Album Review: Alex and Tokyo Rose – Akuma II

darksynth album cover art for Alex and Tokyo Rose's Akuma II

There’s a worthwhile observation to be made of popular cultural artifacts (film, books, albums, etc.), that the creations with their finger most on the pulse of what’s happening now, or especially next, are always the ones that age the most poorly.

In other words, the further a creation succeeds at being slick and ultra-modern for its time, the faster it fades in hindsight.

Take, for example, Pulp Fiction, which at the time of its release was self-assured, edgy, and contained dozens of references to pop culture that were so contemporary that many viewers likely hadn’t even been exposed to them yet.

Within just four or five years, however, the movie abruptly felt like a relic of the past, and the exact things that made it cutting-edge for its time have left it forever trapped in its own tiny cultural bubble, so specific to a moment in time that it’s less of a personal creative offering to the world than a perfectly timed snapshot of the environment in which it was made.

Its slavish devotion to being fashionable actually reaches comical proportions in retrospect, as when an entire scene culminates in Vincent Vega being baffled by a tongue piercing.

The same is equally true of the movie’s actual construction, as in its aggressively non-linear narrative and emphasis on soundbite-friendly dialogue over meaningful storytelling. The result is plenty of “cool” moments with little substance to hold them together. In spite of its remarkable execution, the movie was so hyper-obsessed with being stylish in 1994 that enjoyment of it necessarily peaked upon its release and has steadily waned with each day since.

So it was with Alex and Tokyo Rose’s Akuma in 2017 and so it is again with the duo’s latest production marvel, Akuma II.

In just two short years, the artists’ first effort has shifted from a dark and avant-garde creation at the outer edges of the synthwave genre to an unremarkable recording that neither fits within the scope of modern darksynth nor offers anything particularly meaningful to remember it by. For fans who first heard the album on its release, there’s barely a single song on it worth revisiting in 2019.

The original Akuma sacrificed memorable melodies and compelling songwriting at the expense of making itself the flashiest kid in school, and it’s already become the adult version of that kid sporting the same haircut and jacket while buying diapers at the supermarket. The darksynth world rapidly moved on around Akuma, and without a clear identity of its own, it’s stayed exactly, almost embarrassingly the same.

Alex and Tokyo Rose have maintained their mindset toward innovation and outward experimentation on Akuma II, and although the sequel is often dramatically different in terms of style from its predecessor, it is nearly exactly the same in terms of where it fits within its contemporary music environment: it is a slight outlier on the edges of darksynth, examining and imitating current trends while pushing deeper into them with calculated precision, and in doing so, redefining darksynth in 2019.

Along with recent efforts from Daniel Deluxe, Absolute Valentine, and others, it helps knock out a wall in the corner of the darksynth world with a modern EDM sledgehammer, allowing other creators to spill into the new realm and play with the same genre-altering tools.

Listeners are lowered into this innovation slowly through an intro on “3am” that goes light on the dramatically rhythmic and effects-laden songwriting to follow. It’s a patient, almost quiet piece with subtly melodic horror suspense, and as a gentle introduction to the recording’s defining characteristics, it represents a valuable gateway to Akuma II

The suitably titled “Awakening” follows next with a deceptively prominent lead, one which hints at its dark synthwave roots but is quickly swallowed up beneath the song’s full experimental form. Fans of traditional synthwave, and indeed, even pioneering darksynth albums in the vein of Carpenter Brut’s first three EPs or Perturbator’s The Uncanny Valley, will find a strikingly different creative approach here.

In fact, it’s safe to say that tracks like “Awakening,” along with this year’s “Overseer” single from Daniel Deluxe, demand synthwave listeners come to the music with altered expectations and listening methods. The person who waits for the melodic hook in these creations will be left confused and empty, as there simply are none.

Enjoying the rhythmic EDM side of modern darksynth demands attention to production details like the texture of its effects, the understated, almost vertigo-inducing drops that recede instead of advance, and the frequent bass stabs and sprinkling of other elements that appear in carefully sporadic fashion throughout each entry.

These tracks are best enjoyed at high volume with attention to the literal sound of each element, as traditional songwriting has been happily disregarded. It is the electronic music version of impasto painting, in which the artist piles on paint so densely that it creates a three-dimensional presence on the canvas. Viewing the art is no longer about the color and composition alone, but about its literal texture.

Yes, there are still melodies on Akuma II, though they have taken a dramatically subordinate role. In this sense, darksynth has become the postmodern form of synthwave, increasingly devoting itself to experimentation and making the tools of its creative process the very focus of the art. 

Akuma II epitomizes this shift as much or more than anything before it in the retro synth world, a fact fully represented by the uselessness of describing it as “retro.”

