With so many artists and releases in the past few years, synthwave fans are fortunate to experience fresh new faces and the return of veteran artists. Among the fresh talent hitting the scene, we have Von Kaiser, a three piece band hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan. They are releasing their debut album "Landline" on May 4th, 2019 which is loaded with 14 tracks of strong vocal popwave.
A little about the band:
Von Kaiser has existed as a band since 2017, and the name is a reference to the fictional German boxer from the Nintendo game "Punch-Out".
The band is comprised of David Mouatt (vocals, guitar, keys), Jake VanRavenswaay (keyboards, rad keytars, backup vocals), and Kaylin Heydenburg (keys, vocals).
In October 2018 they released a single with an accompanying video called "Dead By Dawn". The video and song are a tribute to the 1987 campy horror flick Evil Dead 2 (some of you may remember the hag chanting that refrain from the basement in the cabin). They brought Kaylin in for this single, after which they asked her to join the band full time. The song was originally going to be featured on one of the Synthaid compilations.
Before this, they had a full length album, but it was more of an experiment than something they felt represented their sound (some folks may remember a song called "Mona Lisa Overdrive"...I'm guilty of liking that song, it was unique, but not what the band felt was their goal), so they removed it from all media sources, and they are considering "Landline" the debut album for the rebooted group.
David is the primary idea maker, and does all the lyrics. Generally, David and Jake kick off the song creation process to start, with parts and input from the other members following closely behind.
In 2018, they collaborated with British artist Skimode on "Tonight" (released Oct 2018). A great song and a great collaboration. It is more electronic than the forthcoming album, but features their great vocals. Paired with Skimode's production, it was refreshing and gave a hint at to the amazing debut that was to come from Von Kaiser.
Let's get into the new album:
Enough with the preamble. Let's get to the exciting part. The upcoming debut album "Landline" releases May 4th. I have to say up front, if you are not a fan of vocal synthwave, you may not gravitate to this album. Every song features vocals, mainly those of David Mouatt. That being said, there are a few songs on the album that could easily be made into versions to please fans of the more instrumental variety. For now, the band comes out of the gate showcasing their talent on instruments and vocals. I get the feeling the requests for collaborations will come fast and hard after this album releases. Let me be clear: this artist is simply incredible, and has a sound unlike any other artist. The closest artist I can compare this to is The Motion Epic.
David (lead vocalist) pretty much dominates all of the tracks on the album, with Kaylin providing complimentary backing or counter vocals on some tracks and Jake adding backing vocals where needed. All the members of the band share duties on the various instruments, sometimes recruiting talent to assist. I can best describe David's voice as sounding like Steve Winwood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the song "Night Driver". More on that later. The songs predominantly lean to the mid to slower ballad pace, with just a few pacing a bit faster (such as the lead song "Armitage"). The songs range from 3.5 to 5 minute ditties, much like the typical '80s contemporary rock/pop genre this album pays tribute to. Throughout the album, you'll always hear Jake and Kaylin's synths, sometimes in the background, sometimes front and center. One thing is for sure: you'll hear real electric guitars throughout most of the tracks, with a sax providing balance to several songs. On their next outing, I'd like to see a few more instrumental tracks to compliment the driving guitars and vocals, or perhaps some more of Kaylin's solo vocals, just to add variety. This band is brimming with talent throughout, and when you listen to the music, you simply want to hear more of the depth the group provides.
With that being said, let me try my best to break down the 14 tracks.
"Armitage" - The first song on the album is a fast little rock song featuring David's vocals with backing from Jake. Guitars and synths drive the song home with a perfect showcase of the bands unique vocals and style.
"Jetpacks" - A catchy pop ballad along the lines of The Midnight or The Bad Dreamers, making you think of movies like "The Breakfast Club". The vocals are crystal clear with Kaylin adding nice backing chants. There is judicial use of guitars throughout, with beautiful percussive pacing. It's a light airy track full of bells and tinkles. The lyrics speak of the good old days and time flying by. A nice soft sax (not overpowering) sneaks in at the end. I think this track is easily the best song on the album.
"Black Rain" - This piece has a fun melody with David belting his vocals after the first few phrases. Jake provides smooth backing vocals and the synths take center stage in this song.
"Landline" - The title track from the album. This single is available now on Bandcamp, with an official video on Youtube. It's a slightly slower atmospheric song with Kaylin and David sharing the vocal duties. It starts out ambient, smooth. Once again, there is some beautiful background sax near the end. The music goes great with a video. This is definitely how I see Von Kaiser's sound...complimenting visuals in movies and shows of the era. Kevin Barnes, a former keyboardist in the band, made the video for the single.
