Synthwave music has undergone a rapid and far-reaching transformation in the past two years, both in terms of style and overall quality. As the genre pulls in new producers and fans from diverse music styles, and older fans become increasingly disenchanted with the traditional sound of the genre, it becomes more relevant than ever to discuss the nature of the music, where it has come from, and most importantly, where it is heading. So, exactly what is synthwave? Read on to find out.
What is Synthwave Music?
Although it’s a common assumption for new fans to make, synthwave is not a general or broad term for synthesizer music, and despite the genre’s retro stylings, does not include music from the ‘80s or other decades of the 20th century. Synthwave is a distinctly modern music genre begun in the mid 2000s as an homage to the pop culture sounds and imagery of the 1980s and early 1990s. Conceptually, this interest in the past manifests itself in two significant, and often interrelated, forms.
The first conceptual aspect of synthwave is a romanticized vision of carefree summer days spent on the boardwalk, at the beach, or at the video arcade. This vision frequently orients itself on images of coastal US cities like Miami and Los Angeles, replete with palm trees and oceanside sunsets. The songwriting captures an idealized mental image of the ‘80s; it’s the musical manifestation of a vintage postcard that says “Come to L.A.” in pink letters above an image of a crowded beach with people on surfboards and roller skates.
The second core conceptual element of synthwave involves the ‘80s ubiquitous love affair with science and technology. This aspect is expressed through synthwave producers’ interest in science fiction, computers, neon lights, and futuristic supercars. It also extends to ‘80s horror movies, which themselves frequently contained themes of science and technology.
Musically, synthwave’s origins are tied to dance music genres of the mid ‘00s, specifically house and nu disco. Early synthwave artists put a synth-heavy spin on these sounds using inspiration from ‘80s pop culture, particularly soundtracks for movies, television, and video games. Smaller elements like ‘80s jingles for television commercials, VHS production companies, and nightly news programs also played a role in the genre’s genesis. Synthwave’s name can be somewhat misleading, as the music has very little in common with new wave music, which is a rock-based genre that evolved out of punk acts of the ‘70s and flourished in Britain and North America. Instead, synthwave is rooted much more deeply in European disco and electronic dance music.
Despite synthwave’s preoccupation with the ‘80s, it is not simply a rehash of old sounds and ideas; few songs from the genre could pass for vintage creations, and very little music from the past sounds precisely like synthwave. Instead, it is a retrofuturistic evolution of elements from the past, amalgamated and taken into an alternative timeline with suitably distinct musical and visual aspects. As promoter Samuel Valentine succinctly puts it, “synthwave is the music for a future that never happened but everyone dreamed about in the ‘80s.” Naturally, this idea of retrofuturism can be far-ranging in its application, a fact that is represented in synthwave’s diverse artistry.
What Are the Different Styles of Synthwave Music?
Even as recently as 2014, the question about synthwave subgenres and styles was an easy one to answer. However, since 2015, the genre has seen an enormous influx of creators with different influences and backgrounds. Synthwave is rapidly evolving and shifting at the edges, closing the distance between numerous other genres. In early 2018, the borders of synthwave and the closely related darksynth genre blend into chiptune, ambient, vaporwave, alt rock, dubstep, drum and bass, aggrotech, and many other styles of music, including some metal subgenres.
As synthwave continues to spill over into neighboring music styles and the term is increasingly applied to songwriting that bears no relation to the original genre, the identity and spirit of synthwave music becomes obscured and more difficult to understand. For this reason, it’s useful to touch on differences between the various styles of synthwave music and establish some demarcation lines. This is done with the intent of increasing clarity, recognition, and most importantly, appreciation of the music and the artists. Because this next section goes into detail about differences in music styles, it’s helpful to be familiar with the importance of music genres before moving on.
It must be briefly emphasized here that music genres and subgenres shift rapidly when they are new and grow increasingly rigid over time as a greater volume of music is created in and around them. The following discussion benefits from hindsight and broadly surveys synthwave with thousands of releases and more than a decade’s worth of music in mind. Also, the music styles listed here are used as general descriptors, not rigid classifications. Very few artists in any genre can be properly represented by a single descriptor, and so this discussion is a flexible and relative way of looking at some of the stylistic choices producers in the genre make when creating their music.
