What is Downtempo Music? – History, Characteristics, and Artists

Downtempo is a genre of electronic music. It is similar to ambient music, however, downtempo has a greater emphasis on beats. It is also similar to trip hop, a fusion of hip hop and electronica which emerged in Bristol in the late 1980s. Downtempo also surfaced around this time in the UK, but its rise in popularity began in the 1990s.

In 2010, the Atlantic described downtempo as “a variety of music styles from the 2000s characterized by mellow beats, vintage synthesizers, and lo-fi melodies.” The genre generally includes chillwave, glo-fi, and hypnagogic pop.

Downtempo music is slow, made up of tranquil beats and melodies peppered with synth that flows in and out, presenting an overall retro, dreamy, far away vibe. There are usually few to no lyrics used in downtempo. The genre takes inspiration from many other styles of music, like 80’s pop.

Some artists have also taken a feather from Jamaican dub and reggae and incorporated that into the genre, such as the duo known as Thievery Corporation. Their album “Treasures from the Temple” illustrates their reggae-influenced style of downtempo perfectly. You can listen to the album below.

In addition to Thievery Corporation, some other downtempo artists include Flume, Little Dragon and Tycho.

Washed Out is another prime example of the genre. You can listen to “Feel It All Around” below.

There is a simplicity to downtempo that makes it easy to listen to, and a rhythm to it that makes it enjoyable.  

Tycho album cover

History of Downtempo

Downtempo was often played in Ibiza throughout the 1990s. Ibiza is an island in the Mediterranean Sea known for its nightlife and summer club scene, as well as the electronic music that originated on the island.

Many DJs use Ibiza to try out new songs in the electronic music genre. Often in Ibiza, DJs would play downtempo music to bring down the vibe as the party neared sunrise. After a night of upbeat electronic music, a bit of chill, ambient downtempo would relax the vibe and bring everything to a nice close.  

Throughout the 1990s, downtempo was played in the chillout and relaxation areas of clubs and electronic music events. Later in the 1990s, it grew in popularity thanks to the Austrian duo Kruder and Dorfmeister who remixed many pop and hip hop songs in the downtempo genre. You can listen to their song “Shakatakadoodub” from their 2008 album of the same name below. 

Conclusion

If you’re looking for some chill, ambient music, embroidered with a bit of 80s charm and stitched together with simple beats and melodies, this genre is for you.

Vinyl Helps Retro Games Fire Up Interest in Chiptunes

We’ve already written about new games help to renew interest in chiptunes, with epic soundtracks accompanying challenging new titles that don’t need a developer team of thousands and a full orchestra to create the soundtrack.

New games help bring back the magic of the classic era. But sales are usually quite small bar a few mega-successful titles. To help boost sales along, developers are also looking at small production run physical copies with extras (maps, plushies, statues and other goodies) plus  vinyl limited edition releases to maximise their revenue.

This helps both the music artists and the developers raise their profile as collectability is high. It can also help attract a big name musician to a project as they likely get a larger cut of the profits. Take for example, the recently announced 198x, an almost Funded Kickstarter project that mixes up some classic arcade game types.

Check out the trailer for 198x and it’s haunting first soundtrack, but expect a great deal of chiptunery for the in-game audio.

The Hi-Bit team has managed to attract legendary video game composer Yuzo Koshiro returns to his chip-based roots with brand new, retro-inspired music for ”198X”. Responsible for the likes of Streets of Rage, Actraiser, and Revenge of Shinobi he is known as a King of FM synthesis chiptunes.

Revenge of the Chiptunes

Revenge of Shinobi and games of that era helped set the highest standards for gaming audio, with deep, haunting or tension-building tunes that linger in the minds of gamers today, helping build the nostalgia, while younger gamers get to discover these amazing audio soundscapes for themselves in new ways. 

As more games provide vinyl as the ultimate listening platform for retro gamers, expect the old 12-inch album to continue its recovery among music fans, reaching the warm notes that CD and MP3 can’t quite reach.

Sega were notably ahead of their time when it came to audio production on their cutting edge System 16 hardware that powered the likes of Space Harrier. It came with two audio variants, a YM2151 running at 4 MHz with SegaPCM sound 15.625 kHz and the higher specification YM2203 that could drive SegaPCM at 31.250 kHz for improved quality.

Yuzo Koshiro and Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Space Harrier, Out Run, Enduro Racer and Sonic the Hedgehog) were among Sega’s audio stars. As part of the company, rather than most western composers who went from freelance job to job, they had a stellar legacy of games to their names.

Both are still active, with Kawaguchi recently working as producer on the soundtrack to the Yakuza series for Sega. Koshiro founded Ancient Corp with other musicans to work on games, TV and movie music, working on Shenmue (making a comeback) and now 198x.

Listening to Greatness the Way It Wasn’t Meant To Be Heard

Alongside all the new retro music, classic games are also getting a fresh listen with vinyl releases of legendary gaming soundtracks. For information on your favorite game, check out the video game vinyl reddit for the latest news on the likes of Quake, Space Harrier, After Burner along with modern games like Retro City Rampage, that should all have a place on a collector’s shelves.

Isn’t it odd that digital music is now going vinyl to find a new audience? The fight back against as-a-service and not owning the things we buy is gaining momentum. Physical releases of even formerly-only-digital content including games and music help the creators earn money for their work and help bring the whole system full circle.

Whatever the music, from minimalist chiptunes to multi-layer synthesizer pieces. The growing interest in gaming culture and the music integral to the game can be enjoyed in isolation, in more ways than ever. If you want to jump on some retro vinyl, check out stores like Iam8bit for gaming music from all eras. Start picking up Limited Editions as an investment as well as the best way to enjoy gaming history.

What is Dark Ambient Music? History, Characteristics, Artists, and More

Dark ambient music is a sub-genre of ambient music that features dark, sometimes grinding / sometimes soothing, foreboding post-industrial soundscape dirges that speak to themes of isolation, embattlement, guilt, pain, torment, fear, suffering, hatred, shame, betrayal, disassociation, resentment, paranoia, anger, neglect, and…you name it, if it’s on the negative end of the spectrum, it’s probably in there! 

The music also is informed at times by the same occult imagery and themes that occupies darker types of metal, such as the teachings of people like Aleister Crowley (Satanism), as well as various forms of mysticism, religion, and magick.

(cue music)

…but also more positive things like beauty, reflection, exaltation, and dare I say some sort of escape and / or release do at times find their way into dark ambient music – in essence, it is a reflection the human condition itself, in all its terrible majesty. (cue picture that sums up human condition)

That said, calling the genre ostensibly negative and obsessed with evil themes is not a fair or balanced assessment of this music, I do not think.  The reason being is that emotions, even if they are strong or negative, if pushed through, somehow turn into a hard-earned positive, which is, I believe, part of the philosophy of dark ambient music.  Mind you, this is my theory only.  It may in fact be the true essence of darkness with no light at all.  I choose to be cautiously optimistic, however.

