As Synthwave seeks to find more and more commercial success, artists like Kalax help pave the way forward in a professional manner.
Kalax's recent album entitled " III " builds bridges between the different aesthetics of synthwave into a polished product that will please most listeners.
The first seconds of " 86 " start painting a canvas that immerses the listener in a peaceful setting, but is this just the calm before the storm?
The pads, arps, and the incoming bass build the atmosphere toward what we anticipate will be a big sound!
Will that big sound arrive? A classic and satisfying build-up leads us to ask.
A few energetic toms later, we realise this track will weave in those authentic 80's drums, which don't hesitate to appear!
With drums pumping, the driving bassline offers us the action we were expecting and between the synthy goodness you can hear an electric guitar that puts you into an 80's action film, you know...Cobra, Lethal Weapon, Escape From New York !
Kalax applies nice filtering techniques and makes feasible build ups that give us the nostalgic sound that we expect, he crafts a sound that knows what it is!
I would call this a blend between french house and the 80's influence, a golden recipe also heard used by artists like Timecop1984, The Midnight and FM-84.
When it comes to production, this track abides by the principals of "beauty from simplicity" and "less is more", focusing on melodic ideas and expression of emotion while avoiding an over-complicated construction.
It is a direct infusion of epic 80's goodness into our brain!
The solid synthwave nature is confirmed by the next track " Let Go " which has a romantic vibration and is the type of sound that will definitely be mashed up with some slow dance images from 80's movies.
The track instantly becomes a pillar of romantic immersion through it's harmonic construction, big sounds, vocal arrangement and the singer which manages to deliver that in a suave manner. In the second part we hear a nice change to it with an interesting layered chorus singing a little melody that gives a new colour to the track, very nice touch. The girls will definitely sing over this one.
I can appreciate the smooth filtering again, in the intro, the middle section and the end, characteristics which are a signature for this entire album. Personally I would've liked to hear that beautiful arp from the first part of the song appear in the end as well, to bring things fully back together in all the frequencies.
The voice has a good tone and really works with the scenario laid forth by Kalax, however I would've liked to hear it go an octave higher in the second part for more variety and impact!
The next entry " Dream " comes again with a fantastic punchy beat. I really enjoy listening to Kalax's kick and snare, it is well produced and not buried under the synths!
The melody is driven by nostalgic pads and a clear sounding arp that finds its way meticulously through the drums.
One of the techniques that is commonly used in any electronic music genre nowadays is sidechaining. In synthwave, some artists use side-chaining and filtering as a means to fake variety and make their boring synths seem like they have life, but not with Kalax, he uses these techniques to add to what is already a good sounding track.
It's tricky to use it if you want to give a retro vibe to your track, as this wasn't a feature back then, however what Kalax and other artists are doing is not replicating the 80's, but blending it with modern techniques. If used too much it can become annoying to listen to as the volume of the instruments can go abruptly up and down.
I would say Kalax's side-chaining is at the right amount, he uses it to give a smooth bounce to the track rather than as a method to escape frequency clashing. I would say the production and structure of this track is similar to that of another artist, Neon Nox, in terms of having a clean arp, nice pads, punchy beat, quality filtering, progressive build up, balanced EQ and side-chaining.
It is indeed a recipe of success that conveys credible atmospheres. Specifically this track makes me think of the movie Turbo Kid, a post-apo universe filled with playful ideas, positive characters , cool weapons and fun battles, as the main protagonist, a kid, tinkers at his inventions made of scavenged scrap while listening to synthwave!
The dreamy sound of this track is complemented with a reverb-ed saxophone, a good idea, however its plugin nature cannot be covered with delays and reverb.
This would have sounded a lot better with a real saxophone. Note how much Tim Capello's performance on Gunship's " Dark All Day" changes everything and ads a great chunk of power to the track!
But hey Tim Capello's are hard to come by these days.
The collab with " Player One " " Not Alone " is an interesting adventure. It's a very breezy track, I can see myself running to this track in the sunset on the shores of Miami Vice.
The drops of silky bell sounds stay perfectly in their frequency band as well as the other instruments which together create a beautiful atmosphere.
Kalax's ability to mix is no doubt a huge asset. We have a classic synthwave bass running on, which for me personally never gets old! The voice is similar to Gunship's, and that for many might be a great plus, however I am more on the fence about this, as I think an 80's inspired voice should be characterised by skill and natural awesome timbre.
Producers of this synthwave pop approach should look more towards vocalists similar in tone to David Hasselhoff, Mr Mister, Phil Collins or Dave Bickler from Survivor known for " Eye Of The Tiger "
...or just something more 80's-ish even if it's alternative. There was plenty of alternative in the 80's, Robert Smith from The Cure? All good reference material!
Not this 2019 heavy use of pitch correction and a timbre similar to emo punk bands. Another aspect that brings the song down is the saxophone which has that obvious plugin sound. In my opinion it would be better not to have it at all, if it can't be what it wants to be, which is a romantic saxophone filled with emotion. That type of emotion cannot be given by a standard VST sound, but by a real skilled saxophone player
It may add to the production cost but it will pay off in the end as that type of sound would sky rocket the quality of this track.
A more realistic type of emotion is for example given through the solo on the next track " Out Of Control " which features an authentic electric guitar sound, so let's try and do this for the saxophone world as well!
Despite my personal opinion how voices should be in synthwave, that doesn't mean the voices are mixed badly or that the singing is not good on " Out of Control " the singer has a very nice natural tremolo that reminds me of Enrique Iglesias or " insert romantic European singer here " and the melody is very commercially viable.