"Shadowrun" - There is a great keyboard melody here with retro vibes. It has an early '80s sound with filtered vocals and Kaylin's voice providing the chorus. Beautiful electric guitars compliment the song near the end. If I had one wish, it would be that the chorus throughout the song had a little more variety (it is catchy though), but the song is short, so it doesn't take away from the nice retro trip.
"Flashbacks" - Smooth, slow and bubbly, this song has David's vocals crooning along with a chill refrain. For some reason this reminds me of some Men at Work songs from back in the day. While the song pines for a time gone by, it somehow makes the listener feel happy.
"Crystal Lake" - Out now on NewRetroWave's "We Rule Nation" YouTube channel. Like one of Gunship's slower ballads, David once again sings with his distinct vocals. This sounds right out of an '80s high school movie. Synth driven, with Kaylin's filtered vocals to start followed by David after several phrases.
"Night Driver" - Kicking off with a sampled Carl Sagan monologue from Cosmos, this twangy number really brings out the Steve Winwood sound, with David's vocals complimenting the fast up and down melody driving through the song. Kaylin provides delicate backing vocals on the chorus. The smooth guitars and the return of the sax here are reminiscent of The Midnight's first album. Of course, the song ends with Carl Sagan talking about a hypothetical 2 dimensional world and a poor flat square who can't explain what 3 dimensions are to his fellow "flatties". My third favorite song on the album.
"Stars & Satellites" - A slow and more ambient track, the vocals come in front and center, singing gently with a soft chorus behind. It's peaceful and serene with the sax kicking in once again 2 thirds through the song to take the listener on a dreamy trip through celestial bodies. This is my second favorite song off the album. It's perfectly executed and so smooth.
"Mixtape" - This track starts slow and ambient, with the familiar synthwave soundbite of a cassette being loaded in a tape player, and then settles into a great mid tempo ditty with David and Kaylin singing back and forth, the lyrics about a mixtape being given from one to the other. It's a beautiful ballad with smooth sax once again reminiscent of The Midnight. I could see this song playing during the end credits to an '80s teen romance movie. Sixteen Candles anyone?
"Blood Moon" - This slightly darker song has layers of sweet synths floating above a nice low bass line. The synths in this are prominent and have a solid refrain. The sax kicks in yet again near the end to give the track a nice wrap. Reminiscent of a song that might play during a cruising or preparation montage in an action movie.
"Wolfhart" - This song provides a soft, shredwave sound. The keyboards are prominent with vocals kicking in after a minute, accompanied by Kaylin in the background. The melody in this is memorable and catchy. I would love to see an instrumental version of this song one day.
"Transporter" - This song is slightly slower with David's voice once again kicking in after a few phrases. The sax jumps in early in this song unlike the prior ones, with Kaylin's vocal providing a chorus backing echo. If you like Gunship, you'll like this track. It will most definitely find its way into quite a few playlists.
"ETA" - The final track of the album is yet another slower ballad with soft synth progressions. David's voice (with Kaylin backing) hangs on the words longer in this track (makes me think of Don Henley or Steve Winwood again), smooth and soft to match the synths.
If you're a fan of Lebrock, The Midnight, Gunship, Glitterwolf, The Van Dammage, The Motion Epic, or older '80s artists like Don Henley, Steve Winwood, or even Phil Collins, you'll probably love this album. All in all, this release is a strong debut for Von Kaiser. It shows off their talent from front to back, and the scene could use some more bands providing strong vocals and real instruments to compliment the many digital artists out there. I've been eagerly awaiting this album for months, and it does not disappoint. For me personally, the 3 tracks that stand out and truly represent the Von Kaiser sound are "Jetpacks", "Stars & Satellites", and "Night Driver".
This album is as a definite buy. There are 14 fully fleshed out songs here providing vocal synthwave at its best. With 3 talented members, I can't wait to see them play live one day. If you are in need of band to play live vocal synthwave at an event, contact them. Especially if it means they perform in Toronto (ahem). The more you listen to this album, the more nuanced discoveries you find in the layered tracks. This is top notch quality retro feels.
One last note: You can catch them live May 11th opening for Perturbator and Gost in their hometown Grand Rapids, Michigan. Click here for details.
Follow, support, and contact the artist at the following links: