Album Review: Wolf and Raven – Ace of Space

When it comes to bright, melodic synthwave music, there are few artists in the same league with Wolf and Raven. Ace of Space is the second full-length recording from the US-based brothers, following up on the outstanding Renegades album from just a year ago. The duo’s core style remains intact on this one, with elements of ‘80s synthpop, hair metal, Saturday morning cartoons, and old school video games swirling together and bubbling up to the surface in an intoxicating cocktail of nostalgia. In fact, in terms of capturing the excitement and magic of being a kid in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Wolf and Raven are alongside Mitch Murder as the best in the business.

That said, the music never falls into clichés or the generic fan service that has become common with the commercialization of ‘80s themes. Wolf and Raven combine the many pieces that inspire them into an authentic amalgamation and place their own signature stamp on it. The result is a product that feels fresh and surprisingly modern despite its vintage roots.

The band wears its influences on its sleeve, and a glance at the album cover provides a good idea of what’s in store. The artwork is a mashup of pop culture themes and ideas that are familiar through their likenesses. A hybrid of Captain Falcon and M. Bison dominates a scene that is itself compositionally reminiscent of past F-Zero video game covers. Robots, fighter ships, futuristic fantasy warriors, and a raygun-toting space babe populate the neon grid landscape, playing out their roles with a casual anime flair below a pair of musicians wielding an electric guitar and keytar. For anyone unfamiliar with the group’s music, it’s a fitting introduction.

The duo’s distinctive sound is immediately recognizable on the opener, “The Odyssey Overture,” in which a guitar solo soars over a patient, methodical beat. The track serves as a compelling lead-in to the album, validating the band’s commitment to an established sound while signaling an increased emphasis on electric guitar. This promise is promptly fulfilled on the first full song, “Ace of Space,” an uptempo and engaging piece that feels like the soundtrack to an epic anime space battle. The guitar leads are prominent, though strong synthesizer melodies act as an effective counterpoint, and the two take turns as the guiding force of the song.

Although the upbeat synthpop foundation and soaring, spacey guitar work of “Ace of Space” recall the look and sound of action-packed ‘80s cartoons, numerous other elements slip in and out to diversify the song’s overall tone. Nightly news jingles come to mind in one moment, 16-bit video game soundtracks flash through in another, and other pieces of the past elicit fond memories without fully revealing their origins. This musical buffet is consistent throughout the album, though one specific influence that shines through is the SNES soundtracks of David Wise. Distinctive ambient backdrops, quirky percussion, and serene melodies on “Light Years” and “Machine Language” channel Donkey Kong Country tunes like “Aquatic Ambience” and “Stickerbrush Symphony.” These moments are adept tributes to the subtle beauty of Wise’s atmospheric songwriting, and they are endearing Easter eggs for those who grew up with the games.

“Ace of Space” and its follow-up, “Galaxy Joyride,” establish a powerful precedent for song structure that holds true throughout the recording. Rhythmic and melodic elements weave in and out of each track, though specific musical combinations are allowed to exist as unique ideas that never repeat. Wolf and Raven play out their songs in relatively open-ended structures, reaching glorious heights in one moment before descending into quiet spaces in an organic compositional style that reflects the duo’s jam-based songwriting.

The album layout is similarly diverse, offering a healthy variety of music that prevents any one approach from wearing out its appeal. Notable highlights come in the middle of the recording with “Enforcer 88” and “Ethereal Ecstasy,” which are among the most downtempo tracks on the album. After the gleaming, immediately accessible compositions that open the recording, the shift into darker, more contemplative songs is a commendable feat. These tracks not only alter the mood of Ace of Space, they give Wolf and Raven a chance to demonstrate their ability to craft subtle and beguiling pieces of music.

“Enforcer 88” is the album’s most emotionally complex song, and also its most gripping. The robotic percussion feels calm relative to the album’s opening tracks, though there’s an urgency in it that blooms into a sort of neurosis when it pairs with the menacing synthesizer melodies. The song is beautiful, and utterly immersive at high volume, yet the pervasive uncertainty and regret leave a charged atmosphere in their wake. Subtle pacing and layering build to a brilliantly understated climax, and a brief running time perfectly expresses the track’s many emotions without spoiling the mysteries behind them.

If “Ace of Space” is an explosive battle in deep space, then “Enforcer 88” is a clandestine venture into the seedy underbelly of a dense, futuristic city. The emotional and compositional distance between these tracks strengthens them both by revealing the careful deliberation and intent behind the songwriting choices. Wolf and Raven can hit the thrusters on their music any time they like, but their ability to rein it in with equal mastery sets them apart from the bulk of artists in the synthwave scene.

More gems arrive late in the album, including the methodical “Power Quest” and “Space Strippers,” which contrast crunchy rhythm guitar sections with soaring guitar leads and sparkling synthesizer melodies for an attractive mix of textures. “All Systems Go” and “A New Dawn” close out the album, stylistically mirroring the tone of “Ace of Space” and “Galaxy Joyride” and effectively concluding the saga on an uplifting and adventurous note. All together, Ace of Space spans a generous 60 minutes, and though its running length could easily feel excessive in the hands of less talented musicians, the recording reaches its conclusion at a natural pace without ever feeling strained or overindulgent.

Wolf and Raven’s discography to date has been immaculate. Ace of Space maintains that excellence while ramping up the band’s uniqueness through increased emphasis on electric guitar and the incorporation of more diverse influences. An assortment of nostalgic effects and melodies form the foundation of a modern musical artifact that is genuinely retro without pandering to generic commercial sensibilities. The song entries are packed with elegant and memorable moments, and they canvas the recording’s running length to create a true synthwave space epic. Daring, exciting, and even inspiring, Ace of Space is a musical journey well worth taking.

Rating: 95 / 100

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