Album Review: Waveshaper – Artifact

Waveshaper Artifact synthwave art of two space explorers kneeling over 80s pc

Few artists represent the synthwave genre better than Waveshaper. There’s a certain understated quality in the music that perfectly embodies the essence of early outrun, offering strongly nostalgic synth tones packaged into a low-key EDM format that is accessible, relatable, and perhaps most importantly, fun.

Artifact is arguably the best release in the creator’s discography to date, and it perfectly represents the uncomplicated yet deceptively nuanced aspects of Waveshaper’s songwriting style. The album’s clear-headed execution and chunky production style consistently carry the feel of early ’90s video game soundtracks, plunking down old school synth tones in Huelsbeck-inspired soundscapes for music that feels like a 16-bit spaceship climbing into the stars. 

It’s often tempting to call Waveshaper’s songs “simple” or “straightforward,” though those terms do a disservice to the subtle elegance of them. The deliberateness in the restrained compositions and the carefulness of the repetition work in Waveshaper’s favor, creating a semi-hypnotic listening state that becomes difficult to break free of.   

These aspects are perhaps best represented on “The Guardian,” which relies on a single section for its full running time. For over two minutes after the rhythm enters, the song placidly pings away on the same bits of percussion and melodies with apparent indifference. The music is undeniably pleasant, but also rather unremarkable.

“The Guardian” initially seems destined for monotony, though it makes a meaningful shift after the midpoint when Waveshaper begins layering in new melodic elements for surprising bits of texture and color. The result retroactively redeems the patient and sparse lead-up and delivers a substantial payoff that is disproportionately grand in comparison to the song’s low-key character. 

There is precisely nothing flashy about “The Guardian,” and its quiet repetition would be easy to disregard along with thousands of unremarkable synthwave tracks. Yet the subtle buildup across the song, from the piano tones that open the music to the quirky, gently honking lead melody that enters more than two and a half minutes in, is discreetly rewarding. “The Guardian” becomes increasingly enjoyable once the full shape of it becomes familiar, a fact that remains true even a dozen times across its landscape.

Pick any entry on Artifact and it will tell a similar story. “Departure” opens with a traditional outrun rhythm and patiently drops in new elements one after another, building song tension while foreshadowing the dense interplay of melodic leads to follow. As Waveshaper continues layering new elements through the first three minutes, the once-quiet composition becomes abruptly and vividly alive, with a synth solo emerging from a gentle break in the composition to kick off a head-turning climax. 

As the solo dissolves, a pair of melodies take its place, weaving in and out of one other through a meticulously contained firestorm of retro synth goodness. The final third of the song provides an unexpectedly stimulating piece of music that contrasts with its casual intro, and the evolution across its five-minute running time creates a strong sense of storytelling. “Departure” travels a long distance in five minutes, and it’s worth tracking its journey multiple times.

Once again, “Departure” manages to be impressive and reach a level of commendable complexity without ever feeling flashy or flamboyant. It exists in its retro, almost lo-fi intricacy simply because it can, and it leaves it up to listeners to decide whether or not to take notice. 

In this sense, the album often feels connected to the best video game soundtracks of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, which were remarkably well composed in spite of their technical limitations. Artifact is the synthwave equivalent of the soundtrack to Turrican II or Journey to Silius: easy to lump in with similar, less extraordinary creations, but delightful if a person is willing to actually listen.

Although Waveshaper’s distinctive production and songwriting style are present on every piece of the recording, including the perky “Decoding Myself” and the somber cinematics of “Desert Dawn” and “Jupiter Hours,” this leads to the most significant drawback of the artist’s latest offering: meaningful differences between entries on its tracklist can be exceptionally difficult to find. 

Even after a dozen passes through the full album, it’s nearly impossible to remember specifics about each song by looking over the tracklist. A person will surely develop a sense of which ones are more enjoyable than others and be able to seek out favorites, though finding ways to pinpoint or describe the ways in which they are meaningfully different is often futile. 

Waveshaper does one thing, and Waveshaper does it very well.

This means that listeners who didn’t enjoy Exploration 84 or Station Nova won’t be swayed by Artifact, even though the latest recording generally offers more detailed and complex songwriting than its predecessors. It also means that new synthwave fans looking for a wide and diverse tracklist with a broad variety of genre influences like Michael Oakley’s Introspect may find Artifact to be rather flat.  

A related caveat is that Artifact demands multiple spins before it can be fully appreciated, a result of its subtlety combined with the similar tempo and songwriting of its entries. The first trip through Artifact is likely to feel a bit blurred, and it will be difficult to remember anything in particular about it. Repeat efforts enable a person to become increasingly familiar with the shape and substance of each track and anticipate the subtle songwriting shifts before they happen, which is necessary for a full appreciation of Waveshaper’s understated compositional style.

Despite the relatively homogenized approach of its music, Artifact holds plenty of details to keep things interesting and is bound to become a favorite among the artist’s fans. Those who are already on board the uniquely raw and exaggeratedly old school sound will be more than content to stay there. 

Waveshaper is one of the few remaining creators from the first generation of synthwave who is still active and has maintained a traditional approach to the genre. The fact the artist is still doing it well (better than ever, in fact) is even more remarkable, and the fittingly-named Artifact often feels like a lost treasure from an increasingly distant era of synthwave music. The result is worthy of a look from every long-time fan of the genre.

Rating: 82 / 100 (Great)

Songwriting: 10
Execution: 9
Production: 9
Song Variety: 5
Consistency: 9
Memorability: 7 
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)

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

Dynamite Stranger
Psyk     2DCAT

If you’d like to become a sponsor or receive sneak previews of upcoming articles and other bonus content, join Iron Skullet on Patreon

Follow Iron Skullet on Spotify and enjoy Waveshaper and other great artists in the popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist.

cartoon drawing of Iron Skullet devil head logo with colorful sunglasses