The following diagram provides a visualization of the synthwave genre and its connection to directly related music styles. Note that it is impossible to completely and effectively organize music genres in this way, and so the chart is meant as a visual reference for the descriptions that follow and not a complete classification system.
Synthwave / Retrowave
The terms “synthwave” and “retrowave” are the modern names for the main genre, and they are used broadly when talking about the music. The two terms are roughly equivalent, though there’s a useful distinction between them: “synthwave” refers specifically to the music, while “retrowave” is an all-encompassing term that also applies to artwork, clothing, videos, and other media that embody ‘80s nostalgia and ‘80s retrofuturism.
Outrun / Outrun Electro
In the formative days of synthwave, “outrun” and “outrun electro” were the most common names for the genre, with “synthwave” and “retrowave” overtaking them in popularity roughly around 2014. As the genre continues to expand, “outrun” remains a useful term for describing the specific music style established by the earliest synthwave releases.
Examples of formative albums that shaped the sound and visual aesthetic of outrun music in the late ‘00s through 2010 include:
Teddy Boy (2006)
The Unicorn & The Lost City of Alvograth (2008)
After Hours (2009)
The underground origins of the genre can be traced back further, such as to songs from MPM, but for the purposes of this article, the shortlist of formal releases provides a suitable and compact understanding of early outrun music and the broader synthwave genre’s foundation.
The outrun sound is particularly well represented by the 2010 albums from Miami Nights 1984 and Lazerhawk, as well as their respective follow-up releases in 2012, Turbulence and Visitors. These recordings feature many of the prominent synthwave themes mentioned above, with a particular focus on ‘80s supercars, night drives, beachside sunsets, and vintage science fiction. These aspects are visually represented in the album artwork and song titles, and musically represented by vibrant, retro synthesizer tones, brightly melodic songwriting, and incorporation of vintage music elements from movies, television, video games, and to a lesser extent, ‘80s synthpop and electro.
Notably, the driving themes and visual aesthetic of early synthwave echoes the 1986 arcade racing game, Out Run, which puts players behind the wheel of a virtual Ferrari Testarossa as they speed through mountain passes and alongside sunny, palm-tree-packed beaches. This influence is frequently reflected in artist, album, and song titles, as with The Outrunners, who released their Running for Love and Money EP in 2010, and Kavinsky, whose 2013 full-length album is simply named OutRun.
In general, outrun music is typified by a stiff, four-on-the-floor beat reminiscent of French house music and its roots in Euro disco and synthpop, as well as clean and articulate synthesizer melodies. Structurally, the music is often linear and rarely pushes into the relative complexity of a standard three-section pop tune, instead maintaining a single rhythmic pattern and only one or two lead melodies through an entire song.
Early outrun emphasizes ‘80s nostalgia more than almost all synthwave releases that followed, frequently incorporating audio clips from pop culture of the decade. Songs like Mitch Murder’s “Palmer’s Arcade” (2011), Lost Years’ “Park Avenue 1989” (2012), and Botnit’s “Hi-Score” (2013) provide excellent examples of the inclusion of ‘80s audio artifacts into outrun music.
Although early synthwave was almost entirely instrumental, it didn’t take long for producers to begin contributing retro vocal performances to their songs. Kristine’s Modern Love EP from 2012 marked an important shift toward vocal-driven outrun, and Dana Jean Phoenix has been prolific within the broader synthwave genre, releasing albums under her own name and providing guest vocals for dozens of prominent releases.
Outrun remains relevant and popular in 2017 and early 2018, with recordings like Tokyo Rose’s The Chase: Last Run and CJ Burnett’s Moonlit City providing contemporary examples of synthwave’s pioneering sound. Other albums, like Overvad’s Massive Scoop and Ace Marino’s Cocaine Flamingo feature a slightly evolved style that remains in alignment with classic outrun.
In relation to the many styles of synthwave music that came later, outrun forms the spiritual heart of the genre, and as such, it is the music to which all other synthwave subgenres must be compared. The demarcation lines that form the boundaries of the main synthwave genre are oriented around the seminal outrun releases from the late ‘00s and early ‘10s.
(Follow Iron Skullet’s Outrun Electro playlist on Spotify)
Although it was difficult to perceive at the time, the seeds for a second, closely related style of synthwave music were planted with the earliest outrun releases. This music would come to be known as dark synthwave, or simply darksynth. In contrast to Miami Nights 1984’s vision of sunny oceanside drives and Mitch Murder’s afternoons in video arcades, darksynth’s embrace of ‘80s retrofuturism turned toward B horror movies, comic books, and pulp science fiction for its identity, often incorporating music elements from metal and industrial genres.
The origins of the darksynth sound can be heard in the aforementioned outrun releases, such as on Kavinsky’s “Wayfarer” and “Deadcruiser,” as well as Futurecop’s “As Seen on TV.” However, the style would not emerge in its full form until 2012 with albums like Perturbator’s Terror 404, Carpenter Brut’s EP 1, and Mega Drive’s VHS. Other notable entries in the formative days of darksynth include Dance With the Dead’s Out of Body from 2013 and early Gost EPs like The Night Prowler and Skull. Futurecop! further contributed to the genesis of the darksynth sound on the 2012 album The Movie, delving into the coarse effects and rhythmic songwriting approach that has become a signature of the genre with songs like “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Super Saiyan.”
These innovative releases clearly established a new style of synthwave, though they often shared stylistic commonalities with outrun. For example, songs like Perturbator’s “John Holmes VHS Nightclub” and Carpenter Brut’s “LA Venice Beach ‘80s” are very near to centric outrun releases of the era. Cluster Buster’s entire discography provides an example of horror-tinged music that stylistically represents outrun’s early relationship with darksynth.
After the initial impact in 2012 and 2013, dark synthwave began to expand rapidly, attracting fans and producers not just from outrun, but from a diverse range of external genres. By 2015, the darksynth style was nearly as prevalent as outrun, and even artists like Mitch Murder and Nightstop, who traditionally focused on a glossy, pop-oriented approach to their music, tried their hand at the burgeoning darksynth style.
2016 and 2017 were immensely pivotal years for darksynth, as the subgenre arguably overtook the more traditional style in terms of notoriety and popularity. The grittier, more experimental darksynth sound not only continued to spread to new artists, but evolved dramatically in terms of style, effectively forming its own distinctive genre alongside synthwave. In 2017, artists like Dan Terminus, Gost, Fixions and Perturbator declaratively pushed their music beyond the edges of synthwave, establishing new creative approaches to darksynth that land in relatively unexplored territory.
The dense, rhythmic-oriented approach of many modern darksynth artists, as well as the inclusion of stronger elements from genres like dubstep, trap, drum and bass, industrial, and metal, creates a sharp deviation away from the melodic, pop-oriented sounds of outrun music. 2018 has already seen a hybrid darksynth and dubstep offering in Lazerpunk’s Death & Glory, a hybrid darksynth and metal creation in Carpenter Brut’s Leather Teeth, and an extreme creation in Gost’s Posessor that hurdles the darksynth genre altogether. These artists no longer share any common musical ground with outrun albums like Kavinsky’s 1986 and Lazerhawk’s Redline, and they therefore fall outside the boundaries of the synthwave genre. This conscious, deliberate evolution can be plainly observed in the music, album artwork, and title of Perturbator’s 2017 EP, New Model.
Darksynth has many other, less conspicuous, names, such as dreadwave, terrorwave, and horrorsynth. However, despite the understandable misuse, darksynth is not synonymous with darkwave, and the terms do not refer to the same style of music. “Dark synthwave” and “dark new wave” both regrettably shorten to the same blend word, though there are significant differences between them.
Darkwave is a large and well established genre that grew out of gothic rock and new wave of the late ‘70s and has experienced a long and varied evolution. The Cure’s 1982 album Pornography and Wolfsheim’s 1992 album No Happy View are excellent examples of darkwave. The genre retains a loyal audience in the present day, with acts like Lebanon Hanover, Clan of Xymox, and Cold Cave continuing to represent the darkwave sound in the 2010s. Although a few examples of hybrid creations have emerged in the past year — as on Gost’s “Sigil” — darksynth and darkwave have followed separate and remarkably different genealogical paths, and generally speaking, have very little in common.
