Album Review: Gregorio Franco – Apocalypse Prime

gregorio franco apocalypse prime album cover art darksynth dark synthwave

Darksynth has been relatively quiet in 2018. Aside from a notable release from Vulta, most full-length recordings in the style have been disappointing, and there haven’t been that many to begin with. Gregorio Franco’s Apocalypse Prime is a massive and welcome exception. The album marks a return to the artist’s familiar darksynth sound after a beautiful venture into cinematic territory on Quantum Memories, and it delivers an excellent balance of thunderous rhythms and darkly ominous melodies.

Following an intro track packed with brooding ambient tones and horror-tinged voice clips, Apocalypse Prime dives into unrestricted synth mayhem on “The Kill Switch,” which perfectly represents the electronic firestorm to come.

As with many of the best darksynth releases, Gregorio Franco has synthesized diverse genres like extreme metal, synthwave, and industrial and dark electro into a hybrid form of modern music, and has done so entirely without electronic guitar. This is noteworthy on a few levels: the absence of guitar not only helps the production stay crisp, but in a more theoretical sense, it pulls the recording into a remarkably nightmarish cybernetic space that would be destroyed by the inclusion of a guitar.

Instead, listening to Apocalypse Prime consistently feels like being sucked through an electronic portal to hell. The album is the music manifestation of an ‘80s sci-fi horror film, one where cutting-edge technology turns against its creator and collapses the barriers between reality and a violent nether realm, allowing unspeakable terror to climb through the portal into our world.

“The Kill Switch” brings this twilight world to life with a surprisingly complex array of songwriting approaches, managing to be dark and violent while embracing rhythms that will make you inadvertently bob your head and swing your shoulders. This is particularly true when the music breaks into a new section at the 2:46 mark, delivering a rhythm section that has notable similarities with modern groove metal. Not content to fall into expected songwriting patterns, however, Franco then drops in ambient horror tones over the top, ripping the unexpectedly funky section back into the chilling depths of the void.

As is so often true on Apocalypse Prime, “The Kill Switch” blends musical flavors for sounds that are simultaneously sweet and sour, crunchy and smooth. The resulting blend of textures and effects is extremely satisfying, and there is enough variety across the recording to keep the listener’s palate from suffering flavor fatigue. “Dimension of Pain” and “The Blind Dead” are similarly fulfilling, and it’s not a stretch to imagine them as background music in the cenobites’ home dimension.

As strong as the album’s first half is, Apocalypse Prime doesn’t reveal its full potential until the midpoint with the scathing “Laid to Waste.” The track reveals Gregorio Franco’s love of extreme metal as much as any entry on the recording, though once again, instead of forcing a guitar into the mix, Franco has masterfully re-interpreted the essence of metal music and transformed it into the completely distinct darksynth genre.

“Laid to Waste” never hesitates in its delivery. The uptempo pace is propelled by energetic riffs while rapid-fire percussion pounds out the groundwork in the electronic equivalent of double bass. It’s a riveting track, and although it may take a few spins to adjust to, the song becomes increasingly likable on repeat plays.

In the wake of the audio storm of “Laid to Waste,” there emerges a singular entry on the album, “Charon’s Dance.” The song is a ghostly ambient piece that is stylistically congruent with Franco’s cinematic spacewave efforts on Quantum Memories, and it works well as a reprieve from the bone-crushing tracks around it. The break doesn’t last long though, as Franco proceeds to dive into the heaviest chunk of music on the recording, “Eternal Nightmare.”

Previously released as a single, “Eternal Nightmare” is a milestone in the evolution of the darksynth genre. It’s arguably the heaviest track to come along yet, and it wastes no time establishing its identity as a demonic titan of the genre. Opening with sledgehammer-like percussion, the song soon opens up into a grinding rhythm section punctuated with mercilessly dense bass blasts. The concussive force of the rhythm grows especially impressive at high volume, and Franco’s impeccable production ensures the volume knob never diminishes enjoyment of the music.

Like much of Apocalypse Prime, “Eternal Nightmare” is notably rhythmic, relying on its impressive foundation for its identity and adding only minimal melodic elements. This potentially makes the song easy to dismiss on the first few plays, as there is no hook to hold onto. Yet, as with “Laid to Waste,” those who stick with the piece will soon find it has more than enough identity to stand on its own.

“Eternal Nightmare” may be the heaviest track in darksynth to date (no, Possessor isn’t a darksynth album), though it has its own competition within Apocalypse Prime. The very next entry, “Kuuvalgus,” and the closing piece, “The Void Knows Your Name,” are savage pieces written in a similar style, establishing a beefy rhythm section and adding touches of horror-themed melodies for just the right amount of detail and diversity.

Not every track is quite as memorable, however. “Ruination” and “RCW-47357” are somehow missing the inspired spark and engaging compositions of the best entries. They’re far from disposable, and they’re rarely distracting on a playthrough of the complete recording, though compared to the most impressive pieces like “Laid to Waste” and “Eternal Nightmare,” they simply come up short.

It’s also worth mentioning that tracks on Apocalypse Prime have a tendency to bleed together, and even after multiple listens it’s not easy to recall meaningful differences between creations like “The Blind Dead” and “Kuuvalgus.” Some of this is the result of the emphasis on rhythmic songwriting, and though the occasional homogeneity doesn’t hurt overall enjoyment of the album, it often feels easier to let the entire recording play through than to pick out favorite tracks to revisit.

That said, the album’s weaker points do little to diminish the overall excellence of Apocalypse Prime. There are no less than seven remarkable darksynth tracks on the recording, as well as the hauntingly beautiful “Charon’s Dance” interlude. That makes for a substantial slab of gritty electronic music that fans can use to torture their speakers (and possibly their neighbors).

Few recordings within recent history represent the essence, style, and potential of modern darksynth as well as Apocalypse Prime. It’s in the conversation as one of the best darksynth albums, and it’s unquestionably Gregorio Franco’s strongest release to date.

Rating: 90 / 100 (Outstanding)

Songwriting: 10
Execution: 10
Production: 10
Song Variety: 8
Consistency: 9
Memorability: 7
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)

Buy Apocalypse Prime: Bandcamp

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For more on darksynth, check out Why Darksynth Deserves its Own Genre and the Top 10 Darksynth Albums (So Far)

Follow Iron Skullet on Spotify and enjoy the best songs from Gregorio Franco and similar artists in the popular Darksynth playlist.