Synthwave Takes Us Back To The Future

As I wrote in my little introductory spiel on the Contact page, the look and feel of this site is drawn from #Synthwave, a musical genre that I discovered in 2019. Thanks to being locked indoors for three months and trapped on this tiny island for many more my discovery has led me down some of the deeper wells of the Internet where I have found even more Synthwave music plus art, movies and TV shows, in fact an entire subculture thriving on nostalgia for a time that most of them didn’t even experience. So, what’s going on?

Let’s start with a definition. Synthwave, according to recently released documentary Rise of The Synths (review to come!), is “an irresistible blend of modern electronic composition with 80s pop culture nostalgia, that over the last two years has transformed from a whisper on selected internet hubs, to an ever-growing scene, expanding rapidly as we speak.” It’s also completely grassroots and unaffected by corporate interests…yet.

As the genre has developed Synthwave has gone by others names such as Outrun, Coldwave, Darkwave, Retrowave, Vaporwave, even Simpsonwave. Some would argue that these all represent different subgenres within Synthwave but I’ll leave that to the purists.

The sound is based on the electronic soundtracks of 70s and 80s horror and sci-fi flicks, VHS classics such as Halloween, The Terminator and The Lost Boys. It also draws inspiration from classic video games including the aforementioned Outrun. The music can be described as retro-futuristic i.e. what we thought the future would sound like thirty years ago when we first got our hands on home computers and pocket synthesizers. Everything then, from cyborgs to hoverboards, was artificial, electronic and exciting.

There is a strong argument that cult director and composer John Carpenter is the originator of Synthwave. Although the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream were already producing the sounds it was John Carpenter who united them with the imagery that defines the genre by scoring his low budget horror films with self-composed soundtracks. In fact he is the narrator of Rise of The Synths and has released three albums of ‘Lost Themes’, which he describes as soundtracks to movies that have yet to be made - I highly recommend them.

Carpenter’s records are released by Sacred Bones Records, one of many independent labels I have discovered releasing Sythwave and other eery, ambient music including Lakeshore Records, Electric Dream Records, Spun Out Of Control, Castles In Space and A Strangely Isolated Place (buy direct from all of them on Bandcamp please). Just as Carpenter suggested, all of this music could be the soundtrack to movies or computer games that don’t exist, though in some cases they do. For instance, Lakeshore Records released the soundtrack to Stranger Things by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein a.k.a. S U R V I V E. Not only is this the archetypal Synthwave soundtrack but the show itself, including its artwork is consistent with the genre drawing influence from the novels of Stephen King (inside and out), the films of Amblin Entertainment and of course the soundtracks of John Carpenter.

All of this takes me right back to my childhood, which is a warm and fuzzy place to be right now. I was born in 1979, I grew up riding a BMX, watching Goonies, Gremlins and E.T. on VHS, playing Gameboy, Megadrive and N64. I can absolutely see the appeal for people my age but the odd thing is that so many of Synthwave’s creators are a generation younger than me, late millennials and Gen Z’ers. They were born into the paranoia of a post 9-11 world, weened on iPads and always-on Internet access, hitting their tweens during the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and coming of age in the midst of a global pandemic - is it any wonder that they look back instead of forward for a time that seemed less turbulent and more optimistic, just as we 80s kids who came of age in the 90s looked back to the 60s and 70s for inspiration?

The future in the mid-80s was a neon fantasy land but the present was full of mystery and adventure too, which TV shows like Stranger Things and movies like Super 8 capture perfectly in their music, storytelling and look. The look is almost as important as the sound of Synthwave and there are plenty of artists on Instagram showcasing their particular flavour of #retrofuturism from @iamsteelberg's hyperrealistic distressed paperback and VHS covers for modern titles...

To Signalnoise’s eye-popping neon synthscapes and icons.

My introduction to Synthwave came, as so many great new musical introductions do, from an independent record shop in Adelaide called Underground Records that I discovered on a family holiday down under. Taking a break from wife and kid for a couple of hours, the two hirsute fellas who run the place stuck a beer in my hand, a record on the turntable and guided me towards Dream Electric, the first compilation of Synthwave from Electric Dream Records, which is now amongst my favourite vinyl packages because, well, just look at it!

This series is a great entry point into the genre but if you're not ready commit to a hardcopy just yet here's some Spotify playlists to get you started:

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