There are more musical genres floating around nowadays than you can shake a drumstick at. Beyond the core musical pillars like Rock and Pop are distant subgenres like surf rock and dream pop.
But today we are looking at a brand of music that’s based both in the future and the past. Intertwined within the light-show euphoria of Electronic music is something called Synthwave. A second cousin to the aforementioned surfer dude sound? Nope. It concerns the delightfully oxymoronic “retrofuturism”.
To help us understand exactly what Synthwave is, we caught up with William John Sidney Holder, event organiser for the Synthwave appreciation festival, Retro Future Fest.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Will. I guess the first question is, what exactly is Synthwave?
Thank you very much for having me! Synthwave is a genre of electronic music influenced by 1980s cult film and retro video game soundracks as well as the synthesizer explosion of the early 80s. Beginning in the mid 2000s, the Retrofuturism aspect of the genre developed from various niche communities on the internet, reaching wider popularity in the early 2010s. Synthwave (and retrowave) is also the wider spectrum term for all of its subgenres like outrun, dark synth, futuresynth, dreamwave etc. In its music and artwork, synthwave engages in retrofuturism, emulating 1980s science fiction, action, horrormedia and cyberpunk.
What are some of the biggest Synthwave movie and gaming titles?
I would have to say a lot of the cult 80s classics inspired the movie side of modern synthwave. Titles like “Blade Runner”, “The Terminator”, “Robocop”, as well as some of the horror titles of the era. As for recent releases, we have films like “Drive”, “Kung Fury” and “Bladerunner 2049” bringing the culture more and more into the mainstream. Even films like “Thor Ragnarok” has that synthwave edge about it. As for gaming, it’s typically rooted in the 80s, with all the retro consoles with their midi sounds, so I couldn’t pick just one, but it’s definitely an integral part of the culture.
Do you think “Drive” in particular was instrumental in making Synthwave cool?
I saw “Drive” at Outland Festival – which is another synthwave concert tour in the UK – and thought it was an awesome film. Having one of the most well known synthwave artists, “Kavinsky”, do the title track, and having Ryan Gosling take the leading role, is going to bring synthwave into the modern eye.
What’s the Retro Future Festival all about?
So Retro Future Fest is an idea Christopher Stratton – director of “Retro Grade Future”, which is a buddy cop time travel film currently in production – and myself came up with to premiere their concept trailer for the movie. Originally it was meant to be a small one off event but the reception was amazing so we all pushed the boat out and are making it happen for a second year. Retro Future Fest is a celebration of all things Retro! The music, the 80s lifestyle, movies, gaming, lights, neon, lasers. This year we have artists flying in from Finland, France Sweden and Italy to play, as well as some UK acts too. There’s console retro gaming, fantastic merch and giveaways, a live glitch show, movie and music cosplayers and more! A party not to be missed.
Do you think Synthwave is here to stay?
I reckon so, as long as producers keep producing and we keep putting on events then definitely. Synthwave is global for sure, but still niche and we hope to change that.
You can buy tickets for the Retro Future Fest event here!
For those looking to delve into the catalogue of Synthwave, we’ve put together a list to the Top 10 Synthwave Artists. Enjoy!
#10: Power Glove
An Australian duo that somehow manage to blend a concoction of old sounds to create something totally new, Power Glove’s main claim to fame is creating the score to the cheesy action-packed 80s-inspired video game “Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon”. A title riddled with clichés of the era, Power Glove’s immersive synth soundtrack has the proverbial ‘puts you in the zone’ effect. Power Glove also gained popularity with their song “Hunters” which featured in the 2011 flick “Hobo with a Shotgun”.
#9: Cliff Martinez
For certain films, it’s the soundtrack that masks reality and lets us peer through to a different world. That’s certainly the case for “Drive”, “The Neon Demon” and “Only God Forgives”. And we’ve got composer Cliff Martinez to thank for that. Known for his relationship with Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed all three of the aforementioned films, Martinez’s tracks ooze retro-noir connotations, and yet feel right at home in modern settings.
#8: Miami Nights 1984
A name that in itself conjures up thoughts of brash neon adhorning city streets, Miami Nights 1984 are known for their progressive, repetitive beats that will have you rooting out your leather jacket and Ray-Bans – and wanting to road trip with the top down. That sounds cliché, doesn’t it? Well, that’s exactly what 1984’s sound is about. It strikes plenty of familiar chords synonymous with 80’s movies, but it does it incredibly well. Just listen to “Accelerated” and tell me you don’t wish you were back in the ‘80s!
#7: S U R V I V E
We all know that “Stranger Things” prides itself on being an ‘80’s cliché fanfare – it doesn’t shy away from it – and neither does its soundtrack. S U R V I V E is responsible for the entire soundtrack on the show, including its ultimate stick-in-your-head tune that accompanies the opening credits. A constant, melodic beat that warps before your ears, as if through different time zones and realities (just like the show, wink wink) it gets you in the mood for ‘80s cheese from the off.
Let’s forget about the dreamy sounds of Synthwave for a second and look at something a little edgier. College injects a heady amount of pop into its tunes, giving them more of a John Hughes “Breakfast Club” type of sound, but still maintaining the energetic pulse of Synthwave. College also add quite a few vocals to their tracks – somewhat of a rarity for the genre – further adding to their unique flavour.
Timecop1983 really do give you a bit of everything, with a sound that manages to mostly dodge the sometimes moody side of Synthwave, offering uplifting beats and foot-tapping melodies. And almost every one of their tracks offers a narrative of music. You can start by relaxing on a sun lounger, contemplating your future; halfway through you’ll be air guitaring, and by the end you’ll be miming the lyrical hook as the tune fades to the next track. Oh yeah.
From inspirational to nail-biting next, as Lazerhawk’s music is a guns-blazing ‘80’s action sequence personified. Picture this – you’re in an office building elevator, the door pings open and you step out to meet 50 guys bouncing barrel-mounted laser pointers at you. Cue the Lazerhawk. With layers upon layers of synth tracks all playing at once, Lazerhawk’s music is chaotic, adrenaline-inducing and fun as hell. One of their tracks has a sports car’s engine revving throughout, seamlessly gelling with the heavy drum beat. How cool is that!
#3: Mitch Murder
Similarly to Timecop1983, Mitch Murder taps into many different streams of Synthwave consciousness, from slow and steady, to solo-heavy. For connoisseurs of electronic music who prefer a progressive, well-rounded sound over an erratic one, Mitch Murder is just the ticket. Just listen to the track “Breeze” to see what we mean – it grows from calm and collected into an explosive keyboard solo.
#2: Com Truise
Yes, like the actor. His music will take you on an unpredictable journey, with enough twists and turns akin to an ‘80’s platformer video game. One minute meaty drum beats are pounding your ear drums and the next everything goes quiet, only to be awoken by a killer solo. It’s the elements of infused funk music that truly set Truise apart, and makes each and every one of his tunes stick in your head!
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few Honourable Mentions:
Given the popularity of the film “Drive”, cruising along with your arm out of the window and the radio blasting is a bit of an overused cliché for electronic music. But there’s no other Synthwave artist that evokes that exact action more than Kavinsky. No matter what your music taste is, everyone will find a hook to grab them in Kavinsky’s back catalogue. In fact, once most hear his track “Nightcall” in the opening credits to “Drive”, that’s enough to hook newly-initiated Synthwave fans for good