Originality. Authenticity. These are complex ideas within retro synth music in 2018, and for many artists, there’s no winning. Creating something new potentially leads to isolation and rejection from the main synthwave genre, but producing a stylistically centric release summons up complaints about cliches and worn out musical ideas. Superdivorce contentedly sidesteps the entire conversation, disregarding public opinion and creating an inspired amalgam of past and present genres that thrives on its genuine character. The duo’s willingness to produce music that ignores genre labels and boundaries is admirable, and their level of honesty surpasses most creations in and around the retrowave scene. Action Figures is packed with an immense variety of creative approaches to help it stay fresh, and the creators’ admirable technical skills and irrepressible sincerity make the album shine the entire way through.
Fans of ‘80s new wave will immediately hear familiar songwriting approaches on Action Figures. This authentic throwback sound is ironically rare within retrowave, with popwave artists like Gunship and The Midnight being heralded as ‘80s-style acts despite having little in common with music of the era. In contrast, Superdivorce’s knowledge and love of ‘80s pop and rock shines through unmistakably on the recording, blending organically with modern styles like post-millennium alt rock, pop punk, and post-hardcore. The result is an intriguing mix that is simultaneously vintage and modern, and fans who enjoy at least one side of Superdivorce’s musical coin are likely to buy into the complete idea thanks to top notch production and technical execution. To further spice up the mix, Superdivorce occasionally tosses in chiptune music for a flavorful concoction that ranges from gloomy darkwave to deliberately goofy 8-bit rock. Every track is unique in its own right, and collectively they lend Action Figures an unmistakable personality.
Perhaps nowhere on the album is the mix of genres and eras more apparent than in the vocals, which alternately recall ‘80s synthpop acts like Depeche Mode and subsequent alt rock in the vein of Weezer and Alien Ant Farm. This vocal approach comes through immediately on the opening track, “The Predator,” guiding an attractive blend of clean guitar riffs, funky basslines, and shimmering synth melodies. Handfuls of odd and endearing touches accent the song, like comically shouted backing vocals, dramatic shifts in the delivery of the lead vocals, and twinkling synth notes that suddenly appear and dance around the final rendition of the chorus. These small and sometimes subtle touches are the mark of inspired artists who are fully engaged with what they’re making, and the duo’s enthusiasm is infectious to hear.
“The Gavel” follows with the album’s first glimpse of chiptune melodies, which are effortlessly woven into the song’s colorful musical tapestry. Once again, inspired touches are found throughout, like the sound of a gavel hitting its block playing a percussive role and adding dramatic effect to the chorus. The influence of alt rock and related genres is particularly prevalent on “The Gavel,” playing an enticing tandem with the 8-bit melodies.
Action Figures shifts from pleasantly light-hearted to masterfully grim with “Ten Speeds,” a track that draws obvious inspiration from The Cure and other vintage darkwave acts. Once again, Superdivorce uses audio clips of mundane objects to accent the percussion; in this case, the freewheel ticking of a rolling bicycle and an accompanying ring of a bike bell. It’s a decision that could easily feel disjointed, though once the ears grow accustomed to the idea, the sound effects somehow work impeccably as a supplement to the song’s chorus.
From a compositional standpoint, “Ten Speeds” belies the humorous and seemingly capricious nature of Action Figures’ early entries, plainly revealing Superdivorce as the professional and immensely skilled songwriters they are. The track’s darkly powerful tone builds through a patient, pounding verse section and then a perfectly composed bridge with dramatic synthesizer notes. When “Ten Speeds” finally breaks into the chorus, the sublime harmony of the vocal hook with the accenting synth melodies provides the strongest moments of the entire album.
The darkwave approach continues in even greater fashion on the very next entry, “Dream Team,” which descends into deep, quiet spaces with touches of ambient horror and a whispered vocal track. Though not the strongest offering, the song is still worthwhile for the contrast it creates with some of Action Figures’ more ebullient creations. As the most serious-minded piece on the recording, “Dream Team” shows off Superdivorce’s commendable versatility and serves as a meaningful bit of variety in the album’s landscape.
Action Figures‘ back half is packed with songs that are every bit as notable and worthwhile as its early moments. “Strawmen” and “Teenage Alien” are particular standouts, and they hold some of the strongest bits of ‘80s nostalgia on the recording. “Strawmen” pairs heavy, pounding percussion with bright synth melodies and a post-punk vocal delivery to great effect. The reminiscence in the singing becomes even more striking near the midpoint when the underlying instrumentation shifts into a Soft Cell-like composition that aligns perfectly with the vocals. “Teenage Alien” once again harkens back to downtempo darkwave tracks, albeit with Superdivorce’s own personal stamp, and despite the song title, it’s one of the most level-headed offerings on the album.
The band’s sense of humor is most apparent on “Let Me Be Your Robot,” an eccentric piece with an obvious synthpop influence. The lead vocals hold a distinctively modern flair, though a heavily distorted and kitschy robot voice tags in for the chorus. Chiptune notes accent the robotic vocals and synthpop rhythm for a strong retro vibe, which is blown into even greater proportion by an ‘80s electro and rap section in the middle of the song. As with other parts of the album, the over-the-top approach of the break could be cringeworthy, yet Superdivorce’s earnestness and deceptively skillful musicianship sell it with confidence.
“Bad Shot” closes the album with a vibrant, bouncy tune that seems modeled specifically after Wham!’s “Wake Me up Before You Go-Go,” delivered with a knowing wink and the band’s usual sense of self-awareness. It’s a fitting closer, finishing on a positive note after some of the album’s ventures into darker songwriting spaces.
All together, Action Figures offers a smorgasbord of musical influences and ideas. It juxtaposes humor with grounded emotion, ‘80s new wave nostalgia with modern alt rock, and whimsical creative touches with adept and professional songwriting skills. Every track is unique and worthwhile, even if only in relation to its counterparts, and the recording never once flirts with apathy or monotony.
Everything about the recording, from the occasionally irreverent musical decisions to the deliberately ironic album cover mimicking Hasbro’s classic run of early ‘90s WWF toys, marks Superdivorce as a duo that refuses to cater to other people’s standards. Action Figures is not a watered-down album written with broad appeal for the masses; it’s a hyper-specific representation of the artists’ interests that will turn away a number of listeners and earn a diehard following from those who remain. Regardless of subjective feelings about the duo’s style, no one could deny the value in Superdivorce’s honesty and pretense-free delivery. In a realm of retro music suffering an identity crisis over its own originality and authenticity, that commitment to producing a personalized album is the audial equivalent of cool, clean water in a neon-baked desert.
Rating: 92 / 100 (Phenomenal)