Album Review: Lazerhawk – Dreamrider

Lazerhawk’s role as a pioneer of synthwave music is undeniable. The artist’s first two albums, 2010’s Redline and 2012’s Visitors, remain pivotal and essential contributions to the genesis of retro synthesizer music alongside releases from Miami Nights 1984, Futurecop!, Kavinsky, and College. However, the genre has transformed dramatically since then, evolving into a much more elaborate, sophisticated, and rewarding style of music. Sadly, Lazerhawk has not progressed from the rudimentary songwriting of his early releases, and Dreamrider feels like a belated and apologetic attempt at a serious musical endeavor from one of synthwave’s absentee founding fathers. With its archaic song structures and overly long track lengths, Lazerhawk’s brand of Synthwave 1.0, has no chance of competing with modern releases in the scene.

The disappointment of Dreamrider should perhaps be no surprise, as even Lazerhawk’s best releases, the aforementioned Redline and Visitors, now show their age with repetitive song structures laden with uncomplicated rhythms and melodies. The undeniable enthusiasm and excitement in the recordings remains clear, though their monotony makes them difficult to enjoy in the wake of the genre’s incredible evolution. Lazerhawk’s last effort, 2013’s Skull and Shark, has fared even worse. The album was a largely underwhelming effort upon release, and although its shortcomings were somewhat forgivable for its earnest attempt to contribute to the then-new darksynth style, only a few songs were worth hearing among the otherwise dreary and dull recording. As with its predecessors, Skull and Shark struggled under the weight of repetitive compositions, but unlike Lazerhawk’s first two efforts, the melodic features of its audioscape were too bland to compensate for the changeless song structures.

In the five years since Visitors, the world has received one brilliant new synthwave release after another. New and talented musicians have flocked from other musical endeavors to take a shot at the burgeoning synthwave scene, each one pushing innovative approaches and greater technical skills. As Lazerhawk’s early releases diminished in relative value and the gap widened since his last release, it was a safe bet that any new effort would be a disappointing one. Hope springs eternal for the music fan, however, and it was difficult not to feel excitement at the possibility of a triumphant return for Lazerhawk in the form of Dreamrider, especially after a glance at the colorful cover artwork.

However, from the opening notes of the album’s first track, “Neon Dawn,” it’s clear the simple, monotonous compositions of Lazerhawk’s past efforts have not evolved in the seven years since Redline was released. In fact, they’ve somehow degenerated. Although it feels like an intro, “Neon Dawn” drags out to a full-length song that establishes a bleak precedent for the album with its unyielding beat and song structure. The introduction of a few new melodic elements over the course of the track offers some surprises, and the first half seems like a pleasant, albeit minimal and withdrawn, effort that could play pleasantly in the background of a room. But the simplicity of the music denies any possible reward for close listening, and it ultimately cannot come close to justifying the five-and-a-half minute running time.

“Cruise” follows up the intro track with a downtempo pace and subtle, spacey synth notes. Once again, the song delivers some agreeable moments, and new melodic elements arrive as it progresses for a small amount of variety, but the static beat and general repetition grow tedious before the track even hits its midpoint. A brief break in the center of the song creates a reprieve and an opportunity for something new and refreshing to arrive, yet the same beat returns with its trudging simplicity to apathetically grind out the rest of song. The feather light synth tones that ping and echo across the surface of the beat lack enough identity to compensate for the mindless drone of the rhythm, and “Cruise” offers no incentive to finish its first playthrough, let alone return to it for a second listen.

The unfortunate pattern of songwriting lethargy is cemented on the ironically named third track, “Feel the Rush Tonight.” A pretty vocal contribution from Gunship is a welcome addition, though the brain-beating simplicity of the underlying structure is enough to send a listener scrambling for the controls by the end of the unnecessarily long five-and-a-half minute piece. The track could be elevated to at least mediocrity with a break that introduced distinctly new song elements, but no such sanctuary ever arrives. A willingness to trim two or more minutes from the song’s redundant song length would similarly be an improvement, but the self-indulgent running time leaves the song with no hope of competing with other vocal compositions in 2017.

The first three tracks inflict minor wounds on Dreamrider, but “Somnus” is a grievous blow that brings the album to its knees with a fulfillment of Lazerhawk’s potential for mind-numbing music. The handful of interesting melodic elements present on Dreamrider‘s opening tracks are entirely absent on “Somnus,” and the irredeemable effort fails to deliver a single interesting or remarkable moment. It drones on for over four minutes with virtually no deviation in its sparse, downtempo delivery, and the result would feel more at home on a debut recording from an amateur producer than on the fourth full-length release from an innovator of the genre.

Miraculously, the follow-up song, “Dreamrider” manages to be even less imaginative, and the title track’s trudging delivery and muddy soundscape drive the final nail into the coffin. By the time “Dreamrider” reaches the end of its five-minute running length, it’s heartbreakingly clear there’s no point in persisting into the remainder of the album. Those intrepid enough to make the journey will find a musical wasteland that somehow exceeds the futility of the recording’s first half.

Like other early contributors to the synthwave scene, Lazerhawk has been unable to keep up with the genre he helped shape, and instead seems to have actually regressed. Dreamrider is a grating and often tedious effort that would be an underachiever as a debut album, even in 2012. As a release from an established artist in 2017, dropped into an ocean of synthwave music highlighted by brilliant and innovative releases from artists like Phaserland, Nightstop, and Wolf and Raven, Dreamrider provides no comfort for fans who waited four years to hear from Lazerhawk. The recording’s small potential, based on releases that are already out of date and elementary by Synthwave 2.0 standards, is left unfulfilled. Fans who are only superficially familiar with synthwave music may convince themselves to like this one, but everyone else can safely avoid it and preserve their fond memories of Lazerhawk’s early albums in the process.

Rating: 18 / 100

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