Serene and pleasantly dreamy, Kalax’s third full-length album shifts the artist’s style away from a classic synthwave sound and toward the softer, more romanticized popwave spaces that have become increasingly popular within the genre. Unfortunately, the artist’s songwriting has not evolved in equal amounts, and despite excellent production and some pleasant melodies, the recording flounders in ceaseless repetition, making it a struggle to endure the recording in a single listen.
Synthwave has blossomed and cast out new seeds in an explosion of creativity over the past few years. Talented new artists have entered the genre bringing with them more complex songwriting techniques, more talented vocalists, and more diverse influences. 2017 has already seen remarkable releases in the genre that outshine almost everything that has come before them, such as Sunglasses Kid’s Graduation and Phaserland’s Cosmic Boundaries. Into this new environment sleepwalks Kalax’s self-titled album.
Kalax has a classic, almost iconic piece of synthwave art on its cover. The audio production is well balanced and perfectly suited to the artist’s style. At a glance, and after several seconds of listening, it appears to be a bold and exciting release from an established name. Yet within the first few tracks it becomes apparent that the rapid evolution of synthwave music has left Kalax behind, and the compositional approach that succeeded in the past leads to an ill-informed offering that struggles to provide relevant content in 2017.
The opening track, “Time Lapse,” holds the most redeeming listening experience. However, it benefits greatly from being the first in order, and to that extent almost any entry on the album could take its place. A twinkling melody, reminiscent of Konami’s 16-bit “laser” intros, opens the song. Driving bass notes come in with a satisfyingly large, rounded tone, pounding out the groundwork for the sparkling melodies that float overhead. The music patiently builds to its natural conclusion around the 1:35 mark before a distant and half-hearted saxophone solo adds a final layer. From there, the piece seems to lose focus, essentially hitting the reset button and building itself up all over again.
Therein lies the tragic flaw of Kalax: nothing changes. The melodies and rhythms that feel compelling at the one-minute mark of a song become tedious by the five-minute mark. There are no singular moments or inspired touches to break the monotony. Everything is introduced within the first half of each track and then repeated ad nauseam for two or three additional minutes. Elements occasionally dip out only to resume exactly where they left off. Nothing new fills their place in the interim, and no surprises await the listener at any time. The album has similarly little variety between songs. “Time Lapse” is somewhat memorable thanks to the sax solo, but even that turns out to be unremarkable when similar solos pop up in “The Ride (Into the Midnight),” “Ephemeral Night,” and yet again in “Levitate.”
Kalax is still surprisingly listenable, though the lack of unique and memorable melodies as well as the absence of variety in tempo, structure, and style cause one track to run into the next in a drone of retro synth tones. Even across multiple listens it’s difficult to make distinctions between the songs. The melodies ping through a handful of notes without clear intent while the bass grinds along with a moribund throb, occasionally broken by the distant wailing of the saxophone or a quiet vocal contribution. In a genre that hinges on the strength of melodies, particularly in this dreamy subset of popwave music, Kalax walks through its delivery with casual indifference.
Fans who enjoy The Midnight, Gunship, or Timecop1983 may find enough redeeming qualities on Kalax to make it worthwhile, though it’s a tough sell for those who have grown accustomed to the increasingly detailed and cerebral songwriting of modern synthwave music. The sedated synth tones and lullaby mentality of Kalax make it a decent piece of background music for a quiet afternoon, though there’s too little meaningful content to reward active listening and the album ultimately pales in comparison to the best the genre has to offer in 2017.
Rating: 53 / 100 (Mediocre)
Song Variety: 2
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The Album: Bandcamp
The Artist: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SpotifyCheck out What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition for a history of the genre and follow Iron Skullet on Spotify for popular playlists dedicated to Popwave and Synthwave
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