Scanning the airwaves for the most horizontal slices of the chilled of synth sub-genres, Dom takes a look at some of his selected tracks from the past year.
2021 was a busy year for chillsynth. Perhaps it’s all that time we spend in our home-based offices now that lends itself to an increased interest in the most relaxing of background synth genres, or maybe it’s the rise of a genuine culture of artists and fans speaking and working together in digital networks that has allowed this once exclusive and continually re-labelled sound to find its feet amongst the masses. Sort of.
Some evolving sounds and styles coming have come from some of the stalwarts of the scene such as Memorex Memories, and VIQ, almost moving on from the genre completely, but, we’ve also seen Hotel Pools smashing the numbers and selling vinyl in record timescales with the Palmscapes album. Nonetheless, there have been equally as many interesting developments with a raft of existing and new artists turning their hand at the genre, and incorporating smaller elements of into their sound.
I won’t be focusing in on one area or style, or sticking to the rigid dogma of record-box labelling but looking at those blends, the crossovers and the simply noteworthy
Shane Yen - Lifetime (Single)
First of all I wanted to give to recognition to this lovely little number from Shane Yen. It's airy opening with simple synth refrain betrays an immediate optimism in its approach, and is met with a beautiful grand opening of the sound to something akin to M83’s most popular hits. It’s uplifting and positive; and doesn’t shy away from being noticeably so. Frankly, we could all do with that boos in our lives.
At its core it’s a delicate and subtle number despite its pumping drum track, and it relies on having a suitable level of repetition but clear development. Unlike an acoustic guitar at a party, it never overstays its welcome – finding itself a balance between background pleasure and potential ear-worm.
Gabe Miller – Translucency (From LP – The Neon City)
Gabe is a proven expert in understanding the way modern synth hardware can be used – I expect to the envy of many of his own peers - as his YouTube channel skilfully demonstrates. In amongst the album The Neon City – which appears a genuine attempt to merge the synth heavy genres which Gabe is clearly a fan, be it Synthwave, trap beats or commerical house - unusually sits this more chill number in the sub-100 range.
Gabe’s sound is almost medically clean, and undeniably crisp; likely stemming from his prized Novation Circuit or Roland MC-101 but it may have benefitted this songs wider chillsynth appeal to have allowed a grittier recording to used – although this would likely have meant separating this oddity from the remainder of the album, you can’t help but think some artists would have mashed the whole song through an old family tape deck at the first given opportunity.
Nonetheless a strong pad stab throughout provides the solid backbone, and the plucky piano synths make for a classic blend. Switching to the very 90s sync sound I’ve always associated with the original Novation Bass-Station is a bold move, but is pulled off with some strength, and supported stylistically with some fast end-of-phrase filtering that could feel otherwise out of place with other artists. This is certainly a track with the confidence of youth, but a melting pot of influences.
Alan Elettronico – Upstairs at Andrew’s (Single)
Arriving at the late end of 2021, it would be hugely remiss not to flag this treasure from Alan. On the heels of a return to releasing music, with his solo album Electric Mind and his track Polybius featuring on the Echoes From the Last Cassette Tape: Volume 1, this is one no one will want to have missed.
At a mere 55 bpm this is so downtempo some might even consider it D.O.A but this is anything but. It eases you in with its lush opening (and continuing) refrains before beginning its journey with punchy drums rather than the subtler more subdued (read: reverbed) drum styles we hear in the dreamier end of the spectrum.
This is a clearly controlled sound that comes across as high value production –washes of white noise and reverb here are precise, and the secondary synth melodies are measured; short stabs with elegant delays, and the bass synth and layering warming to soul. This is a piece that feels considered yet expressive. Let’s hope Alan continues in this way.
Prizms – Analog (From LP – Aquarius)
With it stated as being 3 years in the making; it’s a moderate surprise that the considerable album Aquarius wasn’t split out into multiple releases, but as a whole it’s one that should last considerably more listens as a result. I can understand the thinking here, it’s great to see artists still sticking with their own vision across a longer piece of art, rather than feeling necessitated to fulfil some vision of ‘consumer demand’ with constant smaller releases, as appears to be mandated by music ‘marketing experts’.
I’m picking out “Analog” from this album, and despite having to forgive the shortened spelling of the word, its one that really seeks to set its expectations from the name forward.
Whether it really does stem from an analogue source is unimportant – a consideration only for purists. It’s opening with a classic 80s sounding lead synth, akin to long time favourite Emil Rottmayer, oozes that natural nostalgia for an age that never really happened. It hardly makes the 3 minute mark before reaching its inevitable slow fade, and whilst its lead sound refrains from a major sound switch, its snappy drums keep the track moving, whilst its restraint in structure and layering should still leave your head nodding and foot tapping along in simpler pleasures. One not to overthink, but to enjoy!
Laura Dre – Waiting (From LP – Kyoto Dreams )
OK, so we are strictly outside the traditional realms of chillsynth here, and stretching out to some kind of crossover of sub-genres, but… why not?
The song ‘Waiting’ features part way into an album that takes a huge leap away from the expectations of synthwave norms that no doubt come with each of Laura’s releases. It’s a leap not just in its bold artistic direction of narrative expression, but features a range of instrumentation, and some clear classic breakbeat influences of the 90’s UK dance scene. This is an intelligent album, and one that challenges its listeners to widen their horizons as to where the parent genre can go. One for gatekeeping, this is not.
It’s not entirely surprising to find this song as the album’s most popular (at the time of writing at least) – it surrounds the listener with a sense of calm purpose. It is full of melodic twists and turns, with a beautiful plucked refrain at its heart. It’s composition and structure, is wonderfully developed and musically adept and is awash with ‘almost’ familiar synthwave motifs and sounds; there’s the occasional noise-heavy snare, and FM synthesis bell lead and a delicately accented bassline, pad waves and vocal to tie it together. Turning this around with in a radio-friendly time scale makes for a genuinely stand-out piece.
Post compiled and presented by Dom Cresswell, Chillsynth Contributor for Forged in Neon. Dom is the face and sound of AUW, his own music project which considerably evolved from his stint at the London College of Music & Media, and has remained heavily influenced by the synthesizer hardware legends of the 1980s. As an in-house remixer and producer for the Happy Robots label, he was the producer and engineer for the Arthur & Martha album 'Navigation' (acclaimed by The Guardian, NME, Uncut, and played on BBC Radio 1 and 6 Music).