Two of the most forward-thinking artists in modern synthwave have combined their abilities to produce an immersive and frequently exciting cybersynth creation on Stalemate. The album’s brooding atmosphere offers one of the most strongly cyberpunk-influenced listening experiences of 2018, as mechanical bass gears grind out massive rhythm sections accented by hydraulic synth tones, robotic voice commands, and a gutsy guitar lead that interplays perfectly with its digital counterparts.
The album isn’t perfect however, and the admirable tone of the recording is regularly restricted by straightforward songwriting that holds few surprises, even on the first listen. The end result is sometimes mixed, though Stalemate is still worthy of several spins for its impressive evolution of sci-fi and cyberpunk synthwave music.
The best and worst aspects of the recording are conspicuous on the opener, “Ray Gun’s Quest.” The track begins with quiet conviction, pacing itself with thunderous bass beats and an assortment of finely crafted effects. The result generates the sensation of stepping into a war mech manufacturing plant in a gritty, dystopian future. The dense atmosphere becomes even more impressive at high volume, and it’s a small bit of sci-fi euphoria to sink into the cold steel of its environment.
Sadly, the song overstays its welcome by about 30 percent of its running time. A handsome guitar solo arrives near the midpoint and effectively caps the song’s subtle and effective escalation, yet when the guitar ducks back into the shadows, Straplocked’s and Ray Gun Hero’s mighty engine continues to spin its wheels without meaningful direction for another 90 seconds. A shift into a distinctly new section or a willingness to cut the music short could easily salvage the piece, though the one-directional repetition undercuts the power of the instrumentation and overexposes the album’s only compositional tactic, making it unworthy of its own five-minute running time.
“A World Collapsed” follows next with more variety in its approach, building nicely through its first half before opening into an upbeat rhythm that supports alternating synth and guitar solos, as well as a neo-Tokyo-esque synthesizer effect that beautifully contributes to the duo’s cyberpunk world-building efforts. A well-played guitar solo carries the song through much of its third act, and the music wraps up after a little over four minutes without falling into the rut of the opener.
The album continues to impress from there, first with a thunderous rhythmic piece on “Drop Your Weapon” and then a gritty, grinding creation on “Stalemate.” Both hold surprisingly heavy influences from modern club EDM, though once again the impressively coordinated effects and synthesizer tones plant the music in a gritty, tech-oriented future.
“Drop Your Weapon” plays out like the soundtrack to a showdown between cybernetic-enhanced antiheroes and a fully mechanized police force, the latter of whose airborne patrol cars scour the ground with white-hot spotlights before the scene erupts into plasmatic gunfire. It’s one of the most effective and memorable entries on the recording, not to mention an excellent representation of the still-developing sounds of cybersynth music.
The title track, “Stalemate” has the leanest melodies of anything on the recording, relying instead on its dense, rapid-fire rhythm to maintain momentum. It’s a worthwhile entry, though it suffers from the artists’ commitment to keeping songs in the four-minute-and-up range, and like “Ray Gun’s Quest,” it starts to burn out behind its own prolonged exertion.
The album’s pros and cons appear in equal amounts in its back half, delivering many fantastic moments in packages that feel too drawn out for the amount of content they offer. For example, “Old Future Friends” contains the most classic synthwave sound of anything on Stalemate, but clings to its central rhythm too often and eventually wears it out. Even the three-minute “Common Ground,” the recording’s shortest entry, struggles to sustain itself and grows repetitive before its conclusion.
Fortunately, Straplocked and Ray Gun Hero finish Stalemate on a pair of compelling pieces. “City Forgotten” offers one of the album’s most elaborate and progressive song structures with a beautiful lead melody, while an instrumental cut of “Killer Instinct”–a song which first appeared on Ray Gun Hero’s Plethora–closes out with a high-energy pace and a rollicking series of well-executed and enjoyable guitar solos. Both are among the most redeeming creations on the album, even if they once again linger longer than needed.
As the first full collaboration between Straplocked and Ray Gun Hero, Stalemate represents a significant step forward for each producer and promises great things for the future. The recording serves up a meaty stew of cybersynth goodness with thick, impressive production and refined atmosphere, and although its songwriting shortcomings are notable, they can’t stop Stalemate from being a great soundtrack to a mental escape into a grim, dystopian future.
Rating: 80 / 100 (Great)
Song Variety: 8
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Buy the Album: Bandcamp
Enjoy Straplocked, Ray Gun Hero, and similar artists in Iron Skullet’s Cyberpunk Synthwave playlist: