Album Review: Kalax – III

Kalax III cover art neon city dreamwave synthwave music neo tokyo

Kalax’s capacity for writing serenely beautiful music is undeniable, though past efforts have regrettably suffered from deeper issues. The artist’s self-titled offering from 2017 was a superficially lovely but equally dull recording that lacked a broader sense of purpose or direction, often falling into repetitive songwriting and overly long tracks that burned out before they reached their conclusion.

Although III isn’t entirely free of those same issues, the many soothing-but-bland instrumental pieces are now balanced by a healthy selection of vocal tracks. And as it turns out, those singing performances were exactly what Kalax needed.

Thanks to the array of singing contributions, III feels like a significant leap forward for the artist, providing numerous moments worth revisiting. The singing is such a logical addition to the music that it actually makes 2017’s Kalax feel like the instrumental version of a vocal-driven album that never was.

Despite the strength of the many vocal performances, Kalax has chosen to open III with an instrumental piece. That turns out to be a good thing, as “’86” is easily the strongest instrumental effort on the tracklist and arguably the best one from any of Kalax’s recordings to date.

Building off immaculate ambient tones, “’86” patiently layers in new elements and expands its composition with masterful songwriting strokes. The many small and inspired accents that occupy the music keep it consistently engaging through its running time, and Kalax wisely wraps up the song in just under four minutes. The result is a concise, handsomely melodic piece that demands to be played numerous times.

Listeners who invest in multiple spins of the track will likely find themselves appreciating the nuanced melodies and other details to a greater extent each time through. It’s a solid intro, and it effectively connects Kalax’s previous albums with the new one.

The first vocal track takes the form of “Let Go” featuring Anton Vic. It’s well placed in the second slot, and of all the vocal entries on III, it represents the album’s character most precisely. However, it’s worth noting that character is likely to turn away many synthwave fans.

The largest caveat in any recommendation of III is its overall tone, which is threaded with a certain amount of despondence and self-pity, often expressed with a contemporary, emo-tinged vocal style that will necessarily appeal to some generations more than others.

That sentimentality of the music comes through in heavy doses on “Let Go,” notably packaged in a style that closely mirrors newer albums from The Midnight and Timecop1983. In fact, the song could be a bonus track at the end of Nocturnal and many listeners would never even think twice about it.

The fact that III fits within the same depressive dreamwave style as The Midnight is bound to be either great news or bad news depending on the individual listener, and not many people will land in-between. However, those who are able to connect with the songs on a deep, personal level will find music that is not just intelligently written, but captures a particular slice of human emotion and bottles it up with surprising clarity and potency.

“Let Go” achieves precisely what it sets out to do, delivering a sticky sweet dreamwave creation whose sense of loss and longing provides a suitable soundtrack for post-breakup sorrow.

As the center point of the spectrum of angsty music represented on III, “Let Go” establishes clear expectations for what will follow, and the album’s ensuing vocal entries form a tight stylistic pattern around it as III progresses.

Unquestionably, the album’s most emo moments arrive during the collaboration with Future Punk on “Signs.” Like all entries on III, the track is well made and well executed, though anyone who isn’t peering out through purple bangs and chewing on a lip ring while listening to it may find themselves feeling disconnected from the distinctive whine of the chorus’ vocal delivery.

Other tracks like “Not Alone” lean in a similar direction, painting the album’s overall composition in the unmistakable tones of post-millennium scene culture. The result shatters the few touches of actual ’80s nostalgia present on the recording, and along with music from other second generation synthwave artists like Gunship and The Midnight, makes it clear that III‘s target demographic is considerably younger than that of traditional synthwave.

The distinctly modern slant of albums like III and The Midnight’s Kids is irrelevant to their quality, though in a music culture obsessed with the idea of the ’80s, it can’t be emphasized often enough that the most popular synthwave artists of the past two years are making music with very distant and often superficial connections to the past.

New synthwave, especially creations in the rapidly expanding realm of popwave and dreamwave, rarely has any common ground with actual creations from the 1980s, and songs like “Signs” fully embrace modern influences and production for a fresh and contemporary style of music.

That said, III has a few ’80s Easter eggs lying around, as when Kidburn’s vocal style on the verse section of “Out of Control” echoes George Michael ballads of the past. Yet those touches are brief, and in the case of “Out of Control,” the song quickly rejoins “Signs” in the present once it reaches its chorus.  

Of the many worthwhile vocal entries, the album’s strongest offering arrives late in the recording on the exceptional “Calling,” featuring a contribution from Frankmusik. Although Frankmusik’s own creations fall squarely within the realm of contemporary pop, he provides a singing performance on “Calling” that complements Kalax’s dreamwave style perfectly. 

The vocal lead is powerfully emotive, rising and falling with effortless grace across an impressive range of notes backed by an intuitive rhythm that is capable of sending chills down the listener’s spine. The lead displays the skill of a singer who is both naturally talented and has a deeper understanding of writing engaging music, something that is still hard to find in the broader synthwave genre. 

It’s true that the overall quality of synthwave vocalists has improved significantly over the past two years, particularly as popwave and dreamwave continue to expand, though the presence of truly great singing performances is still quite rare, making “Calling” an exciting creation hidden deep on III‘s tracklist. 

Related: Best Popwave and Dreamwave Songs of 2018, featuring Kalax, Timecop1983, The Midnight, and Futurecop!

Unfortunately, as diverse and strong as the vocal entries are on III, they represent less than half of the album’s music. The rest are instrumental pieces, almost all of which fall into the same patterns that troubled Kalax’s self-titled recording. With the exception of the outstanding “’86,” each instrumental piece sticks to a one-dimensional song structure for its duration and is missing the depth and variety needed to stand on its own.

Entries like “Kawasaki Warehouse,” Lili,” and “Shibuya Nights” all begin with promise, reaching out to the listener with warm, colorful synth tones and twinkling accent notes that create a magical music environment. Yet in each case the songs fail to reveal any deeper personality or establish melodies that are thoughtful and developed enough to linger in a listener’s memory. This is especially true in comparison to the best cinematic synthwave tracks.

They’re beautiful, atmospheric, and a pleasure to hear while they’re playing. But they’re also completely forgettable.

Taken together, roughly half of III is excellent, assuming a person can embrace the tone of the album’s youthful depression. The other half encounters far-too-familiar synthwave pitfalls, and its instrumental tracks are often missing the character to warrant more than one or two plays. 

Although it might be easy to overlook, III has a distinctly different feel from the artist’s early recordings, and Kalax deserves credit for continuing to push into new creative territory.

Just as Timecop1983 migrated from a downtempo, lo-fi style of outrun music on early releases into a smoother, richer sound driven by modern pop vocal performances, so has Kalax steered away from traditional synthwave on early releases like Outlands and Metropolis into the soft, pillowy production and vocal-based songwriting that has become characteristic of popwave and dreamwave in the past two years. 

In fact, III feels like something of a minor renaissance for Kalax, and the trajectory of the artist’s career abruptly appears to point toward greater things for the future. III is a very good album that forms a new pillar of modern dreamwave music alongside releases like Night Drive and Nocturnal, and there seems to be little doubt at this point that Kalax’s future releases will be even stronger.

Rating: 77 / 100 (Good)

Songwriting: 8
Execution: 10
Production: 9
Song Variety: 6
Consistency: 7
Memorability: 6 
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)

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