The instrumental is impeccable and the arp sounds like icy crystals!
The 6th track of the album " Neon Blood " is closer to my personal taste! It features a more serious atmosphere, dark alley ways... the sound of a man on a mission, the "let's not give up and fight for what we believe" type of sound! This track can easily be used in any epic 80's movie, from Rambo to Top Gun to Die Hard,
you name it ...although I am not sure if I am a fan of the sudden break at 3:09 which just mutes all the sounds in an abrupt way for a second making me think there is something wrong with my audio equipment. However, the artist beautifully brings things together after that point in a celebration of synth, harmony and vst saxophone solos * coughs * but the track really is a gem of this album for me and will no doubt have a place on any of my playlists or radio shows, I can play this to my friends without worries at any time, as opposed to those very pop songs, but I also realise that some people, if not the majority, may actually like the pop songs more.
The album follows with three purely instrumental tracks that are right up my alley!
" Night Dreamer " is a tune that you can turn up the volume of as you drive into the night! With lots of energy and a warm electric sound that has all frequencies covered!
The bass is like butter on this one! I very much like the outro in this which features a long, more experimental sound.
" Kawasaki Warehouse " features a " stranger things "-esque melody with nice atmospheric layers, beautiful pads, a playful bell, filters, white noise and my favourite, water dripping sounds!
" Hold On Tight " tells us that we literally do need to hold on tight as this is not just a small EP but a full fledged 15 track album with many characteristics!
This tune presents us with a more experimental beat in the intro that doesn't have 80's drum samples at all and it does sound interesting but Kalax soon reminds us that this is a synthwave album by completely transforming the track and bringing us that 80's basketball drum we all love!
This combines with an emphasis on a positive melody and a sound underlined by a very exploratory high frequency arp.
The track culminates with an amazing guitar solo and ends by leaving us floating on some synth clouds with delayed fade outs.
" Signs ", track number 10 from the album brings the vocals back with a punch! with some amazing guitars, stellar synths, steady, full drums and possibly one of the most focused breaks in the album, offering subtle and very gentle, carefully placed, swelling guitar notes !
The track excels at everything that it tries to present, actually ..it doesn't " try " but it just succeeds! The mix is fantastic and I really like the arrangement, which features not one but two breaks.
I would've liked to hear more guitar swelling notes in the second break but I can't really complain, there is a tonne of satisfying guitar in this track!
This is one of the best songs in the album and it truly shines with its blend of fantasy synths, action guitar and romantic vibe fulfilled not only by the harmonies but also the lead vocal.
This masterful steady craftsmanship has continuity with " Out Of Time " where the drums are very present, as well as a lot of side-chaining, but again it's the pleasant type of side-chaining, we're riding on the waves of synth thrown at us with grace!
This is the word for this track, " graceful ".
The voice, synths and even the drums are less focused on power and more concentrating on being gentle, it is after all another romantic song but it's not at all superficial romance as expressed not only by the mood but also by the lyrics! The outro brings us slowly out of it with the soft bass and electric piano chord hits that have just the right amount of delay and shimmery reverb.
I don't always need a beat to enjoy a song and that is why I enjoyed listening to " Kawasaki Warehouse " and now " Lili " which is another atmospheric tune that develops like a beautiful flower surrounded by glittery synths, keys and breezy pads with nice filters. Even if it doesn't have a beat it does have a rhythm, given by the interesting side-chain-y pad that appears at 1:51!
The track feels like walking outside through the spring grass while breathing some fresh air and looking at the sunrise. It's an amazing experience!
The last 3 songs of the album are in no way just filler tracks!
" Calling " is an amazing composition that excels through the uniqueness of the voice and how it blends with the rest of the instruments.
The vocal arrangement shows the musical maturity of the artists behind it! The breaks are perfect and the sections don't disappoint for a second.
It is very immersive and thoughtfully composed and I can easily see a professional video done to this track. Definitely the type of track that gets my head nodding!
The head nodding continues with " Shibuya Lights ", a track that brings a very strong bass tone and sound design.
The atmosphere is so believable in this tune that if I close my eyes I can already see myself walking through the night in the streets of Shibuya.
Love the small touches on this tune like that slowly pitching down on the synth at 3:06 with the glittery high frequency synths on top of the new layer of mid range drums that appears soon after and stays throughout the track to contribute to the uniquely Kalax atmosphere!
I can see Shibuya and its lights clearly.
Kalax knows how to title to his songs, they match perfectly!
Such is the case with the final track " Stronger " which really makes you feel stronger and hopeful for the future of synthwave! It's a bright track with a crystal arp and synths of victory, I can see this track used with videos of Olympic medalists and people who have achieved their dreams!
Has Kalax achieved his dream with this album? We will have to ask him.
What is clear is that the music presented is part of a clear vision and is crafted superbly.
He extracts from us many precise feelings while also surprising with sparks of the abstract.
Overall this album knows what it wants to be both technically and emotionally, and will no doubt have success!
It is at the same level of artists like The Midnight and in my opinion beats the production of " Kids " bringing to the table a more solid sound, structure and theme!
In Kalax's " III " the listener can feel the right balance between past and present without going overboard with genre tropes and cliches. You will not hear annoying vocal audio splices taking away from the retro immersion here, only beautiful songs and respectable, authentic atmospheres !
Tracks from this album will proudly have their place on Nightride.FM!
Be sure to support Kalax on Bandcamp