminal Haywired to bring forth Haywired V1.4 and the genre rejoiced. The new mix was crystal clear and brought to light even more this man’s genius. Megadrive is what happens when you meld Dan Terminus with the darker tendencies of OGRE but also add in a lot of insanity by way of The Algorith. Where the above two focus on traditional structures drawn from the synth-pop of the 80’s, Megadrive also dips his hands into drum and bass, bringing forth insanely intricate drum structures, cut-up synths to fit their frantic nature and a host of sounds and samples to vary everything up into one intricate, fast, rich and challenging album.
On “Completely Circuitry” you can hear the drums taking over, by not only being louder in the mix but also backed by more samples and a thick bass-synth that runs alongside them. This servers to accentuate the kick drums and their electronic qualities while the synths duck and weave between the rhythmic impacts. However, that’s not all that Megadrive can do. He’s also an expert in playing around with more obscure synth sounds, bringing in sounds from the realms of glitch. The title track, “Haywired”, is a great example of this with its weird main line, drawing on a synth sample much different than the smooth tones were’ accustomed to hearing on this list and, indeed, generally within the genre. It adds points of curiosity and interest to his music, forcing the listener to pay close attention where with other artists, we would sit back and chill.
As we said that Megadrive is a certain sort of hybrid, it’s important to also note the places where he takes the approach sometimes seen with OGRE. In different parts of the album, he turns to those smooth, drawn out synths we had mentioned before. He does this, like other artists, to once again capture that sense of nostalgia, loss and longing that infects so much of retrowave, almost a childish wonder for a world promised by the 80’s and then snatched away just as fast. Check out “Navigator” for example, with its vaporwave (don’t even get me started) influenced opening synths and expansive, rich melodies. You can almost imagine yourself on an 8-bit Venice Beach, watching the palms sway in the pixelated afternoon sun.