If you love synthwave, then you should already know everything there is to know about Von Kaiser:
With several singles, an album, and an EP under their belt, Von Kaiser has proven themselves to be one of the most talented bands in our somewhat niche genre. Producing predominantly vocal retrowave (though, as I allude to later in this article, their songs are so fleshed out, it's easy to remove the vocals and still wind up with an amazing instrumental work of art, as evidenced in their "Landline - The Instrumentals" release), the trio of David, Kaylin, and Jake manage to capture the contemporary pop and rock sounds of the early to mid '80s (yet...I'm pretty sure not a single one of them is over the age of 30...how the hell do they do that?). The three hail from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Not only are their music releases stellar, but their live performances are even better. They have opened for artists such as Perturbator, Parallels, and Nina. If it hadn't been for the COVID disaster, they would have toured several cities already, with a massive west coast trip planned as well. They have been selected to perform at Neon Retrofest Rhode Island in August, and I hope to hell that still happens. People need to experience their live talent (and insane light show) in person. Not ones to disappoint, they've done two livestream performances, the first as a solo act here on Nightride FM, the second as part of a massive lineup of artists performing for Retro Reverb Records (VK closed that marathon out) that was put on by RRR, Nightride FM, and Forever Synth.
Time to sink our teeth into this incredible album:
"Ghosts Of Miami" releases on May 4th, 2020 (like all their albums, may the fourth be with them). The release contains 13 tracks of fully fleshed out, perfectly produced, professionally mastered, synthwave gems. Von Kaiser are not the type of artist who composes two minute songs. They prefer a good 5-6 minute ballad, and it never seems too long or too much. Between the masterful harmonies, arps, reverbs, guitars, plucks, vocals and chords, you could listen to each track on repeat forever without ever getting bored. The music is so well layered and produced, you could remove the vocals and end up with a complete album and complete songs to satisfy those picky instrumentalists out there. I'd still prefer to listen to David's crooning complimenting the music though.
My quick rundown of each song on this album:
"Amber" - I've got so many favourites on this album, and this is one of them. Beautiful synths lead us into Kaylin's voice serenading us about being misunderstood then meeting her "running man". Half way through, David comes in with his powerful urgent vocals. Sweet electric guitar keeps this song thoroughly grounded in retro vibes. Four minutes in and the pace of the song jumps as we shift into double time for David's chorus. All throughout the song, there are perfectly harmonized synth pads and chords, progressions, and compositions that, I can only assume, showcase Jake's talent with anything electronic.
“Wavelengths” - We were all lucky enough to have Von Kaiser release this track as a single a bit early. In my opinion, this track is absolutely, without question, the band's best song to date. David's vocals are at his very best here. Powerful, strong, urgent and pining over how we can't change the past, or what made us. The arps and echoes used throughout the song are amazing, complimenting not only the vocals, but the driving rhythm and bass. I can't help but want to sing along when he belts out "Weeee aaaaaaare who we aaaaaaaaaaaaaaare".
“J O I” - If you were lucky enough to see Von Kaiser perform on a live stream recently, then you were treated to an early listen of this song. Kaylin (aka Squirrel) takes center stage on this track with David and Jake providing plucky guitars and smooth synth beds. I'm pretty sure the title does not stand for whatever you think it does, since the lyrics being delivered by Kaylin certainly don't hint at any instruction of the sort. The music behind Kaylin's voice reminds me of the Miami Vice theme (Jan Hammer). Listening to the lyrics, I'm pretty sure this is Squirrel's love song to pizza.
“Sliding Doors” - I'd joked with Von Kaiser that sometimes David sounds like Colin Hay from the Australian '80s band Men At Work. I present Sliding Doors as my argument. Listening to David sing this, I am completely transported back to the eighties, jamming to "Cargo" on my Sony Walkman. Throughout the song, we hear the signature synths and harmonies that Von Kaiser does so well. This tune is so beautiful, with haunting yet interesting lyrics about a place where things look synthy strange and what we know to be has fundamentally changed.
“Hyper Sleep” - Smooth synths drop into a nice punchy bassline as David sings and Kaylin responds before the powerful chorus. Soft for two minutes, David returns with his powerful vocals interchanging between his falsetto and edgy tones. I swear, this band can really craft imagery of dark nights, street lights, neon signs, smoke, and fog. The recipe for synthwave aesthetic. This song conveys it so well with the music and lyrics.
“When We Were Young” - Feel like a vocal retrowave lullaby? This will fit the bill. Beautiful clear notes as David serenades us about youthful memories (I sense a theme to many of the songs...nostalgia, dreams, futures). What starts out as a gentle song slowly has the percussion drop in half way through, providing a heartbeat to the imagery conjured up by the lyrics and soft melody.
“Ghosts Of Miami” - The title track off the album also serves as a clear reminder that Von Kaiser is currently producing synthwave. The synths and production in this are chock full of retro feels. The echo and reverb on the drums really takes me back, and Jake's ability to craft a nice hook is on full display. David once again sings with his distinct voice taking us on another melancholic ballad soaked with nostalgia.
“Parkway Tropics” - The synths and samples used in this song remind me of some of artist XENNON's creations. It could be the minimized synth sounds, almost 16-bit in their smooth simplicity. David's chorus relates again to the past, how far it seems. Relaxation washes over you as you listen to this.
“A Q U A M A R I N E” - The entire album is vocal synthwave with the exception of this chill track. Von Kaiser, like many, has an appreciation for good (emphasis on good...it's rare) vaporwave, and this is their contribution to that sound. Astoundingly, this song clocks in at just under three minutes and twenty seconds. Almost half the length of many of their usual compositions.
“Shadows On Mars” - The underlying low synth pad in this reminds me of Tangerine Dreams, providing some speed to the more mellow synths above. David sings of our insignificance set against the time and space around us. Like many of VK's songs, the lyrics could make you sad, yet the music spins a web of resolve and happiness around the message.
“Sorry In Advance” - Not to be confused with Ollie Wride's "Thanks In Advance" album, this melody starts off with a high pass filter easing us into a very synthwave creation. Like many of the entries on the album, David's vocals take center stage, singing of a troubled love affair ending.
“Escape From LA” - While the movie was terrible, this tune is not. Majestic synths (play it loud and you can feel your soul start to vibrate like a wine glass about to shatter) take us into a somewhat happy (the lyrics aren't) ditty while David sings about moving to LA and the life that awaits, his vocals alternating perfectly between his edgy urgent sound and his fun falsettos.
“Misery City Skyline” - I absolutely love the pacing of this song. Glittery synths contrast lyrics about a past and future built from our memories and hopes. David's vocals effortlessly glide across segmented verses with a chorus that, like Wavelengths, is catchy and urges me to sing along ("aaaaaaaaaaaye won't go back there.....aaaaaaaaaye won't go back there"). One of the shorter tunes on the album, it has been on repeat for me many times as i listened to this release over and over again this past week. Yet another favourite of mine.
I thought "Landline" had already raised the bar in retrowave, but, like their last EP "Glossy", this release was mastered by Steve Gillson, ensuring we hear every note and instrument clearly, complimented and distinct. "Ghosts Of Miami" is the band's best album, containing some of their finest creations yet. "Wavelengths", "Misery City Skyline", "Amber", "J O I", "Sliding Doors", and "Escape From LA" are testament to this. Do yourself a favour and buy this album off Bandcamp then add it to your playlists. The bar has been raised once again. Speaking of bars, I can't wait to hit one with these guys.
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