(Follow Iron Skullet’s Darksynth playlist on Spotify)
Another common name for the synthwave genre in its early years was “retro electro.” Although this term has sometimes been used broadly, it actually refers to a specific style of music and is relevant as a subgenre descriptor in the same way as outrun. The confusion over the term is not surprising, as “electro” is one of the most badly abused and misunderstood terms in Western music. Electro’s original and most iconic sound is a form of hip-hop, and in the most basic sense, blends funk and synthpop with turntablism. It was developed in the early ‘80s on seminal releases like Afrikaa Bombataa and Soul Sonic Force’s 1982 album Planet Rock, Hashim’s 1983 Al-Naafyish, and Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock, also from 1983. Hancock’s “Rockit” is the most famous example of the original electro sound.
Retro electro pulls the classic hip-hop sound into the present day and infuses it with modern production and the strong melodic sensibilities of the synthwave genre. Many retro synth creations around 2010 contained elements of electro, such as on Mitch Murder’s “Action Bike,” Miami Nights 1984’s “Miami Funk,” and Digikid84’s “Lazy Lady,” hence the prevalence of the terms “outrun electro” and “retro electro” in synthwave’s early days. Recent examples of retro electro include the Damokles songs “Retronomic Time Adventure” and “Electric Boogie” as well as Beckett’s “We Can Get Down.” In 2018, retro electro is a relatively small but vibrant subgenre of synthwave music, and it’s often represented on a handful of songs on an artist’s album alongside synthpop and outrun-style music
Synthpop, House, and Nu Disco
An essential contributor to the retrowave style in general, though not specifically to synthwave, is Tesla Boy. The Tesla Boy EP from 2009 and the subsequent Modern Thrills album from 2010 had a massive impact on the ‘80s music revival, and the album art for The Tesla Boy EP remains a foundational image in the retrowave aesthetic. Musically, Tesla Boy’s earliest releases were a blend of synthpop, new wave, and nu disco, and they differ from the earliest outrun releases at the heart of the synthwave genre. However, their relevance to the retrowave scene and the excitement they generated for the ‘80s revival cannot be understated.
Synthpop is a massive genre on its own with decades worth of evolution, though artists like Sunglasses Kid, Maxthor, and Le Cassette provide examples of the influences of the ‘80s era and the closely related sounds of ‘80s mainstream pop within synthwave. Mecha Maiko further represents the synthpop connection, first with her darkly atmospheric, hybrid synthwave creations as part of Dead Astronauts, then with a solo debut in early 2018. There is also a small but significant influence from vintage Italo disco in the synthwave mix, most notably from producer Vincenzo Salvia.
Similarly, elements of nu disco and house music are prevalent within synthwave, and their characteristics have remained apparent throughout the genre’s lifespan. For example, artists including L’Equipe Du Son, Worship, and Flashworx delivered nu disco and house-infused synthwave tracks around 2010 that were closely related to the earliest outrun albums. Although these releases exist on the fringe of the synthwave genre, they represent the significant melting pot that characterizes outrun’s origins. Morgan Willis’ Supernova and Garth Knight’s Kitt albums from early 2018 reveal the continued presence of these influences within synthwave.
In the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, a gentler style of retro synth music emerged alongside nu disco and outrun. This subtle variation, with its softly sculpted textures, breathy vocals, and downtempo delivery soon came be known appropriately as dreamwave. Significant dreamwave creations include most of the songs in FM Attack’s discography, including those on the foundational Dreamatic from 2009 and the more meditative subsequent albums, Deja Vu and Stellar. Electric Youth’s Innerworld, Trevor Something’s Synthetic Love, and Timecop1983’s Journeys, all from 2014, are also examples of dreamwave. The collaboration between Electric Youth and College on the song “A Real Hero,” featured on the Drive soundtrack from 2011, is the most famous example of dreamwave.
Although dreamwave represents a portion of synthwave music and has its roots alongside outrun, it extends beyond the synthwave genre and mingles with dream pop, chillwave, indie pop, and other styles. Com Truise and Blackbird Blackbird are prominent examples of artists who play varying styles of chillwave and dream pop that stylistically fall just outside the synthwave genre.
