Darksynth is no longer a part of the synthwave genre. In some cases, it’s not even close.
The music has exploded in the past two years, with new recordings transforming the edges of the genre on an almost monthly basis. The first half of 2018 has already seen multiple releases that have helped to redefine darksynth music (not to be confused with the unrelated sounds of darkwave), and the trend toward rhythmic songwriting with dramatic distortion and violent conceptual themes is certain to continue over the next several years.
Artists in the innovative and frequently brutal new form of music have worked hard at producing original ideas — often distancing themselves from the older, sun-soaked synthwave genre very explicitly in the process — and the hard work of these producers should be recognized with a unique name and a new way of thinking about their creations. Darksynth is a whole new breed of music, and it deserves to have its own genre.
The need for a separate classification may sound odd or surprising, since the darkened side of synthwave emerged just five or six years ago and has typically been easy to group within the main genre. Even as recently as early 2017, nearly all creations in the grittier, more aggressive darksynth style could be roughly contained under the synthwave moniker. For example, it was never a stretch to include albums like Perturbator’s I Am the Night, 20SIX Hundred’s The Cold Rise from Sleep, and Cluster Buster’s Total Terror alongside releases from Waveshaper and Lost Years.
Times change, however, and few things are changing more rapidly than the shape and character of darksynth, which has morphed from a gentle lab rat with glowing red eyes into a hulking, misshapen beast of violent electronic music intent on destroying every speaker and eardrum it can find.
The biggest reason for giving the music its own name and genre is to respect the innovation that has gone into developing modern darksynth, particularly in the past two or three years. Genres are essential for appreciating and enjoying music, and in 2018, there is a lot to enjoy within the realm of darksynth.
From the time the darkened half of synthwave was established in 2012 and 2013 by artists like Perturbator, Carpenter Brut, Mega Drive, and Dance with the Dead, producers have steadily and progressively hacked away at synthwave’s deep roots in house and Euro disco, effectively freeing themselves to mingle with unrelated styles like industrial, metal, dubstep, and trap.
Increasingly, darksynth creators have cast aside the ‘80s nostalgia and bright melodies of synthwave music in favor of wildly distorted synth bass, crunchy electric guitar, and thunderous percussion, producing music that bears no stylistic similarities to classic releases like Lazerhawk’s Redline and Miami Nights 1984’s Early Summer that typify the synthwave genre.
To drive this point home, it’s worth revisiting music that sits near the center of the synthwave genre and embodies the style’s essential characteristics. Arguably, no one’s music is a more perfect representation of true synthwave than Lost Years’, and iconic tracks like “Amplifier” could hardly be more different from modern darksynth creations like Gregorio Franco’s “Eternal Nightmare” above.
While it’s entirely possible to line up albums to form a complete stylistic gradient from Lost Years’ and Miami Nights 1984’s releases into modern darksynth recordings like Fixions’ Headhunter or Battlejuice’s Death Rejects, this fact does not negate the need for darksynth to have its own genre. After all, it’s possible to identify a steady stylistic continuum across nearly every musical genre imaginable, from folk music to death metal or early electropop to brutal dubstep.
Exactly where the line between styles should be drawn is subjective and a matter of personal preference, though at some point logic has to step in and point out that Bob Dylan does not sound like Cannibal Corpse, and arguing that they each use guitars and drums in their music is irrelevant.
In the same way, the differences between recordings at the heart of synthwave music and those at the heart of modern darksynth no longer bear reasonable similarities in their songwriting style, production, or emotional and atmospheric content, and assigning them the same genre name disregards the important differences between them.
There are numerous influences on darksynth music that have contributed to its separation from the older synthwave sound, and these can mostly be broken down into camps from EDM, metal, and EBM. Naturally, different artists reveal these influences in their own unique ways.
Some of the most prominent influences on modern darksynth music come from contemporary EDM (electronic dance music) genres including dubstep, trap, electro house, and others, which producers have taken and twisted into a darker, more violent space. The effect can be clearly heard in Lazerpunk’s hybrid darksynth and dubstep creation, Death & Glory, and they can also be heard in tracks like Perturbator’s “Tainted Empire” and Daniel Deluxe’s “Almaz.” Deadlife’s 2018 album, The Order of Chaos, similarly reveals the conspicuous touch of ‘10s-era EDM on the darksynth genre.
