There are two ways to look at an album like Dynamite Stranger’s new EP, Dynamite Rider. On one hand, it’s a debut with everything that usually comes with it for new synthwave artists: the melodies are generally forgettable, the rhythms are lifeless, the execution is loose, and the production is flat. There’s very little to get excited about on the recording and it would be impossible to recommend the music on its own merits.
On the other hand, Dynamite Stranger’s first album has far more going for it than the efforts of hundreds of similar creators within the genre. Compared to the mind-numbing simplicity of a creation like Star Noir’s creatively barren Society, Dynamite Rider is downright likable, with bright melodies, an obvious familiarity with the shape and substance of synthwave music, and beneath it all, an apparent skill for songwriting that simply needs more time to develop.
If a person were placing bets on synthwave artists who are the most likely to improve in the next two to three years, Dynamite Stranger would be a good pick.
It’s worth mentioning something crucial at this point about the process of making and self-promoting synthwave music (and art in general), which is that improvement can and should be a constant process. A high number of creators become defensive and despondent when their music isn’t well-received, even if there’s real potential behind the efforts. They either seal themselves off from outlets who rejected their early attempts or quit altogether, ensuring they never find any success.
But it doesn’t need to be that way.
Jeremiah Kane recently proved to everyone the value of perseverance, delivering a tremendous effort on 2018’s All or Nothing that was head and shoulders above the generic synthwave of The New Dawn album that preceded it and miles beyond the muddy and unlistenable debut, Neoangeles.
It’s not a stretch to envision that kind of breakthrough for Dynamite Stranger down the road. But in spite of the small bits of possibility gleaming deep within Dynamite Rider, this simply isn’t the artist’s time to shine.
The EP opens on the title track, “Dynamite Rider,” and the strengths and weaknesses of the recording come through immediately. The melodies are crisp and cheery, the production is articulate, and there’s an obvious sense of how to structure a song with gentle peaks and valleys to maintain forward momentum.
Unfortunately, the repetitive songwriting elements don’t contribute to a deeper sense of immersion, and some of the melodies feel like they’re either slipping out of key or are simply out of sync with one another enough to create a small dissonance.
“Dynamite Jumper” follows with a more likable effort in which a bouncy melody line chimes out over the sliding, almost groovy rhythm of the synth bass. The elements work well together, and the delivery of the music is once again clear in spite of the low-budget production.
It’s not a great song, but it’s moderately listenable and is an improvement over the opening track. A more nuanced melody line and greater variety in the structure — for example a clean break into a new section with distinctly different elements — would go a long way toward improving the piece. That’s to say nothing of the myriad intangibles and inspired touches that come from practice and effort that simply aren’t present in the music yet. The foundation of a good track exists, but it’s a chunky one.
Happily, things improve further on the third song, “Dynamite Love Story.” The melodies are once again mildly enjoyable, and they glide along the back of a relaxed rhythm with calming results. The music isn’t subtle or diverse enough to stay engaging for long, though a welcome break occurs two-thirds of the way into the track to break things up.
That simple break may seem small and insignificant, but it’s something that hundreds of new synthwave artists overlook. That brief reprieve does wonders for refreshing the composition and helping the music stay interesting when it builds back into the full section.
To close out the song, Dynamite Stranger cuts into an extended lead — not exactly a synth “solo” but more of a protracted melody line — that hits several nice combinations of notes and is actually quite charming in its lo-fi way.
“Dynamite Love Story” is the most compelling piece on the recording, and its sweet melody can actually be played several times without losing its modest appeal.
In a self-reflexive moment of humility, the quietly amazing Garth Algar once said of his first feature length film, “I just hope you didn’t think it sucked.” For songs on a debut synthwave album from an independent artist in 2019, that’s really all anyone can ask for.
Mercifully, “Dynamite Jumper” and “Dymamite Love Story” don’t suck.
No part of them is worth venturing out of the way to hear, and they’re unlikely to stick in a listener’s memory once the music has stopped playing, yet they’re nonetheless respectable efforts from a new creator. They provide a solid platform for the artist to build on, and it would be a surprise not to hear significant improvement across the artist’s next two or three releases.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the EP’s final two entries. Dynamite Stranger has smartly loaded the best tracks upfront where they can give listeners a respectable impression of the album, and they serve as something of a shield to deflect attention from what lies beyond.
“Dynamite Accomplice” and “Dynamite Overdrive” maintain the general melodic approach and tempo of the earlier entries, but the overly linear and repetitive song structures run the value of the music into the ground. It quickly becomes difficult to stick with either one for its full duration, even when the final entry, “Dynamite Overdrive,” is a mere two-and-a-half minutes long.
“Dynamite Overdrive” is the most aggressive entry on the recording, and the prominent synth bass propels the music forward with a relentless crunch while melodies chirp out wildly over the top. A combination of the inelegant melodic design and the raw production makes the finished creation more of an irritant than a pleasure to experience, and in an awkward but fitting piece of production trouble, the music clips off abruptly at the end, practically in mid-note.
At least some of the flavor fatigue that happens on the final two tracks comes from the fact that there’s a very limited range of material on the recording. There’s clearly an effort to try different approaches on creations like “Dynamite Love Story” and “Dynamite Overdrive,” but the narrow scope of production and songwriting techniques ultimately causes the EP to feel like five versions of the same track coming through the speakers. This isn’t helped by the presence of the word “dynamite” in everything, to the point that even the artist and album name can be difficult to remember.
It’s hard to say much in the way of praise for the Dynamite Rider EP, but it’s hard to beat it up either. It has a very long ways to go to catch the experienced and talented artists who have spent years building up their equipment and their skills as songwriters and producers, but it’s also significantly better than most debuts of its type. In fact, it’s better than the efforts of many creators who already have four or five bad synthwave albums behind them.
Unlike most new synthwave makers, it’s easy to get the feeling that Dynamite Stranger has a solid reason to be making the music and that perseverance on the creator’s part will eventually yield a quality recording.
We should all hope that happens.
But for now, Dynamite Stranger’s debut is just one of thousands of unpolished and under-developed synthwave releases that can be safely overlooked.
Rating: 38 / 100 (Bad)
Song Variety: 4
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)
Learn more about the history, present, and future of the synthwave genre in Iron Skullet’s What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition