Beckett is an exemplary music artist, not just within synthwave, but any genre. The steady improvement in all aspects of his craft over the past few years is admirable from a fan’s perspective and somewhat enviable from a creator’s standpoint. It’s something everyone aspires to, but far too few succeed at.
Beckett’s earliest ventures into synthwave (on 2015’s Retrograde and 2016’s Primetime) were rough around the edges and slightly subpar in their audio production, though his remarkable aptitude for creating engaging melodies made them enjoyable just the same. Last year’s Five was a breakthrough for the artist, containing a meaningful variety of music filled with influences from numerous external genres and wrapped up with an attractive presentation. The effort earned it a spot on the Top 10 Synthwave Albums of 2017.
Anyone looking at that upward trajectory might guess that Beckett’s latest release would be his best to date, and they’d be right. Outrun the Skyline is the logical continuation of past recordings and the result of self-evident strides to become a better all-around musician. On top of his naturally substantial (and now highly refined) songwriting chops, Beckett’s willingness to pack elements from diverse vintage genres into his music once again gives Outrun the Skyline an unmistakable personality within synthwave.
“The Night Matrix” opens the album with an upbeat ‘80s attitude and heartfelt positivity that Beckett pulls off better than just about anyone. There’s a slight fuzz on the track’s production, though by the time the music slips into an engaging series of solos and rotating leads, including a surprising and effortlessly dextrous piano bit near the midpoint, all distractions are forgotten. Beckett’s warm, inviting songwriting style is free to take center stage, and it practically radiates retro refinement.
The artist’s ability to weave new instruments in and out of the music to keep it progressing forward is a joy to hear, and the optimism of it is consistently infectious. In similar style, “L.A. Streets” delivers Beckett’s unmistakable blend of funk-driven guitar and electro-style turntablism accompanied by golden synth melodies. “Via N.Y.C.” rides a laid-back groove with plenty of nuance and small instrumental details, while “Whirlwind” is guided by one of Beckett’s unassuming but nonetheless satisfying vocal performances.
To mix things up and keep the recording interesting, Beckett regularly branches out from the comfort of his signature style into distinctive new ideas, pulling from specific aspects of vintage culture in the process. For example, “Double the Impact” harkens back to ‘80s movie scores and is an apparent tribute to Van Damme flicks: the title echoes 1991’s Double Impact and the music itself bears a strong resemblance to Paul Hertzog’s score compositions for ‘80s cult classics Bloodsport and Kickboxer.
Moving in a very different direction, “Newjack: Work a Grind” borrows inspiration from the hip-hop pop of late ‘80s and early ‘90s new jack swing by laying table scratching, robotic backing vocals, and a soulful singing performance from Rachael Jones across a funk-heavy bassline for a singular entry on the tracklist.
Other deviations from Beckett’s signature sound include “Homewrecker,” which is once again guided by Beckett’s velvety vocals (this time with something of a Hall and Oates flair behind it), while the robotic “Get to Know You” contains the most classic outrun underpinnings of anything on the album. Every song has its place, and each one does a fine job of complementing its surrounding entries for a complete listening experience that remains engaging from start to finish.
In fact, listeners who stick with the recording to the final track will discover one of the smoothest and sweetest synthwave concoctions ever prepared for public consumption. “Endgame” is the type of song only Beckett could write, and his mastery of melody shimmers through in every note.
The track’s hefty five-minute running time could easily run afoul of moderation as it so often does for less talented songwriters, though any time “Endgame” seems to settle into predictable patterns Beckett splashes an inspired stroke of color across his audio canvas to energize the composition. Melodies practically leap from the speakers, and instead of relying on one or two instruments to guide the music, Beckett expertly combines multiple sounds to form his lead melody lines. Each piece of the instrumental array accents the others for euphoria-inducing contrasts and textures that lend the music an irresistible allure.
The song is surprisingly humble in spite of its brilliance, and the apparent nonchalance of its delivery helps the five minutes pass quickly enough to leave a person reaching for the repeat button. “Endgame” is a beautiful conclusion to an already great album and it’s easily one of the best synthwave songs of the year.
Beckett’s journey from naturally compelling yet somewhat under-equipped synthwave efforts a few years ago to his all-around adept performances on Outrun the Skyline is a remarkable one. Each release along the way has exhibited clear improvement, something that fans of every genre hope for in their favorite artists but rarely get to enjoy. All struggling synthwave producers should feel heartened by that type of dedication and progress.
Outrun the Skyline may not be a top-shelf, corporate production with impeccable presentation like those that have begun sprinkling the edges of the synthwave genre, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s something better. Outrun the Skyline has real heart and real conviction, and it’s made by a gifted songwriter with a patently clear passion and focus for his craft. It’s tough to find fault with any part of Beckett’s latest outing, and as with last year’s Five, the recording is a lock as one of the best synthwave albums of the year.
Rating: 95 / 100 (Outstanding)
Buy Outrun the Skyline: Bandcamp
Enjoy Beckett and similar artists in Iron Skullet’s popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist. New music at the top of the list every Friday.