Despite its roots in ‘80s pop culture, synthwave remained a predominately underground genre until roughly 2015. As the music grew in popularity and expanded into broader public consciousness, artists began combining elements of the style and its visual aesthetic with modern, mainstream sensibilities, reaching out to a broader and younger audience in the process. Gunship’s self-titled 2015 album was one of the first successful releases to embrace modern pop, though the last two years have seen several examples of this hybrid style, most visibly from The Midnight and FM-84. Futurecop! is once again noteworthy here, helping to lay the foundation for popwave’s sound with Hopes, Dreams & Alienation in 2013 and contributing to the evolution of the style most recently with 2017’s Return to Alvograth.
In many cases, the gently sculpted musical approach of these artists is a direct evolution of dreamwave. Timecop1983‘s stylistic trajectory over the past several years perfectly represents this shift into increasingly soft production and warm, sentimental songwriting, and the conspicuous incorporation of modern mainstream pop, alt rock, and chillout, especially in the vocal deliveries, has pulled popwave releases much closer to the outer edges of the synthwave genre than their dreamwave predecessors.
Popwave is expanding rapidly with artists like NINA, Wolf Club, Player One, Let Em Riot, and New Arcades continuing to shift synthwave away from its ‘80s roots and into the commercial mainstream of the late ‘10s.
Synthwave draws heavily from movie scores and soundtracks of the ‘80s, and a high number of artists pay tribute to this influence on their albums. Cinematic synthwave with outer space themes is especially prevalent. These creations reflect classic film scores like John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Vangelis’ Blade Runner, Tangerine Dream’s Thief, and Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator. Cinematic and ambient synthwave songs often represent the nearest stylistic connection to music from the ‘80s, and in a few cases, they are nearly indistinguishable from the film scores they emulate.
Cinematic synthwave is produced by artists in diverse areas of the larger genre, and is often represented on one or two distinct songs on an album. For example, Perturbator, Mega Drive, Timecop1983, Crockett, and Scandroid have created cinematic music that is stylistically similar, even though the artists are otherwise quite different from one another.
Fittingly, synthwave artists also regularly create music for modern video games, television, and movies, as on Power Glove’s soundtracks for the Blood Dragon games, Makeup and Vanity Set’s Hit TV, and Meteor’s Voyage into Fear.
(Follow Iron Skullet’s Cinematic Synthwave / Spacewave playlist on Spotify)
Cyberpunk Synthwave (Cybersynth)
As darksynth forerunners delve deeper into non-melodic songwriting with experimental rhythms and deeply distorted synth bass, the genre has begun to fracture down the middle. A clear schism is apparent at the start of 2018, with many artists maintaining a more direct evolution of the style established on early releases from artists like Mega Drive and Power Glove. These Cybersynth artists often mix or replace the ‘80s nostalgia of traditional synthwave with science fiction and cyberpunk themes for a brooding, futuristic soundscape.
In many cases, cybersynth artists preserve the strong melodic hooks of synthwave and early darksynth while incorporating increasingly gritty effects, prominent electric guitar, and energetic rhythms for an elaborate and exciting new sound. This music has a fluid songwriting approach that differs significantly from the static beats of outrun and the extreme rhythmic approaches of modern darksynth music. It also leans toward detailed and complex song compositions more than most other synthwave creations. The origins of the style can be traced back to songs like Power Glove’s “Night Force” (2012), Mega Drive’s “Acid Spit” (2014), and OGRE’s “Don’t Call Me a Hero” (2014), though the music has been rapidly expanding and forming its own identity in the past two years.
Zombie Hyperdrive’s Hyperion album from 2016 marks the beginning of a wave of new cybersynth releases, and 2017 saw several excellent recordings from Isidor, Astral Tales, Roborg, and 3Force that further advanced the genre. Many established outrun artists have also begun trending toward the new sound, with Nightstop’s Time Recoil soundtrack offering an example of the growing interest in the style. A comparison of Astral Tales’ “Colonies” and Isidor’s “Sirius A” with Lazerpunk’s “Warmachine” and Daniel Deluxe’s “Renegades” reveals the vast divide in the creative directions of artists at the edges of synthwave and darksynth.