The result is likely to lose as many fans of synthwave and popwave as it is to gain fans of late ’10s trap, dubstep, and related EDM styles. Somewhere in-between it all, Akuma II will find its ideal audience, and if the artists have done their homework — which they clearly have — that audience is likely to be a large one.

“Unleashed,” “Danger City,” and “Antagonist” continue in similar fashion as “Awakening” with their almost anti-melodic exploration and emphasis on three-dimensional audio, and each one is expertly crafted and worthy of high volume. Of these, “Antagonist” is easily the most aggressive and instantly accessible, though at five and a half minutes long, it also overstays its welcome more than any other track on the recording.

Other songs are decidedly less interesting, including the immensely disappointing collaboration with Power Glove on “Rivals.” The minimal design of the piece perpetually feels like it’s on the cusp of an exciting breakout, yet the tension that runs through it delivers precisely zero payoff by the end.

Given the high skill level of the three artists involved, that lack of depth nearly feels like an ironic jab at darksynth, defying listeners’ expectations and desire for a meaningful piece of audio and daring them to question why it exists the way it does.

Or perhaps it’s just a lazy song.

“Beasts” is the most ultramodern entry, and it throws every bit of glitched-out production wonkery it has at its audience. However, surprising bits of melody enter in the track’s most chaotic moments for a contrast that delicately balances abstract and figurative, violently modern and peacefully traditional all at once. It may not caress the eardrums in the same, equally pleasurable way for all listeners, but it’s a remarkably well made piece that revels in its genre mash-up and succeeds in its intent in every possible way.

Two subtle and melodic pieces close out the recording like a soothing balm on the scorched skin of anyone who makes it through Akuma II‘s wall of wub-wub fire. Both are quietly enjoyable rather than shockingly impressive, and perhaps suitably so.

“Affliction” is the only vocal track, underpinned by the rhythmic aftershocks of “Beasts,” while “STRNGER” offers the most traditional synthwave offering on the recording. The outro feels like a quiet and casual nod to the artists’ original Akuma, and in relationship to “3am” as the album’s bookends, it’s a fitting and satisfying way to close out the recording.

For its combination of darksynth with ultra-contemporary EDM, Akuma II is everything this moment in time expects it to be, and in that sense, it’s an unmitigated success. Like each of the most popular synthwave-related creations of the past decade, it is on the cusp of “the next” in exactly the right way to enrapture an audience upon release and redefine and expand the edges of its genre in the process. It has perfectly captured a vision of tomorrow’s music without straying so far it loses all of its established fanbase in the process.

Akuma II‘s production is impeccable, its cover art is exceptional, and it pulls in just enough new music elements for an undeniable “it” factor. Enough so that many listeners will feel the need to say they love it only to avoid feeling left out, even as they slog through flamboyant EDM splashes they don’t personally enjoy.

Akuma II has its finger directly on the pulse of what’s new, and in precisely the right amount, what’s next.

And therein lies its greatest and arguably only pitfall.

Akuma II very nearly epitomizes the underlying problem with modern darksynth, which is that it’s so busy getting itself off on effects and dark production magic that it forgets to write memorable music. It’s the equivalent of Pulp Fiction‘s ball gag and anal rape, the exploded head in the backseat of a car, and its needle puncturing through Mia Wallace’s sternum. There’s nearly three hours of movie in Pulp Fiction‘s running time, yet it’s difficult to remember what, if anything, happens for at least two of those. 

Akuma II offers an almost uncanny parallel, as its genre mash-up hits a striking blend of superficial retro aesthetic with aggressively postmodern writing, while its unapologetic worship of contemporary pop trend is tempered by counterculture swagger. The result is so provocative in the moment that it’s irrelevant to question its value, yet once the music has stopped playing it’s nearly impossible to recall what its purpose was in the first place.

The moments of exciting technical prowess and daring strokes of stylistic exploration carry the cool factor in spades, yet they come at the expense of a deeper personal identity and the ability to offer any form of lasting satisfaction.

For better or worse, Akuma II is a revolutionary recording with shimmering production luster, top-flight execution, and refined presentation. It is the zeitgeist of darksynth in 2019, holding a mirror to its surroundings and reflecting back its music environment in exquisite, almost excruciating detail.

Just be sure to spin the album now, as for all the same reasons it’s invigorating today, it will be largely forgettable tomorrow.

Rating: 82 / 100 (Great)

Songwriting: 8
Execution: 10
Production: 10
Song Variety: 8
Consistency: 9
Memorability: 4
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)

If you enjoyed this review and would like more content, including exclusive blog posts and recommended listening, become an Iron Skullet Patreon member.

Follow Iron Skullet on Spotify and enjoy Akuma II along with the most aggressive and experimental tracks in the popular Darksynth playlist.