The Internet age has seen many trends come and go over the past two decades, across different platforms and art mediums. For the most part, they fade from the public consciousness in the blink of an eye – the half-life period of popular things isn’t all that high in today’s meme culture. Established in the mid-2000s, synthwave was (and still is) believed by many to be one such fad, and the sheer amount of 80s nostalgia and sonic clichés it originally delivered surely played a big role in it being written off from the start. But with loads of new, exciting artists emerging from the underground in recent days, and the big names (p. ex. Perturbator) branching out into uncharted territory, the genre is as neon-lit, vibrant and colorful as it was back when guys like College and Kavinsky were the hottest new stuff around.
One of the more overlooked French synth-wielders is Dan Terminus, who released the stellar The Wrath of Code back in 2015 via Blood Music. Combining heavy synth assaults with a cyberpunk aesthetic and a well-balanced sense of composition, the album can definitely be regarded as a high point of the synthwave genre, not only of that year but in general. And now the man is back with his fourth full-length outing, Automated Refrains. Can it hold up to the high standards of Dan Terminus‘ back catalogue – or even one-up it? That’s the question that our staff writer Pete and yours truly here will try to answer over the course of this review, so strap into your seat, and prepare for a wild ride!
Whilst I would never presume myself to be an expert in synthwave, it’s damn certain that Dan Terminus is one of the titans of the genre. The hype surrounding his latest album Automated Refrains palpable and his talent for creating blasting yet beautiful synthwave immense. I’ve spent a long time with the album and suffice to say it is yet another giant step forward for Dan Terminus and certain to be a fan favorite for years to come.
I was really impressed at the step up that Dan has made in the quality of songs in Automated Refrains and it’s clear to see that he’s observed the genre and cut himself out a special niche. With artists like Perturbator drifting off into more experimental music, Dan’s music stays true to his roots, whilst mixing in pounding samples and insane transitions. The album follows a concept and it’s really clear to hear that throughout the music, with aforementioned samples and sounds from a digital city interspersed within the power mix.
The album is start to finish frenetic after the slow introduction to “Fall Of The Ancient World”. Dan has a way of creating amazing soundscapes which allows you to put yourself on a plane of cyber existence, flying through the retro cities he builds for the listeners. The magnitude of sounds used leads the listener to think they’ve listened to 2 or 3 songs in the space of 1, but the album doesn’t feel too long, as each track is a sonic journey. The second track on the album, and also the first single off the album is a personal favorite. “Margaritifer” is relentless, moving from scatty darkwave to anthemic retrowave in an instant.
The layers Dan uses throughout the album are really enveloping and there are many to pull away and tune into, especially in tracks 3 & 4 which are 2 of the dreamier tracks on the album. The spiraling synths in “Grimoire Blanc” are entrancing and really easy to zone out to. The song breaks down into what sounds almost like Justice from the Cross era after the aforementioned keys, with jarring bass pummeling the listener. The album has a really retro feel to it, with some of the sounds used reminding me of Crash Bandicoot games on the PSX and the samples having filters applied which gave them an old school gamer touch.
“Deus Mecanicus” was another titan in amongst favorite of mine. Switching BPM continuously, the song is a trip from start to finish and well worth a listen to. My overall top track however was the epic “Refuge”. This song started off with a very classic synthwave beat, with that unmistakable Dan Terminus beat. It shapeshifts into something nastier, as the arpeggios climax in amongst stifling synths, drum and bass. As the song calms down, it morphs again into a track similar to some of Carpenter Brut’s disco work. This reprise is short lived as ambience swallows the mix, before the final climax to the song rears its head, making this one of the most progressive and interesting tracks on the album.
Throughout the album it’s hard to point to tracks which sound the same, and it’s really refreshing to hear an album from this genre which can break so many boundaries. Like Pertubator’s EP from earlier this year, Automated Refrains is engaging, wholesome and as mentioned a great step forward for not only Dan Terminus, but also for the genre as a whole. Criticisms? Some of the sounds used can come off as quite naff and cheesy, and pull you out of the journey which is taking place between your ears. Overall though, brilliant effort, and I look forward to hearing this translated live!
Personal Score: 8.5/10
My first encounter (of the synth kind *snerk*) with Dan Terminus was back in 2015, when he released his first commercially distributed full-length record The Wrath of Code (his other works up to that point were only on Bandcamp). I haven’t been paying attention to the different kinds of -wave genres at the time, but something about that particular record – most likely the amazing artwork by Luca Carey – made me lend an ear to it despite the genre it pertained to.
The mixture of heavy, sawing synth grooves, ambient elements and cyberpunk soundscapes it presented to me opened my eyes to the synthwave movement, which I have been following more or less closely ever since. With Dan Terminus being the nexus point for my relationship with this often great, but sadly just as often bland strand of electronic music, I had high hopes for his upcoming new record, Automated Refrains.
Were those hopes met? For the most part, yes. The ten-song, one-hour long album shows artistic growth and creative freedom aplenty; Terminus has obviously spent a lot of time leisurely picking apart the motifs and tropes of his own music and redistributing them in a nonchalant display of musical self-confidence and -awareness. Or in short: it’s everything likeable about his previous work, but with some parts rearranged and others turned up to eleven. Take a song like “Grimoire Blanc”, for example. The driving beats and grimy rhythm synths are a staple of many a synthwave release, but the video game-esque melody fragments that appear early on, as well as the new age-informed choir section and flute-like electronics give the formula an interesting spin. There’s even a harpsichord in the track’s latter sections!
“Friendship through Clear Plastic Walls” begins with the aforementioned flute-emulating synth sounds, but the droning atmosphere underneath them implies that things will take a turn for the darker any moment now. And after a slow build-up of over three minutes… it doesn’t happen; rather, the mood swings, and the song turns into a full-on ambient track. A masterful fake-out by Mr. Terminus, if I do say so myself! But if you were, like me, rooting for a heavier, more sinister outburst at that point, there’s still some moments to come that will satisfy your needs.
Like single release “Deus Mechanicus”, for instance. With its pounding rhythm and ominously bright and futuristic ambiance, it surely qualifies in that category. Or perhaps “Electronic Snow”, a French house-meets-industrial dance floor-banger, is more to your liking regarding heaviness? There’s a lot going on stylistically throughout this album, so whatever mood you’re looking for, Automated Refrains has got you covered.
The album ends on an especially tragic, somber note with “Dirge of the Ancient Machines”. Slow piano melodies and solemn synths weave a tapestry of sound that could pass as a funeral march in a society yet to come, which is dominated by the automatic, the synthetic, the artificial.
Automated Refrains circumvents most of the problems releases in this genre are oftentimes plagued by; neither does it smack of blatant 80s worship, nor is it a mere derivative of bigger, more influential artists. Instead, it sounds timeless and very Dan Terminus. The only major thing I can really hold against it is that it is a lot to take in with its long runtime and genre-jumping approach. It might be my shortened attention span at the moment, but I was simply not prepared for such an expansive work. Come to think of it, that might not be a point of criticism after all.
Personal Score: 7.5/10
Overall Score: 8/10
Notable Tracks: “Refuge”; “Grimoire Blanc”; “Margaritifier”; “Electronic Snow”
FFO: Justice, Carpenter Brut, Fixions