Boasting precise mixing and near-flawless musical execution, Code Elektro’s 2015 Superstrings may be one of the best albums of cyberpunk-inspired electronica one would hope to come across. This shouldn’t come as much of a shock considering the album is the product of Danish musician Martin Ahm Nielsen, who makes a living composing music for commercials and television. What did strike me about Superstrings is that the phenomenal sound quality and sharp production simply couldn’t disguise the fact that much of the music here seems ultimately pointless. It’s a well-made album for sure, but it winds up suffering from the same problem that most Ratatat albums do: one must REALLY like the type of music featured to the exclusion of most everything else in order for the album to seem like anything more than a tolerable timewaster.
Those who’ve listened to a few synthwaves artists are likely to know exactly what they’re in for here: the album features an overload of arpeggios, pulsating keyboard tones, warbling, airy melodies, and groaning, ominous low end. Kinetic opener “Cyber Dreams” has definite Blade Runner mood to it, gradually applying layers of sound to the relentless, looping sequence at its center. The track makes use of a large number of different elements and themes yet it’s never muddy, a credit to Nielsen’s ability as an audio engineer. Having an immediately more pensive feel to it, “DigiTron” has a stomping momentum with main melodies that emphasize a sense of the unknown, swooping above bubbling and burpy accompaniment. “Her Desher,” meanwhile, tosses in quite possibly the most (over-)used sound sample in the history of electronic music - the NASA audio of the Apollo 11 launch – along with grinding guitar-like accents and a tinkling background of keyboard, a track that seems to constantly be building in intensity but offers no genuine payoff.
Starting with a lonely, high-pitched melody that sounds like something pulled out of a Dario Argento movie, “Binary Prophecy” is built around bloopy synth progressions that are suggestive of a vintage computer game and includes a somber woodwind melody (sounds like an oboe to me) that brings a sense of tenderness and yearning to the piece. The album’s title track is more dancehall-friendly than most of the others here, with a standard four-bar beat, rumbling bass, and fluttering melodic asides. Hissing and shuddering sound effects almost make it seem like we’re listening to the breathing patterns of a monstrous behemoth waiting in the darkness for the right moment to strike. The spacey “X Cipher” heads back into more mysterious sonic territory; with a frenetic organ line heard over droning background ambiance, the track picks up some much-needed urgency during its second half. Metallic scrapes and clangs make “Death Star” a more noticeably unnerving piece, even throwing in an Omen-style pseudo-religious vocal choir during its furious climax. Afterward, the listener heads through “A New World” of lumbering, earthy tones and traverses an especially shady market district in the more propulsive and catchy “Syndicate” before the album concludes with the menacing but almost cautiously optimistic “Steel Sky.”
The sad fact is, as cool as it is to have artists like Code Elektro, neon shudder, S U R V I V E, and Zombie Zombie(to name but a few) carrying on in the footsteps of such figures as John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi, Maurizio and Guido De Angelis, and Goblin in making creepy soundtrack-like synthesizer music, few of the modern progenitors of synthwave are adding much to a genre that, let’s face it, peaked more than three decades ago. Accurately replicating the sound of 1980s synthesizers instills this genre with some novelty value and certainly, there’s a crowd out there who eats this stuff up. Still, it’s massively disappointing when an album like Superstrings is full of tracks which simply settle into various musical phrases and repeat them ad nauseam – none of these compositions seem to go anywhere or build to anything. Perfectly acceptable, even likable, as background music, but too repetitive to really satisfy as active listening material, Superstrings winds up a further, completely mediocre modern synth album – one that fans of the genre would appreciate, but might not be enamored by.
6.8 / 10
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