The term “dark ambient” was said to be coined by Roger Karmanik (aka Brighter Death Now), Swedish record producer for label Cold Meat Industry, sometime in the 90’s. 

To say that dark ambient is a post-industrial genre, is to suggest that once industrial music was established with bands like Ministry, KMFDM, Coil, Frontline Assembly, Einstürzende Neubauten, Skinny Puppy, in the later 1980’s and early 1990’s, dark ambient was born out of this genre as part reaction, part extension to the genre.  They are definitely of the same ilk, I believe, although I would venture to say they are the flipside of each. 

Industrial music is certainly not ambient because it is too full of sounds and conventional instruments.  Take away the guitars, drums, basses, and synth lines, and add in sounds not native to rock but perhaps more relevant to forms of worship, and this atmosphere of post-industrial is basically the essence of dark ambient, with other elements making their way in.  

Here’s Too Dark Park by Skinny Puppy, which is not at all dark ambient, but definitely a relative, and something I am compelled to place here for reference due to its tangential influence and inherent greatness.

If you were to picture a visual representation, dark ambient music might evoke a yawning void into which one might hurl oneself, and, once inside it, you start to make out shapes in the fog as you are falling into the abyss.   

Often times, dark ambient music seems to create a feeling of dread that just won’t leave you.  But it is not simply creating fear, it is also about facing fear, and almost learning to…admire it?  I’m not sure, but in listening to the music, there is a certain appreciation for the sonic textures found within.  

Despite reaching for the outer limits as it does, and the music being fairly niche, meaning the fanbase isn’t the same as say electropop music, however, the fanbase for this type of music is only growing.

History of Dark Ambient Music

Dark ambient dates back to 1960’s and 70’s, with its gnarled roots planted firmly in a few different musical genres, including ambient music, as well as krautrock, prog rock, free jazz, industrial music (as mentioned), synth pop, and even such concepts as ASMR.  I will qualify these influences shortly.  As in now.

To begin, we must include a band like Popul Vuh, and their album Affenstunde from 1970.  Popul Vuh is a pioneering synth-based band who used both moog synths and ethnic percussion in their music, hence helping to launch an entirely new and uncharted era that would become the sprawlingly diverse ambient genre as a whole.

At a relatively later time, musician Brian Eno (formerly the keyboard player for Roxy Music) started making purely ambient music, starting with Another Green World (1975) and culminating with his famed Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978). 

Music for Airports I think is largely credited with being the first full-length album of pure ambient sound which seems to leave behind the trappings of progressive rock and actually embodies the spirit of true ambient music, although it is hardly dark in theme. 

Despite not being particularly dark in mood, this album certainly informed what dark ambient would become, with its sprawling soundscapes that never really leads to any climax, but is itself just one long climax (or anti-climax). (cue Ambient 1: Music for Airports)

Many artists in the 1970’s were experimenting with synthesizers, as they were becoming more affordable in price to the average consumer.  Still, it was a select few who knew what synths were worth getting, and could use them effectively to create highly emotional music.

Tangerine Dream, for instance, had mastered the art of the full length synth-based instrumental album long before Eno dabbled in it, being closer to the time of Popul Vuh, and their masterpiece Zeit from 1972 is evidence of this mastery of which I speak. (cue Zeit)

Zeit and much of Tangerine Dream’s work in general is a better stylistic fit for what would later become dark ambient music, but the debate as to who actually spurred the movement will be debated forever, no doubt.  Still, it is interesting to examine who did what and what impact it had.  Another band you might want to check out would be the band Can.

At the same time as synths were becoming a major force in the musical landscape for the first time, progressive rock was beginning to explore much darker themes than had ever been presented previously. 

Bands like King Crimson were experimenting with sounds that were not previously part of popular music’s lexicon, and, not only that, but the arrangements were different – longer, more unsettling, and traversing into territory that confused some but thrilled others. (cue Larks’ Tongue in Aspic Part I)

That said, it was bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and others that were in the process of creating vast soundscapes of raw emotion that were, I think, meaning to express another dimension to human emotion that the typical rock bands of the time were not only not capable of, but other people who may not have had any emotional investment in music up until that time started to take notice.  The outcasts, the geeks, the weirdos, the shunned, etc.  But also, the intelligent, the particular, the discerning, the free-thinking.  

Some of these people would become musicians themselves and create what would become dark ambient,  while others would become lifelong fans.  The only pre-requisite was that you had to be ready to accept new forms of songs, and new emotions set to music.  

With all of these things going on, it wasn’t until until the late 70’s and bands like Throbbing Gristle came along and changed the trajectory of music forever, with their album D.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle. (cueD.o.A.: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle)

The Beginning of Dark Ambient

This was the true beginning of a different direction for music – the direction that dark ambient music would eventually come to inhabit and elaborate upon.  With found sounds, un-nameable discordant noises, strange babbling voices, drones, sirens, a genuinely unsettling effect is created that was perhaps more untamed and less pretentious than anything previous.  This album is something you might hear played in an insane asylum, or if someone from an insane asylum was given a recording studio, they might make this.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this album has been used as a backdrop to any kind of mental health documentary.  That said, it is a perennial favourite of mine. 

Around this time, the world was paranoid about many things, including all out nuclear war, and it was finding its way into society via games and movies, with many movies of the day being genuinely terrifying, ie. The Exorcist, The Omen, and then followed by the slasher films.  The world was getting more filled with terror by the second, and much of the music was reflecting that as well.  New and exciting nihilist bands were forming all the time, beneath the surface, just as synth pop and MTV were becoming more mainstream.

Whether The Third And Final Report was the first or the most important album to help define this new sound, it doesn’t matter.  It was certainly a signpost on the road, and an album helped to create a new format for albums which opened the floodgates for both a new type of musician and a new type of fan.  In some ways, this composition by Throbbing Gristle is more sound collage than it is any kind of music, and yet it was presented as music, as accepted as such.  It got the gears turning.  

As mentioned in another article, the tendency for artists to use synthesizers to create popular music splintered off into what would become electropop and synth pop, while some artists went in a darker direction, creating genres that were darker and less mainstream, but still upbeat, such as synthwave

Still others went down an even bleaker path towards what would become industrial music and eventually dark ambient music. (cue Prime Mover by Coph Nia)

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby

And so, somewhere between the mid-80’s and today, dark ambient music was born and began to grow and evolve.  In my recollection, ambient music didn’t register (with me at least) until artists like Aphex Twin became famous for his Selected Ambient Works albums.  From there, I became interested in where the genre came from, and the directions that it had been going. 

That was simply my entry point into the ambient genre as a whole, with dark ambient being one highway to drive down after taking many detours through all of the genres I’ve previously mentioned – industrial, ambient, progressive rock –  to arrive at a genre with its own distinct characteristics which does exhibit certain trademarks, but seems as well to have no visible / audible limits.

With dark ambient artists like Oöphoi, Coil, Aghiatrias, CTI, Deutsch Nepal, Hafler Trio, Rapoon, Klaus Wiese, Lustmord, Coph Nia, Nocturnal Emissions, PGR, Thomas Köner, Zoviet France, Lab Report, Akira Yamaoka, Robin Rimbaud, Endura, Controlled Bleeding, Vidna Obmana, Daniel Menche, Lull, Hwyl Nofio, and so many others creating and having had created so many epic and deeply affecting and emotional albums, dark ambient is a rich and vibrant community of artists that exist mostly on an underground level, and yet making some of the most epic music possible.  

To hear some more recent dark ambient music, check out our playlist below…

What Is Electropop Music? Characteristics, History, Popular Artists, and More

Electropop, as a musical genre, has existed since electronic synthesizer-based music fused with pop music to create a new genre that is now widely known as electropop. 

In other words, if your music has synthetic elements, and yet aims to be popular, it could be considered “electropop”. 

But this is too simple an explanation – let’s dig a little deeper and explore the history, some of the characteristics, and popular artists working in the genre right now.


History of Electropop Music

The genre found its footing in the 1980’s with all sorts of electronics-based pop bands who were finding mainstream success, such as New Order, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Pet Shop Boys, A Flock Of Seagulls, Aha, Soft Cell, Simple Minds, Erasure, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Depeche Mode, and countless others.  Back then, it was known as synth pop. 

Remember this classic synth pop song from The Breakfast Club Soundtrack – Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me)?

There was no “electro pop” label around this time in the early to mid-80’s, but there was electro-punk music.  However, “electro-punk” I believe referred to groups like Suicide, maybe Devo, and even early Human League. 

The whole “electro” label just wasn’t used widely yet during the 80’s, they apparently liked the word “synth” better. 

My guess is that “electro” still reminded people of electric instruments, which were already widely in use, so they needed to differentiate.  Who’s “they”?  The writers who wrote for music periodicals, of course.  Rolling Stone, NME, etc. 


Influencers of Electropop

The bands that influenced all of these new synth-based pop music were far more progressive in nature than what amounts to electropop today – back then, it was synth pioneers like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, even Pink Floyd and Bowie – these were some of the very earliest synth-based songwriters who experimented with the technology and became widely known as masters of that technology before anyone else.

Here’s Jean-Michel Jarre, with Oxygene, Pt. 4 – a song that came out well before even synth pop emerged in the 1980’s.

Synth-based pop music artists, who started their careers in the 1970’s, and who were really hitting it big by the mid-80’s, showed us that electronic pop music could become just as widely accepted as many of the larger rock bands of the day. 

The rise of synth pop was surely to the dismay of some rock bands and out of touch record company execs at the time, who didn’t want to have to deal with a whole new batch of weirdos wielding instruments that didn’t look very exciting (futuristic pianos), and people that moved in a more “unnatural” way.

A good example of this new type of “weird” music could be summed up with a band like Devo, who looked more like geeks and dweebs than any type of typical rock star. 

However, if you were around in the ’80’s, you knew that movies by the likes of director John Hughes and others were presenting social outcasts in a new light. 

It was “revenge of the nerds” out there, folks, and all sorts of people who were formerly cast aside were starting to become more generally accepted in society.  Life imitates art, they say. 

This clip from the Revenge of the Nerds movie shows the influence of electronic pop bands at the time on popular movies, which were seen in theatres and on video cassette by millions throughout North America.

With synth pop on the rise, and its more fringe elements starting to align with the concerns of Western society, the music loving public was now willing to accept synth-based music as a legitimate form of music, just as they had accepted rhythm and blues before that into the cultural lexicon.


Synth Pop’s Mass Appeal 

In terms of why synths caught on in the first place, I think that once the prices dropped for certain synths, which were, prior to the early 80’s, too expensive for most musicians to afford – well, these now slightly affordable synths eventually were within reach of more “normal” people, and more and more musicians started using them for songwriting purposes. 

That’s when synth pop / electro-pop bands started to surface, as people got a hold of the synths needed to make the music. 

Here’s a popular synth pop track from the time, which many of you might remember – Take On Me by A-ha.

I’ll throw in a personal anecdote at this time to corroborate some of this information I’ve been saying.  In 1984, when I was 7 and in Grade 3 here in Canada, I remember we had an assembly in the gym where a number of synth pop bands came to our school and played synthesizer music for us. 

I believe they came from the high schools, and it was just an event to show us smaller kids what was happening in the world outside.  All these teenagers had weird hair (ie. mohawks, hair dye, giant rat tails and mullets), and played various types of keyboards that looked like pianos but didn’t SOUND like pianos at all.  I remember being slightly confused, but very impressed. 

The point is, by the mid-80’s, kids were getting synths for Christmas and were putting their piano lessons to use by forming synth pop bands, some of whom had just watched movies like The Breakfast Club.

As the 80’s progressed, synth pop bands around the country started hauling these large synths out on stage for live performances, and that’s when critics took note that bands started looking and acting different, being quite suspicious of these bands at first. 

After all, most concert goers and editorial writers only knew rock ‘n’ roll for the longest time, and had yet to catch up with the paradigm shift that a large part of society had already experienced. 

These stuffed shirts and yuppie types who were accustomed to things being a certain way all the time, certainly weren’t ready for people like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper – these total freaks that were also female, to boot!  Scary!

For some people, having their daughter take after Madonna was their worst nightmare.  Still applies today!

As mentioned, “electropop” as a descriptive term for a style of music still hadn’t been born yet, and the terms around this time were synth pop, new wave, and electro punk.  Even Madonna, who was one of the biggest musical stars ever by the end of the ’80’s, was still referred to as a pop artist, if anything. 

Also around this time (mid-80’s), hip hop was beginning to develop out of New York, with artists like Afrika Bambaata, and it too was based mostly on electronic elements with some help from Mr. James Brown.

Still, no genre of music was really being referred to as electropop at the time, as it was still filtering its way into the deepest levels of society. 

By the 1990’s, “pop” was a common way to describe a lot of music that was in the charts.  If it wasn’t rock, it was pop, unless it was jazz, or blues, or something else. 

In fact, if memory serves, all of the electronic music that was being written in the ’90’s and was considered groundbreaking such as Underworld, Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Orbital, etc. 

Their music was called just that – broadly labelled as electronic music, and was still considered a fringe element along with the venues in which electronic music was played – raves, festivals, dark clubs, and such.  Even though these types of events were becoming far less fringe and more appealing to the masses.

In retrospect, this, of course, was the rise of DJ culture, and as such, most rock people and even people who were accepting of synth pop in the ’80’s wasn’t exactly prepared to accept rave culture into their homes.  That is, until they had to because it was just too damn popular to ignore any longer.


Electropop

If you ask me, electropop didn’t become a specially used term until the 2000’s, when all of the electronic music and all of the pop music finally merged to create a single definable style with certain characteristics.

Artists like Lady Gaga, Calvin Harris, Ke$ha, Hardwell, and The Chainsmokers have been dominating the charts now for years and their music could easily fall under the umbrella term of electropop, even though their music would also naturally fall into other sub-genres as well.

