Album Review: Damokles – Time Machine

In a synthwave scene dedicated to nostalgia for a bygone era, Damokles is a unique personality. While many contributors to the genre were experiencing music for the first time as children in the ‘80s, Damokles was already plying his craft as a songwriter and DJ. The amount of authenticity this lends his music cannot be overstated, and retro enthusiasm radiates from the core of every song on Time Machine like the backdrop of a neon-hued discotheque. It beckons to the listener with infectious funk rhythms, brassy synthesizer melodies, and an irrepressibly positive attitude. While an increasing number of synthwave artists become preoccupied by the gravelly textures and experimental song structures of darksynth, Damokles retains a commitment to bright sounds, upbeat melodies, and genuinely heartfelt music. The world is a better place for it.

Damokles cites a wide array of artists and styles for his unique sound, from Jean-Michel Jarre to James Brown, Yazoo to Soul Sonic Force, and this rich collection of influences reveals itself immediately on the opening track, “Retronomic Time Adventure.” The musical tapestry contains unmistakable elements of funk and hip-hop, with a groove-worthy beat supplemented by table scratching and robotic backup vocals. The core of the song recalls classic pieces of ‘80s electro like Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit!” and Paul Hardcastle’s “19,” and Damokles adds to the song with a vocal style that will feel familiar to fans of Italo disco and synthpop from Germany, Sweden, and neighboring parts of the world. His voice is distinct from nearly everything else in retro electro, and like the rest of his music, it reflects his background and intimate knowledge of ‘80s music. A variety of synthesizer effects ring out through it all, and though they take a backseat to the turntablism, they flesh out the music for a lavish and layered musical experience. A breakdown in the back half of the song gives Damokles an opportunity to demonstrate his aptitude for ‘80s-style rapping, which he handles with the same skill he displays in every other facet of the song.

Despite the numerous conspicuous influences, no aspect of “Retronomic Time Adventure” feels derivative or forced. Damokles writes his music with an honesty that reveals itself in every note, and the music is allowed to be a unique creation of modern nostalgia that manages to stand out among recordings from past and present eras.

Time Machine immediately shifts gears on the second song, “Into the Future,” which drops the funk and hip-hop elements for an adventurous piece of space synth with gorgeous melodies, punchy bass notes, and crisp percussion. The contrast between the first two songs reveals Damokles’ remarkably flexible songwriting abilities, and it establishes a trend that maintains itself throughout the recording: Damokles is not content with a single approach, or even many approaches, and there are scarce moments on Time Machine that could be mistaken for one another.

“We Can Dance in Neon Lights” comes across with a playful vibe, recalling some of the quirkier songs from Human League like “Love Action (I Believe in Love),” albeit more synth-centric. The track is followed by “Big Bad Wolf,” an instrumental tribute to Doctor Who that is perhaps the spaciest song on the recording. The piece opens with iconic notes soaring over a rigid, midtempo beat and rolling bassline, while sounds of the Tardis reach out from the dense musical arrangement. When the song’s main hook arrives, it breaks the relative serenity of the opening section, widening the audioscape and allowing delicate background tones to cascade across one of the recording’s most graceful succession of notes.

A short time later, “Whenever You Are” delivers the album’s strongest moments with a space synth effort that lands near the realm of classic releases from Laserdance and Proxyon. This same style emerges in other parts of the album, such as on “There’s No Looking Back” and “Homecoming.” Of these, “Whenever You Are” is the airiest, tossing out crystalline tones that play upon the irresistibly danceable rhythm. Just try to keep your shoulders from swaying and your feet from moving to “Whenever You Are.” It can’t be done. A brilliant synth solo late in the track adds further shine to the song, making it one that can play on repeat without wearing out its appeal. “There’s No Looking Back” is similarly noteworthy, cracking out sharp percussive blasts and alternating between series of abbreviated and elongated synthesizer notes to guide the song.

“Déjà Vu” is one of the album’s strongest and most serious-minded vocal entries. Coming on the heels of “Whenever You Are,” the song is notable for its relatively sparse synth melodies and a reliance on its rhythm and vocal track to guide the song. The verse section is also the darkest point of any on the album, comparable to Compilerbau’s brand of space horror. “Homecoming” concludes Time Machine with one of the recording’s most dense and elaborately layered structures. The song is a joy to explore, with a broad assortment of textures and tones converging into a stunningly cheerful finale.

Damokles’ pursuit of a diverse tracklist occasionally leads to some odd places, such as on “Searching for Tomorrow,” where the prominent table scratching tends to overwhelm the song and compete with the melodic chorus vocals. “Put Some Faith in Yourself,” a ballad of sorts, also suffers from a mix of elements that never quite seem to come together into a cohesive whole. Although Damokles’ eccentricities occasionally create thorny spots, it would be a small miracle for every song to be a complete success on a recording as unique as Time Machine. However, the wealth of enjoyable material easily overcomes any trouble areas, and it is impossible to hold Damokles’ experimentation against him.

When songs like “Retronomic Time Adventure” and “Whenever You Are” reach through the speakers, it’s easy to forget the worries of daily life and climb into the Time Machine for a spirited journey to the past. Turntables, synthesizers, and genuinely retro vocals are employed with the knowledge and mastery of an artist who contributed to the ‘80s firsthand, and the commendable diversity of songs on Time Machine represent an ambitious and successful offering to the ‘80s pop revival.

Rating: 92 / 100

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