It’s hard to say enough about the value of creators like Megan McDuffee within the world of synthwave, but it’s worth trying: McDuffee is an academically-trained, professional composer with a wide knowledge of genres, moods, and production techniques. She’s a singer and songwriter who is equally skilled at both. She creates top-notch collaborative synthwave efforts with notable artists like Mitch Murder and Moonrunner83 while working on film and video game soundtracks that have a different feel entirely.
In a genre oversaturated with amateur creators still playing at the idea of making music, McDuffee’s smartly crafted creations are always a breath of fresh air.
The artist’s latest soundtrack effort, Hostile Takeover, is just one more piece of evidence to prove the depth of her abilities, delivering 10 slices of perfectly atmospheric cyberpunk synthwave music. Notably — and in spite of McDuffee’s undeniable talent as a vocalist — the album is entirely instrumental, and it serves as the perfect backdrop to a mental journey through a well-realized city of the future.
Stylistically, the recording is in alignment with Ogre’s 195, an influential release that helped lay the foundation for the cyberpunk synthwave subgenre back in 2014.
In that tradition, Hostile Takeover leans toward a grim, militaristic vision of the future, one in which leaden skies hang heavy over slate-gray steel buildings while crowded industrial plants churn out android soldiers, worker machines, and heavily armored military vehicles. Meanwhile, a neglected civilian population works to survive away from the prying eyes of an authoritarian government.
It’s not hard to envision this world thanks to McDuffee’s calculated, precise compositions, which she creates with perfectly chosen effects and a patent understanding of compositional mood.
In a subtle and wonderful way, the title of each song helps lend structure and context to the music. As the sole pieces of human language present on the album, the titles play an essential role in the storytelling process, and they often accent the tone and atmosphere of each track perfectly.
The result is that every song constitutes its own scene, even apart from the game McDuffee designed it for. Whether it’s the dimly lit executive’s office on “Hilson Investment Group” or the underground lab occupied by stasis chambers and scientists in white coats on “Omnium Biotech,” every entry helps to bring the futuristic world of Hostile Takeover to life.
Choosing single songs to discuss on the album almost diminishes their importance as a cohesive web of ideas, and the album is best enjoyed when taken from the beginning and simply played straight through. That said, many individual pieces are worth exploring for their remarkable audio storytelling.
For example, “Hideout” is a low-key, patient track that lurks quietly within itself, almost as though it’s reluctant to reveal too much of its nature to outside observers. Images come to mind of a small, bunker-bound society — perhaps not unlike the one depicted in the original The Terminator — or even a band of outlaws patiently waiting for their next chance to take down a government supply transport.
“Paragon Robotics” is especially remarkable as an example of McDuffee’s ability to match a song title to its music in order to stimulate a listener’s imagination. The track’s mechanical rhythm and array of industrial effects work wonders at bringing to life a manufacturing plant packed with automated machinery, its various arms, levers, and conveyor belts operating with cold efficiency.
“Combat” is one of the most memorable entries, and although it’s not remarkably faster in its tempo or more aggressive in its delivery, it’s significantly more tense than its neighboring tracks. A powerful bass beat drives the music forward with relentless determination while bursts of effects give the impression of energy rifles discharging. The result could accompany a squadron of cybernetic soldiers as they prepare to infiltrate the humans’ bunker hideout, intent on eliminating all organic life.
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As effective as all this world-building is, however, McDuffee’s presentation of Hostile Takeover’s futuristic world is not entirely without its faults.
The largest drawback is unquestionably the album’s running time, which is stunningly brief for a ten-song recording. This no doubt has to do with its existence as a soundtrack, though listening to it as a standalone music creation leaves something to be desired.
What makes the running time especially disappointing is the album has more than enough creative content; the songs are simply unnecessarily short. In an exceedingly rare complaint to have of a synthwave-related creation, each entry on Hostile Takeover could actually be one to two minutes longer without any adverse effects.
In their current form, the songs have an unfortunate tendency to tail off just as their impressive atmosphere is beginning to take hold and fully immerse the listener. Hostile Takeover is the kind of recording worth sinking into with a good pair of headphones and a comfortable chair for 45 minutes and doing nothing but listening. The only problem is the album is only 22 minutes long.
A second qualification to Hostile Takeover‘s success is that many songs are remarkably similar and difficult to remember once they’ve ended. To be fair, this is an almost unavoidable flip side to the album’s cohesive audio design. Although McDuffee has done an excellent job of tying each track together for a complete package of music, it’s sometimes hard to separate the songwriting approaches as their rhythms and tempo tend to be very similar.
In fact, quickly clicking through the album reveals an unfortunate pattern of entries beginning in nearly the exact same way, as on “Paragon Robotics,” “Combat,” and “Charon Security.”
In spite of these small shortcomings, Megan McDuffee’s cyberpunk synthwave offering remains a strongly compelling effort. Its inspired atmosphere generates images of places and people with convincing realism, and a follow-up album in the same style would be more than welcome. This is particularly true if a sequel offered greater diversity and heftier song lengths, as those are the only things preventing Hostile Takeover from being a truly exceptional recording.
Like all great works of science fiction, Hostile Takeover offers a rich environment to explore, and it’s tempting to return multiple times for another glimpse of its dystopian world. There’s a joy to be found in Hostile Takeover, it’s only a shame we can’t there stay longer.
Rating: 85 / 100 (Great)
Song Variety: 7
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)
Learn more about cyberpunk synthwave and related styles in Iron Skullet’s What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition