At its best, Raytracers is a poignant piece of storytelling packed with surprises and remarkable creative decisions. The album’s ambitious inclusion of diverse musical elements is frequently cohesive and endearing, and the intricate songwriting is well ahead of many of Astral Tales’ contemporaries. Raytracers’ evolution of darksynth may not resonate with synthwave fans looking for a conventional listening experience, though its singular nature will find a loyal fanbase with those willing to disregard expectations and step outside genre conventions.
With his second full-length release, Astral Tales continues the story begun on the Landing album from late 2016. Raytracers tells a tale of war, rebellion, and the struggle against tyrannical governments. It’s a sci-fi epic and a concept album told adeptly through imaginative and frequently emotive songwriting. Musically, Astral Tales newest full-length effort pushes at the edges of modern synthwave, delving into a fluid style with touches of darksynth, rock, electronica, and the incorporation of folk music from diverse parts of the globe, making it a premier example of the developing cybersynth style.
The album begins with its most conspicuous storytelling elements: a spoken narrative by Tim Simmons over an ambient soundscape. Simmons’ voice generates a classic science fiction feel: not overly serious, but not contrived or campy either. The intro leads effortlessly into “Colonies,” which is one of the album’s most uptempo and exciting pieces. The impeccable sound production and gripping rhythm make the song a powerful opening track, and its many surprises ensure it remains interesting for its duration.
An aggressive, darksynth-influenced section gets the song rolling, though just as it seems to be building up, “Colonies” shifts gears and abruptly drops into quiet ambience. Emerging from the sudden shift, atmospheric synth tones build up through the midpoint of the song and are soon joined by a female voice with distinctive Indian vocalization. The singing style is a welcome and unique contribution to a synthwave scene dominated by North American and Western European culture, and it gives the song a recognizable identity within the broader genre. “Colonies” comes full circle by the end, returning to the grittier synth effects and vigorous percussion that opened the track, this time with greater intensity. The unexpected musical detour adds a real sense of storytelling to the piece, and the end result is one of the recording’s most notable efforts.
“Letters of Transit” brings the energy level down several notches for a quiet, somewhat melancholic piece. The song’s title is a reference to a book by the same name, subtitled Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, a theme that ties into Astral Tales’ concept for the album. Behind Raytracers is a belief in the value of the human experience, not divided by lines of color or country. The conspicuous incorporation of musical elements from cultures around the world is Astral Tales’ statement of unity, intended to transcend boundaries of language, culture, and politics, and just as importantly, reject racial prejudice and its increasing prevalence in developed nations of the 21st century.
“Letters of Transit” is distinctly beautiful, and its serene quality provides a meditative moment in the recording. Like many of Raytracers entries, the song’s style is unique within the tracklist and consequently quite memorable. However, its placement as the second full song on the album halts some of Raytracers’ momentum before it can get going, and the six-minute running time feels overly long for the song’s relatively straightforward structure.
Fortunately, the album recovers nicely with “Turbo Club,” which is arguably the recording’s best entry. Elaborate, African-influenced percussion accents the uptempo rhythm while exciting synth leads work together at the front of the song. Once again, the fluidity of Astral Tales’ style allows the music to flow smoothly from one section to the next, and “Turbo Club” frequently conjures up mental images of a spacecraft soaring over a crowded futuristic city, perhaps not unlike the blended multicultural urban environments of Blade Runner, albeit with a cleaner, more streamlined appearance.
“Ivory Gardens” arrives later in the recording, and it challenges “Turbo Club” as the most rewarding composition on the album. Its lush and majestic sound exquisitely mirrors its title, and the downtempo track adds an enticing piece of detail to Astral Tales’ fictional world. It’s easy to accept the song’s vision of warmly lit ivory columns and scarcely contained plantlife as a sort of urban oasis within the futuristic cityscape of songs like “Colonies” and “Turbo Club,” and the gorgeous track provides a meaningful intermission from some of Raytracers’ more densely constructed efforts.
“We Will Remain” delivers yet another surprising entry, this time with a powerfully emotive vocal performance from Astral Tales. The rich tone of his voice is perfectly accented by bright, reverb-heavy background tones and pounding percussion, all of which is wrapped up in faultless production. Like everything on Raytracers, the style of “We Will Remain” bears surprising influences, this time seeming to recall forms of millenium-era experimental rock, such as the title track of doom-metal-turned-electronic-rock act Paradise Lost’s 1999 album, Host.
The instrumentation on “We Will Remain” builds and wanes carefully throughout the song, and the dense musical tapestry is so effortlessly woven that it’s easy to take for granted until it reaches its beautifully succinct conclusion. The sudden dissolution of the music creates something of an audial vacuum, leaving the listener momentarily suspended in the abrupt silence. The song is one more example of Astral Tales’ impressive versatility, and it stands as one of Raytracers’ most prominent highlights.
Other notable entries include “Are You Alive or Just Breathing” and “Under the Gates of Osiris,” both of which are rooted within Astral Tales’ brand of cyberpunk-infused electronica and offer beautiful and high-tech, yet subtly gritty, soundscapes. A small number of other tracks on the recording are slightly less impressive, and they tend to get lost among their counterparts. For example, “‘Crepuscular Arrays” features an attractive, spacey atmosphere with quick percussion and similarly succinct melodic elements, though the song’s minimal structure makes it feel more like a long interlude than a full song on its own, especially as the lead-in to the exceptional “Ivory Gardens.” The meditative closing track, “Reconciling Solitude” feels similarly sparse and unremarkable in relation the recording’s most prominent pieces, despite its attractive tone. Still, these complaints are small in comparison to Astral Tales’ many laudable accomplishments.
Taken in its entirety, Raytracers represents an ambitious and artful creation whose elaborate structures stand out from the majority of music within the synthwave genre and closely related styles. Astral Tales’ powerful musical creations are bolstered by a strong conceptual design and a concerted effort to include multicultural instrumentation. The album suffers slightly from uneven song quality, though it’s easy to overlook the few shortcomings in light of a bold willingness to experiment on every track. From electrifying pieces with a strong cyberpunk flair to reserved, quietly beautiful entries, Raytracers’ cinematic and well-realized futuristic soundscapes demand to be explored in their entirety.
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