Album Review: FM Attack – Stellar

FM Attack’s third full-length album is a captivating synthwave release that washes over listeners with poignant melodies and inspired singing performances. The album’s strongest offerings come through on the vocal tracks, particularly two pieces featuring modern electropop artist Mnynms. These feel clear and confident in their purpose, and their many intriguing and melancholic moments linger in the memory, creating a desire to return to them and experience their emotive qualities all over again. Unfortunately, some of the tracks that surround the best entries are relatively commonplace, sometimes feeling more like filler than meaningful contributions to the tracklist.

It’s been four years since FM Attack’s last album, Deja Vu, and eight years since the genre-shaping debut, Dreamatic. Despite the large gaps between releases, Stellar maintains a clear trajectory in terms of FM Attack’s songwriting style. Fans of Deja Vu should be more than happy with this follow-up, as many of the core ingredients from that essential slice of dreamwave remain intact on the newest offering. The most obvious difference is that Stellar features a darker, more introspective tone than its predecessors.

That sound comes through soon enough and in significant quantities, though FM Attack has chosen the album’s airiest and most lighthearted entry to open the recording. “Little Angel” is the kind of minimal, slightly playful composition often found on 2009’s Dreamatic, and FM Attack lays a robotic, droning vocal track over the top with suitably retro results. Despite an inherently likable tone, the uncomplicated design and mildly attractive melody can’t sustain the music for its unnecessary five-minute running time, resulting in an opener that entices but never fully satisfies.

“Little Angel” gives way to the two aforementioned vocal contributions from Mnynms, at which point the album’s downcast tone settles in for the duration. “Frozen” comes first with a brooding atmosphere filled with deep bass notes, twinkling background tones, and a sliding synth melody, setting a faultless backdrop for the luxurious and haunting vocals. The contribution from Mnynms on “Frozen” stands as one of the finest and most notable synthwave singing performances of the year, and it helps the song’s perfectly somber and attractive spirit remain enticing until the end.

Incredibly, the high level of success of “Frozen” is surpassed on the very next track, “Inner Space,” which is easily one of the best synthwave songs of 2017. Each element of of the music is sublime, and FM Attack has brilliantly woven crisp percussion and chime-like background accents together with ghostly synth melodies, subtle guitar chords, and another inspired vocal performance from Mnynms. Individual components advance and withdraw throughout, accenting one another and pulling the listener into a cold and comforting embrace. It’s an absolute gem of synthwave music, and the song single-handedly makes Stellar worth hearing.

Following the tremendous achievement of the two Mnynms collaborations, FM Attack delivers three consecutive vocal performances of his own. “Images of You” takes more of a classic new wave approach, recalling tracks like Flock of Seagulls’ “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You),” and its rock-oriented rhythm pairs nicely with a deep synth melody. Another deliberate drone on the vocals creates a memorable presence on the album, but sandwiched between the excellence of “Inner Space” and the ensuing “Echoes,” the song turns out to be one of Stellar’s more mundane efforts.

“Echoes” is arguably the best non-Mnynms song on the album. It’s reminiscent of several tracks from Deja Vu, including “Fade Away” and “Corazon,” but with a more pared down, sullen approach. It’s an addictive track with a shimmering and unmistakably sad synth melody, and FM Attack’s humble vocal delivery adds the finishing touch to a superbly understated effort. “Oceans Apart” picks up the desolate tone of “Echoes” and carries it to the most prominent level on the album with a sparse, achingly downtempo structure. The result is a first-rate piece fit for cloudy days and moments of quiet reflection.

In contrast with the self-pitying attitude of The Midnight, FM Attack’s brand of melancholic synthwave is wistfully sympathetic. It is gentle and relatable in its approach, expressing an honest sadness at the nature of relationships and the human condition without romanticizing pain with attention-seeking contrivances. The perfectly heartbroken tone of “Echoes” and “Oceans Apart” is elevated by immensely inspired compositions, and together, the two songs represent Stellar’s second prominent high point.

Following the excellence of the preceding tracks, the final two entries feel somewhat lackluster. “Callisto” throbs along with little deviation in its design, making its relatively lengthy run time unnecessary and even a bit tedious, while “Stella” feels like a short outro artificially stretched to a full-length song. Neither of these pieces is substandard, though they are both overly long for how little they offer, and they come across as afterthoughts to pad the album’s running time. However, their shortcomings do little to diminish Stellar’s overall quality.

In a year that has ranged from bad to terrible for several of synthwave’s established names, FM Attack has delivered a rewarding collection of songs that are frequently sensational. A pair of contributions from Mnynms help to accent and diversify FM Attack’s own vocal approaches, and several inspired melodic compositions propel the album into the upper echelon of the genre in 2017. Although a few songs pale in comparison to the recording’s best entries, Stellar’s many imaginative and hauntingly beautiful moments make it an essential synthwave creation.

Rating: 87 / 100

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