June 13th saw the release of a highly anticipated album within the synthwave scene: simply entitled VS, it is a collaboration between two quickly rising and promising acts in the genre, FacexHugger (the X is silent) and DREDDD. Although VS is intended to be treated as one complete album, the songs were released separately on their own respective Bandcamp accounts. While you could certainly combine them yourself in various ways both online and offline, one can only hope that someday there will be a physical release to truly see this vision fully realized. Perhaps a cassette tape or vinyl record, where one side is FacexHugger and the other side is DREDDD, in a battle of the A and B sides.
Despite this minor limitation, the two parts still combine to make an impressive whole that scores in a major way, providing an excellent platform for both artists to come together and showcase their amazing talents alongside one another. It makes sense considering how many similarities the two have between them: they’re both from the Los Angeles area, they tend to lean more towards the darker and heavier side of synthwave in their music, and despite only releasing their debut albums earlier this year, around the same time as well, they have both been producing new material at a constant and consistent rate ever since.
Yet no matter how small the amount of time that’s passed between those releases, these tracks feel fresh and hit hard due to their overall progression as artists. FacexHugger, for example, started in Garageband with some VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plugins during production of Chasing Replicants, his debut album. With his sophomore release, a self-titled EP, he moved on to using Ableton Live Lite but now, with VS, he’s upped his arsenal considerably by not only changing over to Logic Pro X but he has also acquired physical synthesizers in the form of a Roland JDXI and a Korg MS2000.
His side of the album starts low and slow, with “Solace Denied,” a track that doesn’t so much as grind to a halt but grinds from the start before ramping it up and setting the mood with a haunting atmosphere. “Can You Fly, Bobby?” is where things really start to take off: together with “Gimmie the Bat, Marge,” they hit you hard over the head with their fast pace, rising tempos, and hypnotic beats. “Hradvnager (Headbanger*)” is where things get really heavy though, featuring an opening guitar riff from the talented Dimi Kaye, and it’ll hopefully get you doing what the title suggests if you haven’t been doing so already by this point.
“Falling Down,” as that title suggests, slow things back down a little bit but is an intriguing composition all the same by conjuring up images of floating helplessly through space. Perhaps you were rescued after all, in “Life-Form Detected,” a track that has some similarities to “Falling Down” in its backing track but is far heavier and more sinister in design with an overarching, unrelenting drum beat. The last four tracks of “Wayfarer,” “Dimension X,” “Season of the Witch” and “REM Sleep” are what I have lovingly dubbed a melodic quadrilogy – as all of them have a dream-like quality – and they really round out the album as a whole and further showcase FacexHugger’s range in comparison to his more heavier fare; he’s an irresistible force.
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Now meet the immovable object: DREDDD. While he does operate solely within FL Studio, using a number of VST plugins at his disposal, he has none the less continued to prove with each of his subsequent releases that, while working “in the box,” he can still certainly think outside of it as well by masterfully commanding synthwave’s potential and adding an equal mix of experimental sounds and calculated precision. This is especially true on his side of VS starting with the first track entitled “Machine Gun Baby,” which is set to be featured in an upcoming independent horror film of the same name, being a literal screamer at times on top of the brooding beat.
The next couple of songs, “Run Rabbit Run” and “VS Season,” are almost akin to your traditional Outrun songs with unrelenting and adrenaline pumping highs as well as some somber lows that DREDDD excels at switching between seamlessly. “Hypocrite” offers a much heavier, and slower, affair with double bass pedal like drum beats that mercilessly pound away into your brain. “If You Loved Me” is the chaser to relieve that headache, a far more subdued track in comparison while still have a pulsating beat. It is followed up itself by “Ghost in the Machine,” which could have certainly been a cut track from the soundtrack to the movie of the same name.
“Escape to the Stars” is on the same level as FacexHugger’s “Falling Down,” perhaps the one clear comparison that I can make between the two in terms of style, and bleeds into the next track of “I Really Hate You” which offers up much of the same – although there is a rather standout synth solo in the middle of the latter which is of note. “Purity” brings us back into the heavy fold with a distorted vibration of a backing track and high pitched synth feedback peppered throughout; one of those more experimental tracks I mentioned before.
Lastly, whereas FacexHugger ended his side with the melodic quadrilogy, DREDDD ends his with what I also affectionately call the chiptune trilogy. I say this because while “Together” has but a brief foreshadowing of some, and “Lost With Time” reminds me oddly enough of Chrono Trigger, it is “Please Forget Me” which really showcases the sounds of the arcade. DREDDD achieves a high score with this one.
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When the dust finally settles, even though the collective album has a confrontational name like VS, it’s not really so much a clash of styles or approaches as much as a showcase of and celebration to what both ends of the synthwave spectrum are capable of in terms of music production. While one end strives towards a more analog approach with the use of real synthesizers, like FacexHugger, the other remains solely digital, like DREDDD. Yet, like with any instrument either physical or virtual, they’re only as good as those who use it and this album is a testament to the hard work of two producers who should be on the radar of anyone that enjoys synthwave.
At the risk of sounding cliche, when it comes down to picking a winner in this “fight” it would honestly have to be the listener. To put it another way, and to paraphrase the tagline of a film that also featured two sides of a genre going at it with humans caught in the middle: “whoever wins, we win too.” So be a listener, and a winner!