Let’s have a look at and a listen to perhaps the queen of electropop – Lady Gaga, from back in 2008 when she performed on Ellen.

To define electropop, it doesn’t have to be complicated, and yet it sort of is.  It is a style of music that is often heavy on synths, but avoids certain cliches that a genre like synthwave might embrace.  For instance, electropop is modern, without being retro-futuristic if that makes any sense. 

To explain, a similar genre like synthwave music harkens back to the days of synth pop and retro electronic sounds from the 60’s / 70’s / 80’s, typically of the progressive variety.  Electropop, on the other hand, is music made for this moment, is influenced by all sorts of world music styles but especially hip hop, and doesn’t rely on any sort of dystopian futurism for it’s stylistic cues. 

Which means, electropop isn’t usually very dirty production-wise or overly dark or sinister theme-wise.  Rather, the themes of electropop tend to be more eternal – love lost and found, and more relatable themes of that sort.

Check out this classic Calvin Harris track from 2009 called I’m Not Alone.  It has some guitar, yes, but it also builds around some epic synths, making the whole production sound huge.

Electropop now is like synth pop was, or pop music in general always has been – meant to be timeless.  Instead of using a lot of standard rock instrumentation (which it reserves the right to if it wants), electropop music itself can be built up with synths so long as the synths aren’t too retro-sounding. 

They can be retro, but not past say, the late 90’s, or it gets into that territory of 80’s synth pop which is does try to consciously avoid, I think. 

I would say that the synths used in electropop music sometimes has to play down their synth leads, due to the inclusion of vocals, whereas more experimental styles of electronic music don’t have the pop vocal performance to worry about as much (my highly generalized take on things, I know).

While electropop has been described as robotic and artificial by some (in terms of production, if nothing else), electropop music still manages to dominate most pop radio stations today, as electropop artists tend to write songs specifically to be catchy and have mainstream appeal. 

Other similar genres to electropop will opt for a more underground appeal, which serves to legitimize them more with certain fanbases, whereas electropop always goes for the largest audience possible, because it is “pop”, after all. 

Cue “Fireflies” by Owl City.

That said, the genre can still be experimental music in nature if it so chooses, as it is perpetually trying to be cutting edge and modern, attracting the slickest producers in the game, as well as some of the most talented artists in music right now. 

And, at the same time as it tries to be cutting edge, many detractors of electropop will claim that the genre is to music as the Twinkie is to nutrition – as in, devoid of any real value due to it’s assembly line production style.  In the end, all views are subjective, and tastes obviously differ from person to person.  

Like it or not, electropop is a dominant force in music today because it is one of the remaining musical genres where the success level can still be huge, as evidenced by artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Owl City, Passion Pit, and others. 

And, with the accessibility of recording software and hardware, it is easier than ever for an artist to write an electropop song by themselves with no help from anyone, and make it sound like it was written by a million-dollar producer.  So, what are you waiting for?  Go do it.  If the Owl City guy can do it, why can’t you?

What Is Synthwave Music? History, Characteristics, Artists, and More!

Music these days has splintered off into a thousand and one sub-genres.  Who can keep track?  Me, I guess.  With the genre known as synthwave, there is the added complication of there being two different incarnations, with one appearing in the late 1970’s and lasting for another decade or so, and the other being much more recent, starting in the 2000’s and continuing to this day.

If you are new to synthwave, we will try to describe the difference between the two genres, and clarify what exactly synthwave is now. But first, we’ll dip into the history of the genre.

History of Synthwave

What synthwave is and what it was are basically two different things.  The original genre of synthwave was also called synth-pop or sometimes electropunk.  It was never really called synthwave actually, or even “synth wave”, specifically.  If I recall correctly, it was referred to as synth pop, but some writers may have called it synth wave at some point.  For our intents here, we will distinguish between the first wave being called synth wave (note the space), and then the second and most recent incarnation being synthwave.  Get it?

Before we go further, here’s a taste of some old school synth wave from one of my favourite 80’s movies, the 1981 John Carpenter classic, Escape from New York with Kurt Russell starring as Snake Plissken as…ah, look it up if you feel like it.

Escape from New York doesn’t exactly “embody” the genre of synth wave aka synth pop, but no one song or soundtrack does. 

The essential premise of the original wave of synth-based music, under the umbrella term of synth pop (but was not really synth pop at all), is that it involved any music that contained a lot of synths, was used for a sci fi or action movie soundtrack, and combined it with a type of futurism, with the result being a type of music that best used for scoring films and video games. 

Synth pop was part of this “wave” of synth-based music, but synthwave, or what would become synthwave nowadays, was sort of an undefined type of synth music that was becoming popular due to the proliferation of the technology, plus the types of movies and games that were permeating pop culture at the time.  Speaking of pop culture, I remember in 1987 when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was in theatres, and this song, called “Oh Yeah” by Yello, came on the screen at the end.  By this point, you knew (or can see in retrospect, at least) that pop music and offbeat experimental electronic music had finally melded into one.  

Influencers

Who influenced the first coming of synth wave?  Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, and Vangelis are some of the essential first wave synth proponents from the ’70’s, not to mention all of the retro gaming music composers like Rob Hubbard, Matt Gray, and countless other old school retro video gaming music gods.  

These guys had their roots in classical, jazz, and prog rock, so they weren’t exactly mainstream hitmakers.  In fact, they weren’t part of the mainstream at all, although their sound was so powerful that it attracted new fans left and right.  

There were still most often vocals in these original synth wave songs that became hits in the 80’s, like any other pop song of the day, but often songs had no vocals to highlight the soundtrack nature of some of the songs, as shown in the above examples for instance.  It was always a dichotomy, with some songs going straight for the pop jugular, and others being steeped in obscure references and progressive music from the past.  

Here’s a synth pop song with vocals that was aiming for mass appeal, from classic synth pop band Depeche Mode.

In many cases both the bands who performed synth wave, in the manner that people still play it today, represented “the future” in one way or another, either performing as robots, cyborgs, (ie. Kraftwerk) or some type of futurist (often dystopian). 

Of course, if they were more on the new romantic side of things, they might just be sharp dressed individuals with some type of distinctive “look”.  Hair was always something to check out on these artists.  Think Duran Duran circa 1984.  They still had guitars, but synth was a big part of their sound and they went on to be one of the biggest bands the world has ever known.

Here is a band that informed the original synth pop bands a great deal – the legendary Kraftwerk.  This was back before they really modelled their look after dystopian futurism, in 1975.  They went on to call it “machine music”.

Divergence of Synth Pop and Synthwave

It is also worth noting that when it comes to categorizing music in general, the acts that were considered “synth” groups in this original period of the 70’s/80’s were more so labelled as such by music journalists who were having a hard a time figuring out what to refer to these new and different bands as in music magazines. 