These influences are very different from the house music of the early and mid-‘00s that was integral to the origins of synthwave, and the newer EDM styles have led to much greater emphasis within darksynth on dense, elaborate rhythms with fewer melodic elements than traditional synthwave.
Dance with the Dead earned a large following with their incorporation of old school metal into synthwave, and the group’s impact was not lost on other creators. As DWTD’s own albums have become increasingly heavy over time, with greater guitar distortion and a stronger emphasis on heavy metal-style percussion, other artists have begun producing their own blends of metalwave.
Some recordings, like Battlejuice’s Crimson Light and Retouch’s Pax, closely align with Dance with the Dead’s stylistic template, while other producers have found fresh approaches to combining the styles.
One of the most prominent artists in this area is Shredder 1984, who intuitively generates the feeling of ‘80s-era thrash and death metal with a strictly electronic delivery. The producer has created two borderline masterpieces this way on his Dystopian Future and Undead Thrasher recordings. Master Boot Record is similarly notable here, creating all-electronic music with prominent influences of progressive metal. In some cases, artists have also begun incorporating harsh vocals into the mix, as on Master Boot Record’s “Sound Card 8-Bit (Dma 1)” and Irving Force’s “Violence Suppressor.”
Other artists’ approaches lean closer to modern magma creations. For example, Gör FLsh incorporates elements of industrial-metal hybrids, while tracks like Carpenter Brut’s “Monday Hunt” and Elay Arson‘s “Masauwu, Fire Keeper” push into the choppy riffs and rolling rhythms of ‘00s-era nu alternative acts for a distinctly modern sound.
In many ways, modern darksynth music is a spiritual successor to aggrotech and dark electro, which is a descendant of industrial music and forms a branch of the EBM (electronic body music) tree.
Aggrotech flourished from the late ‘90s into the early ‘10s, and is a mixture of popular EDM genres of the era — specifically trance and techno — with industrial effects, harsh noise, synthpop melodies, and occasionally, metal guitar. The music is wrapped up and delivered with prominent themes of horror and science fiction. In a very similar way, darksynth is a mixture of ‘10s-era EDM styles with industrial effects, harsh noise, synthwave melodies, and occasionally, metal guitar, prominently delivered with themes of horror and science fiction.
A quick listen to aggrotech songs like X-Fusion’s “Bloody Revenge” or Alien Vampires’ “Before it’s Too Late” is a reminder of how close darksynth has grown to its older, gothic sibling, even if it hasn’t (yet) adopted the heavily distorted, shrieking vocal style. Some listeners even argue for darksynth to be included under the EBM umbrella of music, though there are enough clear differences in the production and songwriting between them — largely due to darksynth’s roots in the distant and unrelated sounds of synthwave — to make the majority of new artists unclassifiable within EBM, at least for now.
However, darksynth music has organically begun pulling over fans and producers from harsh EBM, which itself has largely receded and diminished in the past five years. The vibrancy and popularity of the newer genre has made it an attractive home for aggrotech producers, and more people are migrating toward the style every year.
Prominent examples of artists with these influences include darksynth stalwart Glitch Black, as well as newcomer Microchip Terror, who is currently producing music that blurs the lines between darksynth and aggrotech. It seems extremely likely that the influence of harsh EBM will become more prevalent within darksynth over the next several years.
Why Early Dark Synthwave Releases Are No Longer Darksynth
A sometimes confusing aspect of genre evolutions, but one that is essential to the formation of new music styles, is that early, influential releases are often left out of the genre they helped pioneer. This happens as a greater volume of music is created in and around the new style, pulling the genre further away from its roots and solidifying the avant garde sound. As more artists gravitate toward the distinctly different musical approach and advance it with even more extreme and innovative ideas, pioneering creations eventually land on the outer edge of the new genre, or just outside of it.
