Album Review: Damokles – Ministry of Synth

neon purple and pink synthwave album cover art for Damokles Ministry of Synth review by Iron Skullet

The enjoyment a person gets from listening to Ministry of Synth likely has a lot to do with that person’s past experiences. Filled with far more authentically retro elements than mainstream releases like Gunship’s Dark All Day or The Midnight’s Kids, the album is fundamentally geared toward older listeners who can connect the sounds of Ministry of Synth with the music of past eras. That fact, coupled with a distinctly European vocal delivery that will resonate more with fans of synthpop and Euro disco than of new synthwave creations, makes Ministry of Synth a lovable but necessarily non-commercial offering. 

In other words, if you love synthwave for its genuinely nostalgic charm and not for its attempts to cash in on a trend with overly produced efforts, Ministry of Synth deserves to be in your music rotation.   

That said, the recording doesn’t necessarily start off on its best foot. “Open Up!” is one of the album’s relatively infrequent vocal tracks, and although it’s a good representation of Damokles’ unique singing style, it’s not one of the artist’s most exciting efforts. Some kitschy lyrics and a relatively chunky rhythm might work better deep in the tracklist, as the song has a tendency to grow more appealing over repeat listens. But as the intro to the recording, it does little to advertise the many strengths of Ministry of Synth.

Fortunately, the momentum of the album is reversed immediately on the charming and aptly titled instrumental piece, “You Cannot Hold Me Down.” The song starts subtly enough, as many Damokles songs do, and patiently begins layering new elements with clear confidence in its ability to deliver a meaningful payoff.

When the track breaks into its chorus melody around the 1:21 mark, its infectious charm becomes practically irresistible. Don’t be surprised to feel your feet moving and your shoulders swaying; it’s nearly impossible not to move to the best songs on Ministry of Synth, and “You Cannot Hold Me Down” is one of them. The strength of the track doesn’t stop at the chorus section though, as Damokles expertly builds on the optimistic flow for the full course of the song, culminating in a delightful synth solo around the three-quarter mark that practically demands listeners turn up the volume.   

It’s the type of track that only Damokles could write, and with good reason. As mentioned in the review for the artist’s last full-length offering, Time Machine, the man behind the Damokles project was actually producing and performing in the 1980s, so the distinctly authentic sound in his music should be no surprise.

Compared to the hordes of teenage producers churning out synthwave without a trace of quality or meaningful nostalgia in it, Damokles is something of a retro unicorn in the genre, delivering track after track of beautifully nostalgic music that embraces its source material without ever feeling the need to mimic it entirely. It’s faultlessly honest and practically overflowing with feel-good vibes, and the result is like a guided tour of the past in a shiny new time machine. 

Happily, “You Cannot Hold Me Down” is far from an outlier on the album. Several more tracks carry the same upbeat attitude and offer similarly engaging melodies and rhythms.

The very next entry, “Nowhere to Go,” is an expertly composed piece with strong electro influences and prominent turntabling. As with “You Cannot Hold Me Down,” the track’s patient buildup and dense composition is a mark of Damokles’ confident songwriting chops, and the music becomes increasingly engaging as it develops. 

“Thinking About You” is perhaps the album’s most brightly melodic offering, and what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in unapologetic enthusiasm. Its sublime combination of notes is among the sweetest to be found this side of chiptune and bitpop music, and don’t be surprised to find the last notes of “Thinking About You” lingering in your ears long after they’ve stopped playing.

“Never the Same” delivers a similar dose of positivity. It’s arguably the boldest song on the album, and unlike the many great tracks around it, carries plenty of synth swagger. While other entries are content to build patiently and catch listeners off-guard as they unfold across their running time, “Never the Same” opens with a blast that demands listeners stop and take notice. Its exuberance and confidence are fully justified, as the song is one of the most immediately accessible and rewarding tracks on Ministry of Synth

Other highlights include “Never the Same,” “Just a Glimpse,” “If I Go Back Again,” and “It’s All Electro,” the last of which delivers an all-out retro electro fest with unbridled energy and optimism. An array of voice samples further contributes to the vintage flair of “It’s All Electro,” and in a welcome surprise, pieces of it echo Euro dance music of the early ‘90s. It’s not alone in that way either, as the mark of that era and genre returns later on the album with “Beach Party!”

As with many of the best synthwave recordings however, not every song on Ministry of Synth reaches Damokles’ full potential. “Look Ahead,” “Dance Hall Nights,” and the laser-effect-filled ballad “When I See You” are a few of the songs missing the significant inspiration and enthusiasm of the album’s best entries.   

The lack of spark on these tracks is generally easy to overlook, as by and large, Ministry of Synth remains a highly enjoyable recording. However, the weaker creations are part of a larger problem, which is that the album is simply too long.

Clocking in at a whopping 80 minutes, Ministry of Synth often feels like too much of a good thing, and it’s challenging to make it through the full recording in a single listen. Even if flavor fatigue doesn’t exactly set in, it simply becomes difficult to absorb that much material at once and make meaningful distinctions between the songs, particularly on the first few spins.

The hefty size of the tracklist means that numerous playthroughs are required to appreciate each song in its entirety, which is something of a double-edged sword. For serious Damokles fans, the album offers a hearty serving of synth goodness that can be explored for a full week without wearing out its welcome. But if the idea of “serious Damokles fans” seems odd to you, then chances are high you won’t be one of the people committing that much of your time and energy to plumbing the depths of Ministry of Synth.

One other caveat involves the vocals. As mentioned with the opening track, Damokles’ singing style is likely to put off a decent number of listeners, particularly those in the US who haven’t been exposed to synthpop and Euro disco. While some may find themselves skipping vocal entries like “If You Should Fall” the moment they come on, the songs nonetheless contribute to the sense that Damokles’ has created a very personal and unique music offering to share with his fans, and it’s hard to find fault with that.

Lastly, it’s worth touching on the audio production and general polish of the album, particularly in light of the changing tides across an increasingly mainstream synthwave genre. 

For those who primarily enjoy independent and small label releases, there’s absolutely nothing on Ministry of Synth to complain about. It’s entirely free of distractions and delivers a smoother, more enjoyable audio experience than the majority of synthwave albums. The DIY aspect of the recording is actually likely to be more appealing than otherwise, just as it is with nearly the entire genre.

On the other hand, Ministry of Synth is missing the shimmering production values of albums from popular artists like Timecop1983 and The Midnight. For those who want a highly polished, commercial recording, this simply isn’t it.   

That said, the album’s best entries like “You Cannot Hold Me Down” and “Never the Same” are worthy of every old school synthwave fan’s regular listening rotation. Time Machine was one of the Best Synthwave Albums of 2017, and Ministry of Synth is equally strong, further cementing Damokles’ status as the most underappreciated creator in the entire genre. 

Hidden gems are increasingly difficult to find in a synthwave genre that has become bloated with subpar efforts, but it also means that uncovering treasures like this one is more rewarding than ever. Damokles’ authentically retro songwriting and instrumentation pair with a relentlessly optimistic spirit to remind disenchanted fans why they loved synthwave to begin with. Don’t miss the chance to worship at the altar of Damokles’ latest funk-fueled phenomenon, Ministry of Synth.

Rating: 90 / 100 (Outstanding)

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

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