The modern synthwave resurgence has a fork in its neon emblazoned road, creating two diverse paths. The first is straight-up 80s worship with mostly bright and sunny beats, able to soundtrack any blockbuster film from that era as was the norm. The second is something much darker and heavier, usually more experimental as well. Often referred to as ‘darksynth’, this second path is especially popular with fans of metal and heavy music, given that the aesthetic of this music tends to be filled with Satanic and macabre overtones, references, and samples. Musically, the synths tend to be diverse and seek to weigh the listener down. Uncommon instruments like organs and theremins become commonplace all in service to a creepy, eerie mood. Instead of simply telling you what it sounds like, how about I show you? Step into the crypt with me…
For my money – and with all due respect to Perturbator and his contemporaries – GosT has been at the forefront of darksynth since his 2015 release, Behemoth. Non Paradisi, his last album, is without a doubt his best work yet. It’s a concept album about the fall and rise of Lucifer, based on Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. The aesthetic is unapologetically occult, cover art and merch adorn with inverted crosses, burning churches, skulls, shrouded figures and demons. Baalberith, the sole member of GosT, refers to live shows as ‘possessions’. If any of that sounds a little too edgy for you, fair enough, but one listen should verify what fans already know: he’s cultivated an image that lends itself to the music and it’s no wonder open-minded metal fans are flocking to it like an unholy congregation. It’s catchy, mesmerizing and heavy as hell.
(Video content warning for pixelated nudity and gory, grotesque angels)
Harris’ first album, Urban Gothic, is conceptually based on the Brian Keene horror novel of the same name, but it plays like the soundtrack to a slasher horror flick that doesn’t yet exist. The album is even neatly bookended by songs titled “Opening Credits” and “Closing Credits” respectively. Other song titles are a lot more… blunt: “Hatchet in the Teeth”, “Tanned Skin Dress”, and “Fucking Eat Your Face” just to name a few. This music is more cinematic creating more ambiance than a groove for dancing, but it’s done so right. Uncertainty, anxiety, fear and panic all lace the sounds of Harris’ music on this album.
DANCE WITH THE DEAD
Dance With The Dead‘s name alone fits within the genre. What you see is what you get, and you’re getting lush, danceable beats with a subtle horror vibe and wonderfully cheesy 80s-influenced guitar. Their cover art appears to be taken right off of early horror and monster movie posters with ominous figures in woods, tentacled underwater beasts, and questionably sinister women. They’re from Orange County, California, so it’s only natural a little bit of Hollywood seeped into their vibe. The duo released a collection of B-sides at beginning of this year which has some of their most impressive work yet. The first track is a metal meltdown showing that they can venture out of their established comfort zone to great results.
Speaking of Hollywood, I can’t go any further without mentioning the latest signee to the Blood Music label. When compared to the others artists on this list so far, Hollywood Burns is a newer project, but he brings fresh ideas and excitement to the genre. The best of his music sounds like it’s ripped straight from early sci-fi films, using instruments like a theremin to create that creepy alien sound that’s so elemental of that era. Add some funky slap bass into the mix and you have music with more catchiness to it than a UFO tractor beam. Only one EP bears the artist’s name, but an upcoming album looms near; this is someone you have to keep an eye on.
Another youngblood to the scene, Timestalker has one shambling foot planted in each of the types of synthwave I detailed earlier. Their first EP, Arrival of the Stalkers, is more attuned with futuristic cyberpunk side of synthwave. The second EP, Pandemonium, is full-on ominous occult with an orchestral edge. The opening track “The Beyond” is a grandiose showing of horns, poking synths, and sharp hi-hats. No matter which EP you listen to, you can expect a frenetic and fun time. If you liked the aforementioned GosT, you should also like Timestalker‘s heavy, albeit more controlled, offerings.
S U R V I V E
A quartet made up of Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein, Mark Donica, and Adam Jones, S U R V I V E is more concerned with creating atmosphere and ambiance than outright unease. Songs are expansive and spacey at times, and a little more layered and nuanced than their contemporaries. The background of their soundscapes are capable of being just as interesting as anything happening in the foreground. The subtleties really sell the music, but it’s still very much horror-influenced. It’s no wonder the showrunners of Netflix’s sci-fi-horror hit Stranger Things sought out Dixon and Stein to write the theme song and other original music for the show.
Of course, I couldn’t pass up a chance to talk about the artist who arguably started it all. Without Perturbator, there’s a great chance I wouldn’t be here writing this article telling you about all of these stellar artists. If you don’t attribute the beginning of what we now call darksynth to him, he most definitely refined the sound and paved the way for new artists to come out and blaze their own trail. His music has always been heavy, fast, dirty, and uncompromising, but it reached a new unseen apex with his most recent EP, New Model. On this project, the songs are relentlessly dark and oppressive, blazing yet another new trail for himself with no regard for fan – or genre – expectations. The wild part is that it worked. It worked so well.
Darksynth may be indebted to Perturbator, but much of modern synth music as a whole is indebted to one man: The Master of Horror himself, John Carpenter. Carpenter made a name for himself starting in the 70s not only scoring, but directing hit horror films such as Halloween, They Live, and The Thing (my personal favorite). With so many excellent scores and movies under his belt, it’s no wonder how he can build suspense, tension and otherwise evoke emotion with his music so effortlessly. Nowadays, Carpenter has left Hollywood behind, but brought all that he’s learned from it with him producing standalone albums of original tracks he calls ‘lost themes’. Fitting name, as these songs are of the same caliber as his most famous film scores. One of the best modern composers to enter the studio, his work is truly timeless.
All right, that’s all I got, so I’ll let you out of the crypt this time. I hope you enjoyed delving into this darker side of synthwave with me. Be sure to let us know who your favorite artists of this genre is. Keep it locked to It Djents for more spooky Halloween content and stay safe out there! You never know what’s lurking around the corner…