Album Review: Power Glove – Playback

album art of guys in 80s leather jackets for Power Glove's Payback

The name Power Glove holds a lot of deep and powerful associations, first for people who grew up dreaming of finding that fabled NES accessory under their Christmas tree, and later, for synthwave fans who have fond memories of Power Glove’s EP 1 and Blood Dragon soundtracks, the latter of which remain among the best-known and most widely heard synthwave recordings to date and have served as a gateway to the genre for thousands of listeners.

So when Power Glove decides to release a full-length retro synth album in 2019, there are layers of nostalgia involved that understandably generate a lot of interest and excitement.

But much like the NES accessory Power Glove, Playback is far more superficially interesting than enjoyable to actually experience, and once a person owns it, it’s easy to feel a deep sense of buyer’s remorse. Playback may be enticing thanks to the immense name recognition of the artists, but little about it is worth interacting with, let alone spending money on.

Playback could be considered a disappointment from a first-time creator, but from an established and widely known name, it is, at times, shockingly unlistenable.

Delving into any form of meaningful description of Playback is inherently difficult. How does one describe a waxed paper cup or a brown cardboard moving box? It is enough to add an adjective or two to the nouns that represent them, and any additional information is extraneous.

So it is with Playback, which is a downtempo, bass-heavy synthwave recording.

It might be tempting to describe it as “atmospheric” or “cinematic,” particularly given the creators’ notable soundtrack contributions of the past. Yet either of those terms are entirely too generous for Playback, whose nondescript entries are so plainly composed that they never begin to conjure up exciting mental images or pull in listeners with any form of audio storytelling. 

If a person didn’t know better, it would be safe to guess that Playback is a debut from a first-time synthwave creator who’s commissioned the mixing and mastering. 

Much like the NES accessory Power Glove, Playback is far more superficially interesting than enjoyable to actually experience.

Which brings up the most relevant and interesting aspect of the recording, and it isn’t the music. Playback demands an answer to the age old question lurking deep beneath the entire music industry: do established artists deserve support for new releases based solely on past contributions?

Many consumers say yes, as, for example, Metallica somehow manages to become increasingly popular and well-liked despite not putting out a worthwhile album in 30 years. Same minus a few years for Megadeth, and to a lesser extent, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Pick a genre and you will likely find its pioneers and heroes either mailing it in or simply unable to capture the creative spark that made past efforts great. 

The same regrettable pattern of unblinking hero worship that is pervasive in all genres has already established itself fully within synthwave, as many of its early innovators and most popular acts continue to release outdated or subpar creations to great fanfare.

There is an epidemic of name recognition bias among music fans of all stripes, and synthwave culture will likely excuse Playback for all the same reasons it excused Leather Teeth.

Power Glove puts fans’ commitment to the test early with a disposable minute of lifeless audio on the intro track, “Sundown.” It’s generally safe to say that the more minimal a piece of music is, the more carefully composed it must be. It’s never enough to simply let synth tones throb for a minute or two and slap a title on it, yet that is what Power Glove has done with nearly every low-key and ambient-driven track on Playback.

In comparison with the many great cinematic synthwave tracks of the world, which are laced with careful melodic twists, subtly shifting ambient tones, and a steady introduction of new layers and tension-building elements, “Sundown” is a flat and nearly one-dimensional piece of audio. Its slate gray personality and utter lack of inspired touches set the stage for the entire recording, and the remaining songs never defy the expectations established upfront.  

The pattern of minimal-yet-always-predictable songwriting is expanded and confirmed with the first full entry, “Playback,” which is the synthwave equivalent of a Lego-block house. Chunky, dull, and completely devoid of detail or nuance, “Playback” thumps its way through nearly four and a half minutes without a hint of expressive melody, interesting rhythmic elements, or anything besides flashy effects and fat, raw synth tones to guide it. 

The value of the songs’s few redeeming aspects are further diminished through their excruciating repetition. The music seems to lose its short-term memory every minute or so and actually comes to a complete stop at the midpoint. Without a clear idea of what to do next, it begins again with the exact same rhythm and lays out the same additional elements all over again.

This is Synthwave 1.0 songwriting at its worst, and although it might’ve been passable in 2012, it’s now depressingly far behind music from the many talented and professionally-trained musicians who have come to the genre over the past four years.

