Album Review: Scandroid – Monochrome

It’s a bit of a stretch to classify Scandroid as synthwave music. This makes sense considering that Klayton, the US-based artist behind the project, first gained notoriety for his work on the mercurial Celldweller, a hybrid musical endeavor grounded in the style of late ‘90s and ‘00s magma music and blown open with a healthy dose of experimentation. The producer’s fondness for blending sounds from disparate genres is equally evident on Scandroid releases, and though synthwave is an obvious ingredient, the steely guitar chords, hard-hitting percussion, aqueous vocal distortion, and genre-hurdling singing style complicate the music’s categorization. For better or worse, Scandroid stands apart from the established synthwave sound with a style that holds few comparisons.

Without question, the most ear-catching element in Scandroid’s music is the singing. In Klayton’s other musical projects, his voice fits within the scope and trajectory of millenium-era metamorphic bands like Spineshank and Sevendust. When this vocal style and its inherent associations with angst-ridden adolescents appears on Scandroid’s retro ‘80s pop endeavors, it generates a certain amount of friction, if not necessarily with the music, then at least with listener expectations. Although Klayton has slightly altered his delivery from the clean vocal sections on Celldweller releases like End of an Empire, his roots remain conspicuous. No one else sings like Klayton within the synthwave musical spectrum. This means fans who have followed him from his other undertakings may be more accepting of the style than adherents to synthwave’s foundational synthpop and electro styles, many of whom are liable to struggle with the influence of the atypical genre and era.

That said, there is much to enjoy on Scandroid’s second full-length album, which largely maintains the approach of its predecessor. “2518” kicks things off with a somber and atmospheric soundscape layered with Scandroid’s distinctive reverb-heavy voice, leading nicely into the first full song. “Afterglow” is perhaps the album’s strongest vocal entry, and therefore a fitting choice for the pole position. The track’s galloping rhythm props up gleaming synthesizer notes and melodic singing while crunchy electric guitar riffs shift in and out to diversify its textures. The interplay between the song’s myriad elements form an impressively cohesive musical idea, and its vocal track lands closer to electropop than anything else on the recording. Singular moments like an abrupt synthesizer solo or brief vocal break help keep the song interesting throughout.

“Rendezvous” is a similarly strong effort featuring one of Monochrome‘s catchiest chorus hooks. The song is introduced with pounding percussion, succinct claps, and laser-like effects that play behind a prominent synth lead. After a relatively sparse verse section, the synthesizer and vocals harmonize for a chorus melody that lingers in the listener’s ear well beyond the song’s conclusion. For those who can overcome the barrier created by the singing style, the first three tracks represent a strong start to the album.

However, Monochrome hits a snag with a remake of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It must be said upfront that Scandroid’s rendition of the classic is a technically admirable piece packed with detail and requisite self-assuredness. However, as the title track of the runaway best-selling album in world history, “Thriller” wore out its welcome half a liftetime ago. Most adults have been subjected to the song against their will enough times that they’d be happy to never hear it again, and as such, there is little room or need for a faithful reproduction in 2017. Although Scandroid’s version puts a different spin on the song, the key melodies and rhythms remain devoted to the spirit of the original, for better and worse. The disco-fueled pop of MJ’s ubiquitous anthem feels incongruous with Scandroid’s shadowy world of synth rock, and despite the remake’s excellence on its own terms, no amount of diverse textures or synthesizer solos can justify the reanimation of a song that’s been beaten to death for three and a half decades.

Fortunately, Scandroid promptly returns to original content with a gorgeous instrumental piece, “Oblivia.” Following a gentle dreamwave melody reminiscent of VHS logo themes, Scandroid introduces new layers at a rapid pace, eventually building an opaque composition that deftly withdraws and advances to ensure its many elements remain meaningful for the song’s duration. A sax enters the picture in the second half, grabbing the spotlight with an extended solo in the climax. A synthesizer takes the reins to extend the break, and the dueling solos help make the track the strongest entry on Monochrome. Scandroid often relegates his instrumental songwriting to a straightforward support role behind his singing, but “Oblivia” reveals an aptitude for elaborate pieces that are more compelling than his vocal compositions.

Monochrome‘s title track, while superficially attractive, doesn’t fare quite as well as “Afterglow” and “Rendezvous.” It offers a conservative composition guided by an effects-laden vocal track and midtempo backbeat, and the relatively static structure soon wears thin. Pleasantly, the music splits abruptly to unleash an agile and well composed synthesizer solo late in the song. The strength of the solo transforms its preceding sections into anticipatory moments, effectively redeeming “Monochrome” from its flirtation with mediocrity.

A second cover song arrives in the “The Force Theme.” Though no less commercial than “Thriller,” “The Force Theme” is more receptive to Scandroid’s interpretation thanks in part to the song’s subtler melodies and especially to its relative absence from grocery store intercoms and Halloween parties. Also, given the space-themed nature of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars piece, the song serves as a suitable canvas for Scandroid’s impasto style of synth rock. Driving rhythmic elements akin to Dance With the Dead comprise the engine of the music, while luminous melodies and a synthetic vocal choir lead the charge amid laser-fire percussive shots. It’s a satisfying performance that is distinct from the original and provides a surprisingly effective demonstration of Scandroid’s skills.

More rough waters trouble the back half of the recording with “Future Bloodlines,” “A Thousand Years,” and “The Veil,” which feature prominent and saccharine vocal contributions that dominate their respective compositions. “A Thousand Years” is particularly trying due to a persistent “whoa ho ho ho” vocal bit that becomes grating within a few listens. The instrumental elements are given a backseat role to the singing, particularly during the verse, which means that Scandroid’s previously released instrumental version of “A Thousand Years,” though free from the vocals, is slightly stale on its own.

Fortunately, these moments are juxtaposed with a pair of tracks that reveal Scandroid’s capacity for darker songwriting. “On the Face of the Deep” again recalls Dance With the Dead’s relatively clean and melodic brand of darksynth, and the style is echoed in the album’s closer, “Searching for a Lost Horizon.” Both of these instrumental entries serve as a welcome reprieve from the overbearing vocals on neighboring songs, and they display some of Monochrome‘s most subtle and elegant moments. In fact, in contrast with the heavy-handedness of “A Thousand Years,” they practically radiate sophistication. Free from the shackles of a pop vocal structure, Scandroid allows these pieces to chart their own course, and they are stronger for it.

Taken in its entirety, Monochrome is a remarkable contribution to the synthwave scene that offers many excellent songs and memorable moments. Unfortunately, it suffers from some polarity in the value of its pieces, and a singing style grounded in ’00s metal alternatives may present a barrier for some listeners. There’s no denying the technical skill and innovation displayed on Monochrome, which is consistently high throughout the recording, though the album’s brilliance is occasionally curbed by minimal verse compositions, a syrup-glazed vocal delivery, and reliance on uncomplicated hooks that grow wearisome after a few spins. Monochrome reveals its boldest colors when the instrumental compositions are allowed to speak for themselves. Tracks like “Oblivia,” “The Force Theme,” and “On the Face of the Deep” represent many of Monochrome’s wonderfully nuanced moments, and they are the ones most worth revisiting.

Rating: 77 / 100

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