The term “artist” is regularly used as a synonym for “musician,” though a person would be hard pressed to define the poorly composed and awkwardly presented efforts of most synthwave creators as actual art. Czarina’s debut album is a long-overdue exception to this fact, combining a powerful visual aesthetic and artist identity with an utterly unique take on retro synth music.
Painted Holograms isn’t always perfect, but its few shortcomings do little to detract from its significance. As a step forward and outward from an increasingly stagnant style of music, and for its infusion of rockstar energy to an otherwise introverted and male-dominated scene, Painted Holograms is a remarkable creation at a critical moment in synthwave’s history.
Discovering Czarina, both the person and her music, doesn’t happen in a few moments the way it does with other synthwave creators; it happens over the course of weeks and months. Appreciation for her and her music happens in layers, and with good reason; Czarina is a multi-dimensional creator whose music reflects numerous genres and eras.
As a person learns about the artist’s background in both music and fashion, her love for a diverse range of music, and her commitment to presenting her live shows as an actual performance, it’s easy to become increasingly intrigued by Painted Holograms.
Musically, Czarina is often content to forge ahead without serious regard for synthwave conventions, taking whatever feels relevant from the retro synth style and ignoring it otherwise. While popwave and darksynth have established themselves as viable and immediate forms of life after synthwave, Czarina moves in a different direction altogether, one that is an amalgam of genres including ‘80s new wave and darkwave, ‘90s rock and alternative metal, and modern electronic rock.
Of these, the ‘90s-era influences are particularly intriguing, and they come through in the attitude as well as the actual style of the music. Painted Holograms carries the spirit of the era in a surprisingly authentic way, as though the energy of mid-‘90s movie soundtracks like Natural Born Killers and The Crow has been stirred up and reincarnated in a fresh new form.
There is a certain looseness in the vocal delivery that is the hallmark of that decade’s rock acts, and the music has a melancholic edge that is similarly reminiscent of the angsty, counterculture attitude of the era.
The result fundamentally puts Painted Holograms in a very different space from the ‘80s Euro disco and ‘00s house roots of synthwave music, and Czarina’s vocals generate even more stylistic distance. She leads each track with a remarkably deep, mystifying tone that hints at a range of noteworthy female vocalists, including Annie Lennox, Dolores O’Riordan, and Siouxsie Sioux. Direct comparisons are challenging, however, as very little about Czarina’s presentation could be called derivative or imitative.
Like many such groundbreaking albums, it would be easy to dismiss Painted Holograms on the first listen, especially for those expecting to hear true synthwave music. However, the recording is remarkably subtle, and has a tendency to grow on a person over repeat listens. This subtlety is frequently packed into passionate, downtempo tracks that prefer to beguile with soft caresses instead of overt songwriting advances.
The patience of the album reveals itself on the opening track, “Silence & Surrender (Neon).” It’s built on a synthwave-based rhythm section but unfolds into something distinctly different as Czarina’s voice and the lead instruments enter. A perfectly sparse intermission separates the first two verses, a move that deftly accents the eventual shift into the chorus. The result is the kind of low-key payoff that requires close listening to appreciate but is well worth the effort, and it’s the type of songwriting that defines Czarina’s debut.
“Parallel Lines” is similarly understated, though there’s an unmistakable edge to it that hides beneath its calm exterior. The track is like a caged animal, stirring restlessly and waiting to sink its teeth into the listener at its first opportunity. More than almost any entry on the album, “Parallel Lines” reveals the influences of rock and electronic of the ‘90s and early ‘00s. With pieces of heavily distorted backing vocals and a primary singing delivery that feels influenced by Maynard and his contemporaries in alt metal, it’s nearly an homage to the sounds that defined and dominated the era.
Although Painted Holograms has something different to offer on each entry, the tracklist manages to form a cohesive whole. For example, “Burn” pays tribute to the 1994 song from The Cure, mixing in retro synth tones and spinning the vocal delivery into a remarkably new space. The result is worthy of the iconic track without compromising a bit of Czarina’s distinctive style, a fact that reveals the wide range of ideas and musical elements present on the album.
“Midnite Drive” holds a darker tone with industrial effects and shuffling percussion that once again references the open-minded exploration of rock, industrial, and electronic music that defined the musical landscape a quarter century ago. Czarina leads the music with her unmistakable contralto in perhaps her most unrestricted performance on the album, making “Midnite Drive” one of the recording’s brightest highlights.
A final song would be easy to miss given its quiet demeanor and placement at the end of the tracklist, though “Hourglass” is one of the most sublimely composed pieces on the recording. It’s an airy and spacious creation that weaves dreamwave influences into a Sinead O’Connor-esque ballad.
The wide open composition gives respect to each instrument in its minimal composition, and the result is that every note plays a significant role in the listener’s experience. None of these elements are more powerful than Czarina’s breathy vocal performance, and on an album that leans toward low-key compositions throughout, “Hourglass” is a fulfillment of Czarina’s ability to lead a dramatically sparse composition.
An alternate version of “Silence & Surrender” rounds out Painted Holograms and features a more traditional synthwave sound than the “Neon” mix that opens the album. The first few moments could even pass for an early Timecop1983 creation. Those looking for a stronger synthwave style will find the song to be an accessible point of entry, as it fits within the genre more cleanly than anything else on the recording. Notably, this version of “Silence & Surrender” is also the one used in the song’s official video.
As compelling as Painted Holograms is, and as significant as it may prove to be in synthwave’s history, a few things prevent it from being truly exceptional. One of these is simply the style of the music, which suffers slightly from its own innovation.
The downside of doing something so distinctly different is there are no guidelines to follow, and Painted Holograms occasionally feels conflicted in its desire to incorporate a high number of ideas and music styles.
The rich blend of genre influences is frequently exciting, but perhaps needs more time to simmer to bring out its full flavor. Based on historical precedents, it’s extremely likely that a follow-up album from Czarina will feel more resolved, as the many creative ideas percolating within Painted Holograms will have the time needed to gel into a more natural state.
This aspect of the recording should come as no surprise, as it’s true of nearly all pioneering albums, including those within synthwave. Innovative debuts are often ambitious but uneven, and their value lies in the impact they have over time as much as the quality of their music. For example, early efforts from Perturbator and Mega Drive were intriguing at the time of their release, though the rawness and repetition of their songwriting pales in comparison to later darksynth recordings, including those from the pioneers themselves.
Related: What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition
There are also some small complaints to be made about the audio production on Painted Holograms, as the percussion and guitar tend to thin out behind the lead synths and Czarina’s powerful vocals. The result causes some tracks like “Burn” to feel unnecessarily restrained, and they never quite pack the punch their songwriting deserves.
That said, Painted Holograms remains exciting for its music as well as its implications for the future of synthwave. The album has a few odd edges to it, something that should be expected from a stylistically exploratory album, and not every song will leave listeners enthralled. But for those willing to set aside their expectations for a conventional, ‘80s-throwback synthwave album, Painted Holograms offers something uniquely enjoyable.
Czarina pairs an unmistakable music style with rockstar swagger and a dedication to the presentation of her craft, and it’s not an exaggeration to say her debut album has raised the bar for the genre moving forward. As synthwave increasingly creeps out of the underground and into mainstream consciousness, it’s no longer enough to make music in a spare bedroom and ship it out to the world as an anonymous “artist.”
Czarina is the type of bold songwriter, performer, and artist that synthwave needs to carry it into the future, and Painted Holograms may very well mark a turning point in the second generation of the genre.
Rating: 88 / 100 (Great)
Follow Iron Skullet’s popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist on Spotify.