Music industry people had never seen bands like these before, nor were they familiar with synths in general, so no one really knew what to call these types of groups.  Should they be called synth pop, new wave, synth wave, electro punk?  Synth pop, to my knowledge, was the prevailing term of synth-based bands at the time.  Synthwave, as we now know it, was still at this time more of a loose concept than a formal term, and embodied the more experimental aspects of synth pop.

 Here is the group, Yazoo (AKA Yaz), with their hit, “Only You”, written by synth master Vince Clarke.  Undoubtedly synth pop.

The bands themselves didn’t always refer to themselves by any such label, ie. “synth pop”, or anything else at the time.  That said, once the term synth pop had caught on, bands realized they could benefit by billing themselves as such, and so they did later on, once the term had been firmly entrenched in mass culture as a whole.

Many of these synth-based acts, while reaching their peak in the 1980’s, still started their careers in the 1970’s, when synthesizers were becoming more accessible to musicians by virtue of slightly lower prices at music stores. 

What Is Synthwave Now Vs Then?

The relatively “new” breed of synthwave music is not really referring to the old guard of acts who once embodied the genre like Depeche Mode, and the rest.  Synthwave (no space this time) began in the early 2000’s, and, like the synth pop of old, certain tracks were instrumental only, while others feature vocals prominently.  This has never been the deciding feature of the genre.

Let’s kick this section off with some Mitch Murder and his classic track, “Remember When”, which flashes back to the ’80’s and some of the great nostalgic memories from movies of that time including E.T., the Karate Kid, the Breakfast Club, and more.

Modern synthwave, while it does sometimes target mainstream listeners, generally is more of an underground self-aware type of affair, with only a select group of listeners who care about old movies, video games, and synth pop caring about very much. 

That said, while its crowd is currently somewhat selective, I think it is also fair to say that synthwave has elements that appear in all forms of modern popular music in terms of radio hits nowadays, because most radio hits love to incorporate synths more now than ever into their song arrangements. Still, this type of music would now be considered electropop, not synthwave.  

Regardless of which demographic it is aimed at, this new form of the genre takes everything that happened in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, including video games, movie soundtracks by famed directors like John Hughes and John Carpenter, and, of course, the original bands that inspired the name (pop, experimental, or otherwise), and mash it into one glorious cocktail of sounds to give us what is the essence of “synthwave” now. 

Let’s have a listen to the track Ghost Dancers Slay Together, by Perturbator, which definitely throws back to some serious old school vibes featuring a dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic.

It was in the 80’s that the music business and fans as well realized how much they loved the sound of dystopian futurism, and it became bigger in some ways than anyone might ever have dreamed. 

Not to name drop Depeche Mode again, but in recent years their world tours have generated more money than almost anyone else, and even though they typically are thought of as synth pop, they too have strong synthwave elements – go figure.  

The new synthwave really makes no bones about where it comes from – it honours the past while also playing with it, then serves to experiment and forge new ground where it can.  It is not a limited genre, but, like all genres, it follows certain trends and cliches which everyone loves and are tried and true.

Equipment Used in Synthwave

The driving principle behind the music described as synthwave now is – surprise – using lots of synths.  Whether it’s an actual analog synthesizer, or a VST (Virtual Studio Techology) which replicates old school synth sounds, synthwave tracks generally feature these sounds, as well as synth drums.  Big, evil basslines are also found in synthwave music, courtesy of the right analog gear or particularly juicy VST’s. 

Retro elements from old video games and movies are definitely taken advantage of as well, in the form of certain familiar tropes.  At the same time as the music has a retro feel, it uses modern production to update the sounds which, in their original incarnation, may have been more contained and sparsely produced, can now be blown up to sound huge and, more suitable for today’s larger than life global culture.  Since synth users were always considered more geeky than their rock guitar playing counter parts, it is no surprise that they seem to have a better insight into musical production, if I may generalize.

Check out this epic track by Gunship, called Art3mis & Parzival, which successfully combines all the elements that make synthwave what it is – dystopian futurism, retro gaming, soundtrack music, but it combines it with more modern elements as well.

Another element of synthwave today is the “open source” nature of the sounds themselves.  Creators of certain tracks are apt to share various patches with other creators in order to create certain sounds.  This, in a way, makes the “sound” or “effect” the star just as much as the artist.  Because, once artists become aware of a particular patch as being a good one, the community will rally around it and actively mention it and promote it.

But synthwave is now more than just music.  It is also wrapped up in culture itself, with synthwave style art also being somewhat definable.  Just drop by any platform that features a visual component (instagram, etc), and you’re bound to see some synthwave style artworks.

Unfortunately for those of us who would like to keep things simple, the rabbit hole that is synthwave goes far deeper than just simply defining the genre and being done with it.  Synthwave grows tentacles in the forms of sub-genres like vapourwave, futuresynth, retrowave, and outrun, to name but a few sub-genres. 

If you were a kid in the ’80’s, you might know “outrun” as Outrun, a popular driving video game.  Yeah, it’s that, but it’s also a genre now too, thanks to the 2013 album by Kavinsky that produced fast-paced synth music perfect for driving. 

Speaking of synth-driven driving music, the successful 2011 movie Drive, featuring Ryan Gosling, also helped to bring synthwave to the fore.

Today, it’s shows like Stranger Things and the 2017 version of Blade Runner that have helped to keep synthwave popular.

Another feature of synthwave music that is particular to these times is the fact that it is self-produced, and is effectively an underground movement.

With platforms like Bandcamp, Youtube, and Soundcloud being huge incubators for new ideas, they tend to draw in synthwave artists because there is no barrier between the artist and releasing their work to the public.  And these days, you never know what will be popular next, although many artists are content to exist in their dark little corner of the web as well, as not all artists crave the adulation of the masses.

We hope this clears things up a little bit as to what synthwave is all about.  

Final Fantasy Series Soundtracks – The Best Music In Gaming

As a westerner, one of the quirky things about Japanese gaming news is how they slavishly focus on the music and artists. In western publications, they might get a mention in a preview and a paragraph in a review, but other than that we tend to focus massively on a title’s look and gameplay. Japanese articles and forums will spend pages discussing one piece of art and how it evolved from the last game or a snippet of the soundtrack and how it lives (or fails to live) up to their expectations.

Game sales rise and fall on the appearance of a series’ original musician or their return. Yes, successful western musicians become famous and in-demand, but Japanese composers become legends and their works are played by full orchestras to packed tours around the world, even for relatively niche games.

Final Fantasy & Its Music – 30 Years and Going Strong

Perhaps the logical starting point for this series is Square’s Final Fantasy, a saga of the Light Warriors, now over 30-years old and still going strong. The music for the Nintendo NES original Final Fantasy was composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Over time, the game has been updated and rereleased on many formats, with remixed soundtracks, but the original remains the benchmark. You can try it now in its original glory if you can find one of the Mini NES consoles.

Those starting rising and falling chords of the introductory menu inspired generations of gamers to commence another saga, with the series now stretching to 15 core titles. The game managed three NES titles, three Super-NES games before finding a home on the PlayStation. With the games appearing out of sync with much-delayed western releases, our culture focuses on the later titles, but it is in the early games that the series really builds the foundations for what we know and love today.

