Album Review: Kalax – Kalax

It is worth stepping back in time several years in order to gain the proper perspective on Kalax’s self-titled new album. In the early to mid-2010s, when synthwave was still a sproutling of ’80s music finding life in a fresh musical landscape, the process of establishing the genre was an important one. Only a handful of artists had contributed to the style, and they were working hard to create a distinctive identity for the music and its accompanying visual aesthetic. It was in this climate that Kalax released his first recordings. The musical structure of those early endeavors was uncomplicated and repetitive by today’s standards, but the idea was still fresh and so was the excitement for the use of retro synthesizers.

Since 2015, with the sound and style of synthwave firmly rooted in place, the genre has blossomed and cast out new seeds in an explosion of creativity. 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 masterworks in the genre that outshine almost everything that has come before them, such as Sunglasses Kid’s phenomenal Graduation. Into this new environment comes Kalax’s self-titled album.

Kalax has a classic, almost iconic synthwave album cover. The sound production is attractive, if not stellar. 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 songs it becomes apparent that the rapid evolution of synthwave music has left Kalax behind. Here, the songwriting techniques that succeeded in the past lead to an ill-informed offering that fails to provide anything relevant to the scene in 2017.

The opening track, “Time Lapse,” is the closest the album comes to a redeeming listening experience. It benefits greatly from being the first in order, and to that extent almost any song 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 texture, pounding out the groundwork for the sparkling melodies that float overhead. The song patiently builds to its natural conclusion around the 1:35 mark before a pleasant, if generic, saxophone solo adds a final layer. From there, the song 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 four-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 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. “Time Lapse” is salvaged only by the sax solo, but even that turns out to be unremarkable when it pops up again in “The Ride (Into the Midnight),” “Ephemeral Night,” and yet again in “Levitate.”

All of this might be at least listenable if the melodies had unique qualities, or if the songs varied significantly in tempo, texture, or style from one to the next. Yet even after multiple listens the songs fail to distinguish themselves from one another. They are unfalteringly bland, each one clinging to a single rhythm for its duration like an upturned, amateur canoeist clutching his boat down slow-moving waters. The unremarkable melodies ping through a handful of notes without clear intention while the bass grinds along with a moribund throb. Songs bleed together in a prolonged drone, occasionally broken by the distant wailing of the saxophone or a dreary vocal contribution. In a genre that hinges on the strength of melodies, particularly in this dreamy subset of synthwave, Kalax limps through its delivery.

After years of following the genre and spending a good deal of time with Kalax’s early releases, it is difficult for me to come down so hard on this album. I can say with certainty that if this had dropped in 2014, maybe even 2015, it would have been an attractive recording and this review would be different. But too much has changed. Synthwave 1.0 has been replaced with a smarter, sexier, and more satisfying musical experience, and there is no going back. Like Lazerhawk and other early contributors to the scene, Kalax has failed to evolve with the genre he helped establish.

Rating: 38 / 100