“There is an epidemic of name recognition bias among music fans of all stripes, and synthwave culture will likely excuse Playback for all the same reasons it excused Leather Teeth.”

In a heart-wrenching twist, “Playback” actually turns out to be one of the best entries on the recording. “Reset” arrives in the third spot and is enough to make a person wish Power Glove had hit the reset button on the entire project. Or else just punched off the power switch.

The numbingly plain instrumentation on “Reset” is joined by a cringe-inducing vocal drone that whines like a glitched-out Gollum slipping into a k-hole. Meanwhile, dreary, artless ambient tones wail in the background, painting the song’s musical canvas with all the vibrancy of toddler vomit and toenail fungus.

“Firebird” is about the closest thing to a redeeming track in the album’s first half, which is to say it equals “Playback” in its mediocrity. Yet again, the clunky songwriting and raw synth tones combine for a leaden piece that drags itself across its running time with all the enthusiasm of a nauseous hangover. It’s fittingly capped with an ultra-brief guitar solo that mirrors every teenager’s best effort to show off for the employees at the local guitar shop, and it’s every bit as impressive.

The bargain bin quality of Playback’s tracklist is deep and relentless, though if the first half seems schlocky, it’s nothing in comparison to what comes after.

Beginning with the eighth track, “Loaded,” Power Glove begins to churn out track after consecutive track of audio misery, punishing anyone who dares to stick with the recording that long. Followed by “Afterburner,” “Adult Themes,” and “Haunted,” the album’s back half kicks off with a round of haymakers to the music lover’s soul, and it’s enough to leave a person winded and dazed, begging for the bell to ring. 

In a surprise bit of mercy, more hollow and futile ‘cinematic’ tracks follow on “Last Breath,” “Promises,” and “Daybreak,” and their relatively nonexistent nature actually begins to feel like a bright spot among the suffocating mold of dingy synthwave around them.

It’s true that when “Last Breath” is taken on its own terms, it’s still riddled with poorly timed execution and a production fuzz that is more of a distraction than a meaningful creative decision (if indeed it’s even deliberate), yet those low-key tracks are as close to silence as a person is going to find on Playback, and that makes them beautiful. 

The album’s back half kicks off with a round of haymakers to the music lover’s soul, and it’s enough to leave a person winded and dazed, begging for the bell to ring.

To be clear, absolutely none of the album’s shortcomings are a result of its style. No album succeeds or fails on the basis of style, and innovative and traditional approaches are neither desirable nor undesirable on their own terms. That said, it’s always worth understanding context and relationships between albums.

Although Playback is somewhat unique among synthwave with its darkened, minimal tone and club vibe accent, it’s often reminiscent of Kavinsky’s releases and is echoed in other new creations like Ace Marino’s 2019 single, “The Flamingo Returns.”

In contrast with stylistically daring recordings of the past six months like Gregorio Franco’s Apocalypse Prime, The Bad Dreamers’ Songs About People Including Myself, and Tokyo Rose and Alex’s Akuma II, Playback fits well within the scope of traditional synthwave, and is unlikely to turn away many fans on style alone.

The fact that it’s crudely composed, clumsily executed, and missing even the slightest bits of deeper inspiration is another story. 

Synthwave has evolved immensely in recent years, most notably in the skill level of its best creators, and that fact has unfortunately left many genre pioneers in the dust, unable to keep up with increasingly talented newcomers and spinning their wheels with bland songwriting and modest technical abilities. Power Glove’s Playback — like Lazerhawk’s Dreamrider before it — is just the latest to suffer at the feet of progress. 

But historical precedents and patterns do little to ease the disappointment. 

Much like the NES accessory Power Glove, Playback is a clunky creation whose nostalgic charm is best appreciated from a distance. Name recognition is the best thing it has going for it, and that isn’t nearly enough to salvage the poorly designed and executed product behind it.

Rating: 33 / 100 (Bad)

Songwriting: 3
Execution: 2
Production: 8
Song Variety: 4
Consistency: 2
Memorability: 1 
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)

Iron Skullet’s weekly reviews are made possible by the following impartial contributors. Click each name to learn more about them:

Dynamite Stranger

Psyk     2DCAT

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