For a mix of reasons, instrumental music tends to carry a greater inherent potential towards the cinematic. Without a primary voice to guide us through the music’s message, we as the audience are both required and enabled to find an emotional and environmental through-line to the sounds we hear; instrumental bands approach this in a myriad of ways that are dependent on the vision they wish to construct for us. The sprawling landscapes of urban decay, comprised skyscrapers reduced to rubble and highways of broken down vehicles, that makes up the working-man’s-apocalyptic narrative of Godspeed, You! Black Emperor‘s work sounds nothing like the soaring, high fantasy landscapes of organic matter and awe-inspiring geological formations that Scale the Summit invokes in their songs, but both achieve their effects with the use of cohesive instrumentation that establishes a set of common themes from the get-go and then builds off them in kind.
Retrowave, as a genre, is built from the ground up on this sense of auditory cinematography. Aesthetically, the music invokes the retro-futurist vibe of 80’s science fiction, all neon and chrome, to varying degrees of grimness. Each artist’s take on the genre presents a different facet of the aesthetic, from the chilled-out space explorations of Dynatron and the sweeping concrete panoramas of S U R V I V E to the overtly sexual, technocratic dystopias and blood-stained Armageddon landscapes that Perturbator and GosT evoke, respectively.
Tommy ’86‘s third full-length outing, Transhumanism, falls somewhere in between the two, not as inherently dark as the worlds of the latter pair but featuring far more action and energy than the first couple. Following a short introduction, we’re treated to the first track, “Citymulation,” which features the aforementioned Perturbator, a compatriot on Blood Music and pumps with the sense of high-octane EDM flair that has come to be a staple sound within the genre. A bass track that leans on the dirtier side and a driving kick-snare pattern lay the base on top of which layer after layer of icy synths and keyboards find themselves intertwining, clawing upwards with a purposeful cadence that echos the track’s portmanteau name, forming a city simulation as audio skyscrapers form, collapse, and reshape themselves across the song’s run time. Every track brings something new to the table, too, displaying its own identity as it twists the conventions of retrowave into song after song of pounding drums and buzzing synths. “A.I. Takeover” snowballs from a slow start into an all-out banger, a grim opening leading into a rip-roaring storm of whirring electronics; penultimate track “No Man’s Earth” is a musical soliloquy of sorts that shows a bleak, empty landscape from birds-eye view, one quiet, nostalgic, pulsing synth line sweeping through its run-time like a dusty breeze as others dance atop it briefly before fading away again. Transhumanism knows exactly how to build a sense of the cinematic, and Tommy ’86 certainly doesn’t pull any punches with the astounding vistas he creates here.
Mr. ’86 doesn’t exactly offer up much here that retrowave fans haven’t heard before in one form or another, but novelty certainly isn’t the be-all-end-all of music, especially in a genre with parameters this tight. Point is, Transhumanism displays a knowledgeable, confident figure within the genre’s canon, and this commanding grasp of what makes retrowave tick translates perfectly into a great record. This LP may not be a retrowave upheaval or any sort of game-changing album that sets the stage for a second movement along any genre timeline, but fans of the established sound would do well to give Transhumanism a listen.
Transhumanism came out just over a month ago – the 28th of October, to be exact – via Blood Music. You can purchase the album through the label’s bandcamp page.