Over time, the themes have evolved and expanded as audio technology improved as the bit count and audio fidelity improved. Listen to these battle themes across the series that get progressively more inspiring, urging characters to wave their swords, staffs or shields and charge at the enemy.

Between this and its sister series Dragon Quest, Square have sold tens of millions of role playing games, and inspired both Japanese and western developers to make the music fit each scene or segment, rather than just rambling on with a few tunes across the game.

Final Fantasy VII and VIII were perhaps the series’ high point in popularity terms, as the massive adventure sprawled across three PlayStation CD-ROMs. The new console took gaming mainstream and this massive adventure, became a global phenomenon, but the advent of CD technology didn’t see Nobuo Uematsu jumping straight into CD quality recordings. These would have slowed the game down and impacted loading times, so instead he upped the quality of 16-channel MIDI tunes for a cinematic approach to audio.

The harmony of cinematic graphics, cutscenes, in-depth world building and gorgeous audio built a legacy that remains to this day, with the recently announced Final Fantasy VII remake treating the original’s sound with kid gloves to avoid pissing off the fans.

Nobuo Uematsu left Square in to 2004, and other composers have taken up the mantle. Such is the depth of these compositions that a few years back, the music from the series took a world tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary.

While fans will argue over their favorite pieces of music from the series, Final Fantasy creates a new legacy with every title. As the game gets more cinematic, we’ll ignore the series’ busted flush of a movie in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it is hard to tell the themes apart from the latest Hans Zimmer and you have to wonder who is influencing whom. Whatever your gaming or musical tastes, there’s no denying the fact that Final Fantasy is worthy of its legend. 

How The Quake Soundtrack Changed Video Game Music

Early PC gamers used to get these crappy “multimedia speakers” that came as a free feature with their 486-powered systems. It was good enough for the chirrpy tunes from early graphics cards, but when Quake arrived, everyone needed an update!

John Carmack, John Romero, and other luminaries at ID Software did so much for PC gaming. They moved the entertainment bar up a notch with Wolfenstein. They ripped the graphical limits to pieces with Doom, and with Quake they unleashed proper fit-for-purpose gaming soundtracks on the world.

Sure, it wasn’t the first CD-ROM game, or the first with an impressive soundtrack, but it was the first that went above and beyond what gamers were used to. Whatever the plan was for the game’s music, 1996 saw the ID team turn to Trent Reznor to bring a gothic feel to the CD-ROM release, unleashing full fidelity digital music on the scene.

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The artistic talent of Reznor was well-known via his Nine Inch Nails project and he took a broad brush to the game with a wide mix of dynamic guitars and ambient sounds. Describing the game and the audio content, he has said “We tried to make the most sinister, depressive, scary, frightening kind of thing… It’s been fun using textures and ambience, and whirling machine noises and stuff.”

The Quake Soundtrack

The Quake Theme starts off scary with demonic guitars, racing synths like a summoning crescendo, that rapidly fades after a minute into an ambient collection of noise that plays on your mind. What are the demons or screams you can hear in the background? They are definitely hard to pick up on those crappy speakers, but invest in a decent set, or route the music through a proper stereo or decent headphones and it becomes a whole new experience.

Then came Aftermath, all heavy bass lines, descending and repeated, encouraging players to look around and into the depths of the game with its full 3D world. The game is full of secrets, and this track almost bludgeoned people into looking for them.

There’s more scritchy-scratchy voices in Hall of Souls, hinting at the demonics going on under the game’s action-based exterior. Perfect for when devil dogs leap out of the dark and chew the unwary player into chunky flesh gibs.

While playing the game, exploring the medieval themed castle, the lumpen, lumbering enemies, soundtrack helped set the tone for the battles and shocks to come. It took a few months but soon the game was running at light speed on the PC’s first graphics accelerators like the Voodoo 3Dfx.

The rest of the soundtrack is full of Reznor signature motifs, lurching from clean and electric but menacing in Parallel Dimensions to the stereo shenanigans in Focus, but every piece is perfect in the game to highlight the dread, with the boom of the shotgun or the crack of the nail gun all fitting perfectly into the malevolent audio scheme.

Read this interview with Trent about Quake here

Revisiting The Music of Epyx’s Summer Games 1, 2 and Winter Games

Continuing our look and listen to the retro chiptunes for old gaming systems that inspired a million gamers and acted as the soundtrack to the first generation of digital children. This week’s piece focuses on the multi-sport delights of Epyx’s Summer Games, Summer Games II and Winter Games that set the tone, both musically and athletically for the Commodore 64’s army of armchair athletes.

Let the Games begin…

Nowadays most sports games come with a roster of big-name tracks to help act as part of the atmosphere. NBA, NFL and FIFA Soccer all come with a hefty roster of rock, rap and pop songs, largely thanks to the space of DVD storage or digital downloads to huge HD. But in the 8-bit days, music could take a few kilobytes at most.

Even with that limitation, Summer Games still packed inspiring tunes into its tiny storage, with an epic opening anthem to get everyone in the mood for the frantic joystick waggling ahead. The absolutely not-Olympic flame (since there was no license) was lit, and we were off to the races with cleverly animated characters pushing themselves to new world records across many sports. Tape owners had to load them one-by-one, but disk owners could smugly sit back and wait for each sport to load.

Then, there were national anthems (everyone loves the Italian anthem, right?) to make you feel proud of your efforts, plus a range of intermission tunes to inspire, including the German hymn Oh Tannenbaum. Randy Glover, Bob Vieira and Chris Grigg among others have credits for the music. Each finding just the right depth of tone to help put players in the game, even though most characters were just a handful of sprites.

The series of games, each selling around a quarter of a million on the C64, were soon ported across most systems into the 16-bit era, landing on the Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Atari 8-bit family, and Sega Master System. Amiga and Atari ST versions (as compilations). Whatever version you played, the C64’s SID chip hit the spot with tones that are ingrained on the memory.

Here’s a long play video featuring both the Summer Games activities to cast your mind back to with tunes including Mouret’s Fanfare-Rondeau (Trumpet Fanfare) to help set the tone.   

And here’s one for Winter Games, featuring the Canadian anthem. It borrowed the same opening tunes, but added a few new numbers along the way as athletes flung themselves down the slopes. In the ice skating, music is an essential part of the performance and we get to salco and loop to the tune of Blue Danube, which was also the docking music from Elite.

The Amiga likely has the finest renditions of the tunes, but for whatever reasons, the graphics aren’t that much improved over the C64 edition. Even so, there’s nothing more fun than watching a ski jumper plummet off the end of the ramp, as in this Amiga long-play.

About Randy Glover

Musicians didn’t stray far in the 8-bit days and Randy is only credited with Epyx titles including his first work, Jumpman, along with the Games titles. There’s a recent interview with him here if you want to find out more about his career.

