Album Review: Phaserland – Cosmic Boundaries

Cosmic Boundaries is the type of recording that’s enjoyable on the first listen and transcendental on the tenth. Subtlety is its game, and it plays it better than any other synthwave release in recent history. Cosmic Boundaries is arguably the finest release from Phaserland to date, and once the shape and overall composition of the album become familiar, it can be enjoyed from start to finish without a single dip or break in its overall quality. The many inspired touches amid Phaserland’s careful compositions are a joy to discover and experience, and the true brilliance of the recording becomes clearer on each consecutive playthrough.

Unlike most synthwave releases, including past ones from Phaserland, Cosmic Boundaries does not entice listeners with strongly melodic hooks and attractive vocal choruses. Instead, the album offers an almost uniformly understated experience, the strength of which lies in its details. However, these are often obscured on the first pass within Phaserland’s densely woven compositions, and only through multiple active listening sessions does Cosmic Boundaries yield its finest moments. It would be an easy mistake to gloss over the release on the first listen, dismissing it as a bland effort with too-similar entries. Like all great pieces of music, the aim of Cosmic Boundaries is not instant gratification. The listener must first know the broad contours of each piece and be able to subconsciously follow their path before honing in on the finer elements. Once there, the listener can begin to absorb the many handsome and humble songwriting decisions that inhabit each track.

Even among the hundreds of new synthwave releases that come out each year, there can be no doubt when a Phaserland song is playing. Copper-colored synth leads and silvery accent notes adorn the deceptively complex rhythmic elements alongside marquee electric guitar contributions, all of which are stunningly organic in their integration. Splashes of melody and inspired percussive bursts add color and detail to each track, and the frequently superlative interplay of Phaserland’s neatly arranged elements can be euphoria-inducing.

Just as Cosmic Boundaries’ complex instrumentation forms a remarkable whole, so too does the music’s diverse lineage thread together in extraordinary ways. Stylistically, the album is a logical follow-up to Electric Atlantic, landing near the heart of the synthwave genre. It bears several comparable elements to Mitch Murder’s brand of sometimes quirky, slightly funky synthpop, though it maintains its own distinctive personality. Through the lush undergrowth of electro, pop, jazz, and rock music, the presence of ‘80s science fiction film scores and 16-bit video game soundtracks shine out for an authentically retro and occasionally nostalgic vibe.

However, the overall tone of Cosmic Boundaries has shifted away slightly from past releases, and Phaserland has pulled the music into a more contemplative space than before. Beneath the clean, modernistic tone, there’s a touch of melancholy. Sometimes it rests just beneath the surface for a song’s entirety, while in other cases it abruptly supplants a brighter moment for an unexpected, yet always graceful, shift in mood.

Picking out individual songs to discuss on Cosmic Boundaries is a bit like discussing the texture and color in the corner of a large, finely executed painting. There are many points to be appreciated in such sectional thinking, though the album must be reckoned with in its entirety to fully appreciate its genius. The strength of each entry is heightened through its relative connections to ones both near and far from it on the tracklist. This means that Cosmic Boundaries is no mere assemblage of songs. It is a series of tangible moments and experiences spread across a musical plane illuminated by Phaserland’s distinctively warm and inviting radiance.

For example, the brightly melodic spots on “Glowing” echo the similar sparkle of “Lime Lagoon,” and their perfectly chosen locations on the tracklist enhance each of them across the distance, simultaneously honoring and acknowledging each of the eight entries in-between. In another instance, the discreet succession of “Champion of Romance,” “Case File Love,” and “Fantasy Rider” form a dense musical story with singular events that elevate and accent their counterparts. As Cosmic Boundaries unfolds, it often feels like a single 49-minute-long piece, not for lack of identifiable moments, but for the excellent integration of each track and the conceptual focus that remains consistent for the duration. In many ways, choosing individual songs to hear is less satisfying than simply starting the album at the beginning and allowing it to play through in its entirety.

That said, the first songs likely to stand out to listeners are “Lime Lagoon,” “She Loves Mitch,” and “Glowing,” as well as the album’s only vocal track, “Same Wave” featuring JJ Mist. These entries are the most melodic and tend to have the highest number of immediately memorable moments. “Same Wave” in particular features the most straightforward and pop-oriented approach, making it a prominent landmark for those exploring the terrain of Cosmic Boundaries for the time. These tracks are all excellent in their own right, with “Lime Lagoon” in particular standing out as one of the best songs of the year, though one must go deeper to experience the full significance of the recording.

In accordance with its steeper accessibility, the rest of the album is frequently more gratifying, and the title track serves as a fine representation of these efforts. “Cosmic Boundaries” opens with a sparse melody supplemented by twinkling background notes that recall the score of 1982’s Blade Runner, though Phaserland soon shifts the tone with a deliberate drum beat and a gliding synth melody. Gentle guitar chords ring out in the background, lending support and sometimes companionship to the synth lead before taking the reins with attractive solos late in the track. The melodies evolve in artful ways, effectively echoing preceding moments while continuously pushing the music forward. “Cosmic Boundaries” offers a cerebral experience that is most enjoyable when the music is the sole focus of the listener’s attention, and the song perfectly represents the overall spirit of the album.

“Smolder” and “13 Mile Memories” are similarly successful, providing deeply engaging compositions with intricate basslines, crisp percussion, and a wealth of inspired effects that accent and shape the overall piece. The songs deliver as much in value as the listener is willing to invest in time and attention, and it soon becomes difficult and unimportant to assign the name of a track to a specific musical moment. The number and variety of exciting moments mean that one song never stands above another, and allowing oneself to become immersed in the music helps these creative decisions flow together as part of a larger idea in the same way as the best progressive rock albums.

Musically, Cosmic Boundaries exists in a separate dimension from many of its contemporaries. Where even the most successful artists tend to drone and occasionally bore, Phaserland consistently entices and excites with carefully crafted compositions packed with instrumental details that become clearer and more rewarding on each playthrough. Cosmic Boundaries is unquestionably the most beautiful and artistic synthwave release of 2017, and it is one of the absolute best entries in the genre to date. It remains consistently enjoyable for its duration, and Phaserland’s obvious skill and passion for the music come through in every note. Cosmic Boundaries is an invaluable gem of an album, and it should not be missed by any fan of the synthwave genre.

Rating: 95 / 100

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