Examples of this are prevalent across all large genres of music. For example, within the history of heavy metal, ‘70s-era releases from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest clearly laid the groundwork for the entire metal genre, though in contrast to the evolutionary surge represented on hundreds of true heavy metal recordings that followed in the ‘80s — including subsequent releases from Priest and Sabbath themselves — these recordings are historically closer to hard rock than to heavy metal. Similarly, Venom’s Black Metal sounds little like the extreme metal releases that followed it, and in hindsight has just as much in common with traditional heavy metal as black metal.
The same evolution has occurred within synthwave and darksynth music, and is apparent within specific acts’ discographies, especially its innovators’. Perhaps no one has been more responsible for the continued evolution of the music and aesthetic of darksynth than Perturbator. The artist has been the engine behind the genre, pushing deeper into gritty effects and more elaborate rhythmic compositions on each and every release.
Early recordings like Terror 404 and I Am the Night undeniably established a darker, more sinister tone than outrun releases of the era, though they frequently retained the stiff beat and clean, retro synthesizer melodies that typified old school synthwave music. A comparison of early Perturbator songs like “John Holmes VHS Nightclub” or “Miami Sunsets” with newer material like “Tactical Precision Disarray” from 2017’s New Model reveals the push into heavier, more experimental compositions that have dropped all traces of ‘80s nostalgia and electropop and turned instead to modern EDM and industrial music for inspiration.
In this way, recent Perturbator releases like The Uncanny Valley and New Model represent modern darksynth music well, while earlier releases like Terror 404 still have plenty in common with the older style of synthwave music.
Other darksynth pioneers have followed similar evolutionary paths into heavier, grittier, and more abstract songwriting. For example, in comparison to Gost’s Non Paradisi — and especially to Possessor — the artist’s Nocturnal Shift EP from 2013 sounds surprisingly similar to centric synthwave music.
The degree of experimentation on Nocturnal Shift that felt big in 2013 has been drastically diminished in comparison to the creations of modern darksynth artists — as well as those from Gost himself — and a wide look at the two genres in 2018 shows that songs like “Day 30” fit easily within the boundaries of synthwave music instead of darksynth.
In this way, early and influential creations are somewhat counterintuitively no longer part of the darksynth genre. As the music continues to expand and form its own identity alongside synthwave, recordings from artists like Tommy ‘86, Compilerbau, and Cluster Buster increasingly fall much closer to conventional synthwave music.
The term “darksynth,” which was once a casual descriptor for a subgenre of synthwave music, has become a vital way of identifying a large and extreme outgrowth of the main genre. The identity of darksynth has become increasingly clear as prominent artists like Perturbator, Gost, and Dance with the Dead have pushed further into new creative territory and developed their innovative ideas more fully,
The New Darksynth Aesthetic
What would a new genre be without its own visual style? Just as darksynth’s music has evolved, so has its aesthetic, ditching the purple and pink-hued artwork of its synthwave sibling along with its retro ‘80s songwriting style. The new look is increasingly oriented on vivid reds against black and other dark backgrounds. Notably, the chrome letters and cursive handwriting text of past darksynth releases is also quickly fading away.
It should go without saying that album art has no impact on a recording’s musical content and doesn’t necessarily reflect an artist’s particular style, though the shift in darksynth’s aesthetic over the past two years has closely corresponded with the evolution of the music. A quick comparison of traditional darksynth artwork with the newer, emerging style, makes this change easy to see.
Of course, the best way to hear the differences between synthwave and darksynth is to listen to a lot of music within each style. Iron Skullet’s Darksynth playlist is dedicated to the modern evolution of the genre and currently represents around 60 artists. The playlist is updated regularly with new releases at the top of the list. Compared to the majority of recordings within traditional synthwave music, the identity of the fast-evolving darksynth genre is plain to hear.
Darksynth is now a complete creative idea with dozens of contributors and hundreds of releases to its name. It has increasingly little relationship with its synthwave roots, and it fully deserves to be recognized as its own genre. The need for a separate classification will only grow and intensify as artists continue to contribute their hard work to this exciting new style of music.
This article was written using Iron Skullet’s original research
Related Article: What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition
Listen to Iron Skullet’s Darksynth playlist for the best music in the genre.
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