About Chris Grigg

California Games was one of Chris Grigg’s first compositions at Epyx, which he followed up with DOS and Amiga soundtracks for the likes of Maniac Mansion, Impossible Mission and 4×4 Off Road Racing. He moved up in the world to do sound design at Pixar and now works as part of the MIDI Manufacturers’ Association on the Technical Standards Board.

About Bob Vieira

Bob was another musician who stuck pretty close to home, but at least broke out into other areas with sound effects credits for the Jurassic Park and Gremlins video games, as well as working on the story of Diablo II at Blizzard.

Who Is Aphex Twin?

“Forget all the equipment, forget the music, at the end of the day it’s just literally frequencies and their effects on your brain. That’s what’s everyone’s essentially after.”

Aphex Twin, born Richard David James, is an electronic music artist born August 18, 1971, who has come to be associated with genre descriptors such as IDM (intelligent dance music), ambient, techno, and overall “experimental” music.  He can be described in these ways, yes, but his resume goes on…he is also a record producer, composer, performer, remixer (sometimes for ca$h), DJ, and just an all round musical fellow who grew up dreaming of beats and tunes.

Richard D. James has been making groundbreaking tracks for decades now, and is generally considered on of the most important electronic music makers of all time and is loved by fans and musicians alike.  However, it would seem that Richard doesn’t take himself quite so seriously as an important musical figure, preferring to remain in relative obscurity and to troll as many people as he can.  Sometimes his music can even seem rather troll-like.  This, to some, gives him his particular charm… but can you really trust this face?

Of course not.  In any case, we figured, hey, let’s look at the convoluted history of the man behind the slightly off-putting visage. Who is this Aphex Twin guy, anyway?  He seems to not want to really be known at times, and other times he is hard to escape, but that only makes us wonder… Is he perhaps a Satan worshipper?  Your garden variety techno knob-twiddling dweeb?  Some kind of hacker dude?  A EDM bigshot like Hardwell?  An actual twin to a brother who died at birth?  Who??

Sweet Baby (Richard D.) James

Richard D. James grew up in Lanner, Cornwall, in the United Kingdom, but was born in Limerick, Ireland.  He has two older sisters, and his parents are Welsh.  While the demonic emblematic omnipresent face may suggest otherwise, the future AFX was a fairly contented child according to James himself, who was generally left to his own devices in this scenic area of England.  Let’s check it out for ourselves, shall we?

Left to explore the countryside and feeling apart from the wider world, Richard was a curious sort with an active imagination enjoyed doing his own thing.  These qualities remained with him into his adult life.

An 11-year-old Richard took an early interest in electronics and, after winning a competition in school where he farted around with a Sinclair ZX81 and got this machine to make some sort of “really weird noise” when the volume was cranked, even though it was apparently incapable of doing so.  This netted Richard 50 pounds, and his career in music was thus launched!  For anyone wanting to geek out a bit, here’s the “Grandaddy of Computers”.

Ah, that hit the spot.  Anywho, the story goes that Richard began composing and producing his own tracks early on, in his pre-teenage years, and, one the hormones were in full swing, he became a DJ and spun tracks in several locations around his neck of the woods, ie. the Shire Horse Inn in St. Ives, as well as the Bowgie Inn in Crantock, as well as at some local beaches.  Here is that very same Inn as seen through a very strange neon lens.  Could this be how Richard saw it? 

College Yrs

In college, his interest was electronics and engineering, which naturally connected him closer to the music he was already making.  At Cornwall College, where he studied in his late teens, Richard received a certificate for engineering.  He was known, according to one of his teachers, to wear headphones a lot, even during class.  Scrutinizing audio was obviously a primary concern for Richard.

Being in such an isolated part of the country, it was difficult for Richard to gain access to the types of music that interested him the most, namely techno, electronic shit, and the like.  This lead to him making tapes on his own of this type of music that was not common where he was from, so he could play it for friends and immerse himself in it fully.  While working as a DJ at the Bowgie pub, he met Grant Wilson-Claridge (the dude giving the finger above), who was also a DJ. 

“I’m just some irritating, lying, ginger kid from Cornwall who should have been locked up in some youth detention centre. I just managed to escape and blag it into music.” 

Grant was interested in what Richard was up to, and, after hearing some of his original material, encouraged Richard to make records with his involvement.  This got Richard more interested in vinyl, as he was now entering the world of record producing.  The two friends were beginning to create their own little world of unique electronic music in a more rural part of the United Kingdom.  Keeping it interesting, no doubt.

First Releases and Rephlex Records

If you’re a fan of Aphex Twin, you’ll know that his first release was called Analogue Bubblebath, released as a 12-inch in 1991 on Mighty Force Records.  Here he worked alongside Tom Middleton, AKA Schizophrenia, to produce the track En Trance To Exit.  A popular radio station in London, called Kiss FM, picked up the EP itself, which did help it to become a success.

Rephlex Records was founded in 1991 was Richard D. James and his friend Grant Wilson-Claridge, who both had a strong love of Acid – not the drug, but the musical genre – which was both much maligned and much loved by the people of Britain.  In fact, many people were wholly unfamiliar with it, and so Rephlex set out to expose this genre to new ears and change others’ minds about it.  Can you teach a farmer to dance?

Two Analogue Bubblebath’s were released between ’91 and ’93, with one credit to AFX and one with no name on it.  Another EP, released under the name Bradley’s Beat, also emerged, as did yet another of Richard’s monikers, Bradley Strider.  It was around this time that Richard went to Kingston Polytechnic to take a course in electronics, however, he was quickly being consumed by techno music and would soon focus on his career in music exclusively.

Alternate Egos and SAW 85-92

More alter egos surfaced at this time when Richard was staying in London, having left school – Blue Calx, The Dice Man, Polygon Window, Power-Pill… more tracks were created, found their way on to releases by Warp Records, as well as a number of compilations.  Meanwhile, Richard was seemingly without permanent residence, living in both an empty bank and near or actually on a roundabout in Elephant and Castle in South London.

“Well, I just bought a massive bank and I’ve moved into it on my own.” 

It was in 1992 that Aphex Twin started to really get the praise heaped upon him, with the release of Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which was his very first full length record under the Aphex Twin name.  It was sited as a landmark album for ambient music, and was seen by some critics as taking what Brian Eno had done for electronic music to the next level.  That said, although many consider this to be Aphex’s first big breakthrough album, it wasn’t the highest quality as it had been compiled on tape and lacked fidelity as a recording. 

But this didn’t stop 1992 from becoming Aphex Twin’s year.  This was also the year that Digeridoo came out, and enjoyed airplay on Kiss FM in London thanks to DJ colin Faver, and even charted on the UK Singles Chart coming in at #55.  As well, the now famous Pac-Man EP came out under the pseudonym Power-Pill, and Caustic Window released four Joyrex EPs.  These tracks seemed to hint at what drum and bass music would soon become, although Richard claimed that Digeridoo was designed to make obstinate ravers go home.   