(Follow Iron Skullet’s Cyberpunk Synthwave (Cybersynth) playlist on Spotify)
Another look at the genre map reveals some of the diversity and evolution of synthwave music through specific albums. Once again, it’s important to note that it’s impossible to fully classify music in this way, and so these placements are approximations meant as a visualization tool.
What Is the Future of Synthwave?
There are no certainties in life, though the next few years hold several assurances for synthwave fans. These include the continued rise in prominence of cybersynth and darksynth, the continued integration of synthwave into mainstream pop, and a decline of older styles like outrun and retro electro.
The easiest prediction for 2018 and beyond is the continued development of darksynth. As mentioned before, darksynth is now large and distinct enough from synthwave to constitute its own genre, albeit with some overlap, and the expansion of the music to new artists with more diverse creative visions is assured. The continued blending of darksynth with industrial, metal, EBM, and EDM produces new innovations on an almost weekly basis, with artists like Gregorio Franco, Shredder 1984, Battlejuice, and Electric Dragon pushing in distinctly new and different directions with each release. Darksynth is now tapping into markets that have no interest in the retro ‘80s pop flavorings of synthwave music. Expect it to thrive with its new audience.
Popwave Hits the Mainstream
The focus on emotive vocal performances, sentimental lyrics, and influences from commercial-friendly music genres has opened a new and financially viable market for synthwave. The divergent, hybrid sound of popwave has already proven capable of attracting a massive following from Generation Z listeners, and by casting aside many of synthwave’s ‘80s underpinnings, these artists have created a clearer path to monetary rewards for their work. As popwave artists like Gunship and The Midnight continue to push outward into mainstream styles, artists outside the synthwave genre increasingly incorporate the retrowave visual aesthetic into their album artwork, even if their music is unrelated. 2018 is certain to see many more producers tap into synthwave’s new commercial possibilities.
The Decline of Classic Synthwave
Outrun isn’t dead…yet. However, the average shelf life of a music genre is between 10 and 15 years, and since 2008 can roughly be marked as outrun’s first full year of life, the clock is ticking. The outrun sound was still going strong in 2017, though as an increasing number of older artists explore the edges of the genre and a younger crowd of fans and producers come to the scene with no personal memories of the ‘80s and little knowledge of music from the era, the sounds of true synthwave music appear to be entering their final years of retro glory.
Compounding the decline, many longtime fans have become disenchanted with the older styles of the genre, a fact that’s partly due to the high number of newcomers to the scene. New producers and listeners have climbed aboard the synthwave raft en masse, and although their enthusiasm is earnest, the suddenly crowded scene has begun to sink under its own weight. For many established fans, the current piling on from a broader audience has suffocated the artistic integrity and enthusiasm for the retro ‘80s product, transforming its originality into a tired cliche.
As an increasing number of lackluster albums are released and longtime creators and listeners turn away from the oversaturated style, the demise of outrun and other early synthwave sounds becomes increasingly easy to perceive. However, given the vibrancy of talented creators in 2017, outrun likely has good years left in it. The best news for classic synthwave fans is that historically, the strongest releases within a genre often arrive in its final years as the style is perfected and its most talented artists continue to contribute before moving on to new ideas.
The Rise of Cybersynth
The music produced in 2017 by artists like Roborg, Mangadrive, Deadlife, and Neon Droid engages a cyberpunk-infused, futuristic sound that regularly surpasses the originality and quality of new outrun releases. Although many cybersynth artists are currently and rightfully grouped with darksynth, the continued evolution and growth of both styles of music in the coming years will make their musical differences and conceptual leanings increasingly easy to perceive. With its embrace of the classic dark synthwave sound and its commitment to the melodic heart of outrun, cybersynth has already become a haven for weary producers and fans looking for new life in the synthwave genre. Cybersynth will continue its rapid expansion as a disenchanted outrun population continues to shift its attention to new musical horizons.
All information on synthwave was written using Iron Skullet’s original research.
Follow Iron Skullet’s art at @ironskulletart on Instagram