Outpouring and SAW Vol.2

1993 and 1994 were also big years for Richard in terms of creativity, with a formidable outpouring of songs that came out under his various guises, including Bradley’s Robot by Bradley Strider, the Quoth EP and Surfing on Sine Waves by Polygon Window, a couple of EPs by Caustic Window, a 3rd Analogue Bubblebath, the now-legendary “On” EP, and, as if that weren’t enough, Warp released Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which is an album that continues to inspire, amaze, and confuse as time goes on. 

https://warp.net/

Richard has credited the creation of these tracks to lucid dreaming and synaesthesia, which does make a lot of sense when you listen to them.  They are quite abstract as far as songs go, and extremely ambient, buoyant, and dreamlike.  They even messed with Gracenote, the worldwide music database that makes it its mission to catalogue tracks in the most detailed way possible.  Without simply stated titles, even Gracenote was given the slip on many of these tracks.  Following this Aphex Twin Classics and a 4th Analogue Bubblebath (he just loooves to bath in analogue with soap, doesn’t he?), as well as GAK. 1994 was, as mentioned, a big year for Richard creatively speaking, and this basically solidified him as not only a force to be reckoned with in the music industry, but a real gamechanger.

“There’s a lot of melancholy in my tracks.”

He Cares Because You Do

1995 was hot with anticipation.  Could Richard keep ’em coming?  Turns out, yes, yes he could and did.  …I Care Because You Do was the beginning of the scary sort of mocking play on Richard’s face that began adorning future works, as well as videos.  This one came in the form of a rather creepy looking painting on the album cover. 

The tracks on this album had been brewing over the past 5 years, but they were a major leap forward as far as Richard’s overall work was concerned.  They range in styles, with some of Richard’s most beautiful melodies and beats, not to mention the crowd pleasing Ventolin (above). 

Analogue synths were the instrument of choice here, and this was to be the last time that Richard was entirely dedicated to them.  Famed composer Philip Glass also makes an appearance around this time, creating a version of the album track Icct Hedral, which came out on Donkey Rhubarb.  1995 saw Richard also dip into a style called drill ‘n’ bass for a release called Hangable Auto Bulb EP.

“The best musicians or sound-artists are people who never considered themselves to be artists or musicians.” 

In The Jungle…

1996 saw further development of Richard’s musical approach, as he released the innovative Richard D. James album via Warp Records.  At this point, the beats became crazier, the synths became synthier, and the overall feel was that of a wild experiment, with moments of abandon balanced with moments of sublime melody, and then other seriously weird stuff thrown in just because.  Around this time, there was a proliferation of “jungle” music entering the zeitgeist, with even the likes of David Bowie beginning to toy with the genre (ie. Earthling at the beginning of ’97), not to mention The Prodigy and other lesser known acts like Omni Trio and Tango and Ratty.  Aphex Twin trumped them all with his self-addressing album, adding more speed and some aggression by way of full throttle beats and snare rushes that blurred past you as a listener tried to take stock of the music aurally. 

That said, this album was not the same as Atari Teenage Riot and it was not really designed for raves, but for headphones.  Whatever this album is, critics latched on and it was added to many best lists including all time best electronic albums list that continue to crop up.

Come To Daddy

Come To Daddy EP came out in ’97 and drew even more attention, as by now Richard was officially considered a genius in music circles and people were waiting to see what would be next.  He made a video with Chris Cunningham for the album’s first song and title track, Come To Daddy, featuring some rather disturbing stuff. 

At the same time, Richard has said that he thinks it’s basically just his version of bad death metal, saying it was basically the product of some drunken nights and joking around.  Still to this day, the song has its distinct fans who take the song a bit seriously, such as Dillinger Escape Plan who covered the track both on disc and live.

“Sometimes I just hit the keyboard in a way I’d like the rhythm of the tracks to sound.”

It was around now that Richard was starting to take less enjoyment out of the whole MTV thing and being famous, and started to creep back into his natural state, which seems to be one of relative obscurity.  But not before releasing Windowlicker in 1999, his hit video (again with Cunningham helming it) that features a very long limousine and some what-was-now archetypal creepiness from RDJ.

Drukqs

There was a slight pause of 2 years, and then in 2001 Aphex Twin came back with Drukqs, featuring heavy influence from John Cage and Erik Satie with experimental piano music combined with computers.  Ever perplexing, there were some tracks with titles written in Cornish, and this was a double album at that so it was somewhat hard for fans and critics to grasp what exactly Richard was going for here, except maybe to keep them on their toes with something completely unexpected.  Reviews for this album were mixed, but it was generally agreed upon that many of the tracks had merit at least in terms of melody.  All in all, it was not what you’d consider a “hit” album and maybe that’s how Richard wanted it.  The next time fans would hear from Richard was via his Rephlex Records label.

www.rephlex.com

Analord

2005 was the year of the Analord, which came out in eleven EPs and brought Richard back to his AFX moniker.  Over the course of these albums, 42 tracks were released featuring both digital and analogue equipment, heavy on drum machines – in particular Roland machines such as the classic 808. 

But also weaving through the mix was a number of rare vintage synths and beat making machines, including Roland’s MC-4 and the TB-303 and then we can’t forget the Synton Fenix.  Tracks were pressed according to James’ specific tendencies at the time, going straight to vinyl, although he was convinced to also create a compilation on compact disc called Chosen Lords, featuring 10 tracks culled from these sessions.  An additional 20 tracks appeared on the Rephlex website in 2009 for download, beefing up the series significantly.

“I’m a really good hacker, but I’m not a sensible person.” 

The Tuss

In the years prior to Syro, which was released in 2014, Richard was busy being unfamous and trying to throw people off his trail by working under the name The Tuss, and having Grant Wilson-Claridge state that this was not Richard, but two other artists.  Later, it seemed that it was in fact Richard as both Brian and Karen Tregaskin used one of Richard’s rare synths – the Yamaha GX1.  Later, Richard finally admitted that he was The Tuss.  Coming up to 2014, Richard played a few select shows – one was a tribute to Krzysztof Penderecki, and another paid tribute to Steve Reich.

Syro, Soundcloud, and a blimp

With some interesting marketing in 2014 including a blimp and the dark web browser Tor, Aphex Twin finally came back with his first album since Drukqs, called Syro. 

This was followed by Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments Pt2 EP, and then a flurry of random users on Soundcloud released tracks that seemed to be by Aphex Twin, but there was some confusion around this.  Eventually, it was clear that Richard was at it again, doing subversive things involving his music, his fans, and the internet.  His presence on Soundcloud gave way to previously unheard tracks, and entire unheard albums with Richard making brief but insightful comments along the way.  His Soundclouds were going down, and returning, with tracks popping up here and there under different accounts.  His fans seemed to be keeping pace with him quite admirably, despite the haphazardness of his online behaviour here.

In most recent years, Richard launched his online store featuring a slew of new tracks.

https://aphextwin.warp.net//

With Richard starting to play the odd show, and releasing more tracks, we may have entered a golden age of Richard’s music, with more of it now available directly from the artist himself.  Being the enigma that he is, it is difficult to say what will be next.