The quality of new releases from established and beloved music artists is historically unpredictable. A new recording can deliver everything a fan hoped for and more, or it can be bizarrely, almost painfully unlistenable. Music creators shift in new directions, they find new influences and motivations for making the music, and sometimes, they lose touch with their inspiration and forget why they were doing it in the first place.
FM Attack’s New World feels a little like all of these things. On one hand, much of the creator’s established sound comes through on tracks like the opener, “Dark Blue Sky,” and fans who enjoyed the past two albums in particular will likely find enough to keep them happy. Yet the recording in its entirety is somehow underwhelming and even feels oddly forced in places, a sense strengthened by the closing collaborations with Vandal Moon. (More on that later.)
Despite whatever unevenness follows, the album starts strong with “Dark Blue Sky,” a placid and relentlessly soothing track delivered in FM Attack’s unmistakable dreamwave style. Considering that the artist’s Dreamatic album from 2009 is a pillar of synthwave’s dreamy subgenre, long-time fans will likely be happy with how directly FM Attack has evolved from that recording. “Dark Blue Sky” feels more polished, more patient, and more resolved than many tracks that precede it in the artist’s discography, yet it couldn’t be mistaken for a song from any other creator.
A muted guitar riff clips through the opening, giving the piece a lighter, more buoyant tone than its sparse synth melodies and downtempo rhythm could offer on their own. FM Attack’s understated vocal style slips in effortlessly, nearly chanting out the song’s few lyrics. Beautiful accent elements snap and hum in the background, carving out bits of detail in the track’s gentle landscape, and despite the linear songwriting approach, there is more than enough depth and variety to keep the music engaging.
“Dark Blue Sky” may feel straightforward in comparison with synthwave’s newer, more pop-oriented songwriting styles, though there’s no question that its repetition is deliberate and precise. FM Attack re-uses the track’s building blocks just enough to generate an immersive listening environment without it becoming tedious or repetitious.
Long-time synthwave fans will likely have a particular fondness for the music, as it perfectly recalls the genre’s roots as a form of ‘00s EDM. There are no verse and chorus sections here, no synth solos, and no progressive songwriting touches. “Dark Blue Sky” relies on a single section for its entirety, subtly shifting the composition around that central idea for nearly six minutes of chilled-out bliss.
That type of one-directional songwriting is a careful balancing act that causes countless synthwave artists to fall flat on their faces, but FM Attack pulls it off expertly on the opener. Unfortunately, few of the tracks that follow on New World succeed to the same extent.
For example, “Let You Go” strikes up a disco rhythm and sends the lead vocals through a vocoder for a distinctly different vibe from the opener. Once again, it’s a happy nod to synthwave’s roots and its close ties to nu disco at the turn of the last decade, and the robotic vocoder summons up myriad non-synthwave associations for a welcome bit of variety. Yet despite its relaxed and confident charm, “Let You Go” is missing the depth and subtlety needed to rescue it from monotony by the end of its overly long running time.
“My Life” fares even more poorly, offering up a paint-by-numbers synthwave track that hammers on its minimal rhythm without meaningful variation for six and a half minutes. By the time a person has heard thousands of synthwave creations using that same rhythm and a similar synth tone, it becomes difficult to endure it in an unadorned state for more than a minute, let alone six and a half. Even worse, the vocal lead often feels grating and offers up clichéd lyrics that generate no deeper interest in the lackluster music.
As the name suggests, “Cosmic Dance” is a space-themed piece, and it delves into a cinematic style with modestly rewarding results. It’s undeniably lovely, and FM Attack keeps the running time down for a concise intersteller interlude, yet as with “Let You Go” and “My Life,” the song seems to have trouble finding a direction beyond its first minute, and so repeats itself without embellishment or interesting accents until it wraps.
“Stranger” is slightly more rewarding, and offers some of the best moments outside of “Dark Blue Sky” in the main body of the recording. It offers up gorgeous synth melodies and an ultra-smooth vocal performance from Mecha Maiko, though some oddly specific bits of spoken verse are an unnecessary distraction, particularly when the song’s chorus once again dips a bucket deep into the cliché well and comes up with “I don’t need a stranger to tell me how to live my life.” The result is musically compelling but might resonate more with teenage synthwave fans than those who have followed FM Attack for any significant amount of time.
Only “Shadows” holds a similar level of depth and value as “Dark Blue Sky,” layering in surprising new elements at the midpoint and beyond for a satisfying piece that rewards numerous listens. Incidentally, “Shadows” is also the final track in the main body of the recording, and the similar tone and songwriting of it to “Dark Blue Sky” effectively bookends the music with stylistically matching entries.
That’s hardly the end of the album, however, and New World becomes particularly interesting and creatively compelling with the mini-EP packed onto the back of it. Three collaborations with Vandal Moon close out the recording in a style that straddles the space between synthwave and the immensely satisfying resurgence of darkwave and post-punk music.
Aside from “Dark Blue Sky” and “Shadows,” it’s safe to say these are the most exciting and interesting pieces on the album, not because they’re different, but because there’s an inspired spark in them that simply doesn’t come through on creations like “My Life.” They have clear purpose and intent, and FM Attack and Vandal Moon seamlessly weave together so many vibrant influences that the songs practically shimmer on the tracklist.
They’re simultaneously bright and dark, salty and sweet in a perfectly complementary mix, giving them a complex personality that makes earlier entries like “Let You Go” feel downright dull by comparison.
“Believe” in particular is low-key brilliant, patiently and effortlessly layering in new elements well past the midpoint. Every aspect serves a distinct purpose and balances faultlessly with the other compositional pieces, and each one’s placement in the overall structure is absolutely inspired.
Take, for example, the reverb-heavy guitar riff that quietly introduces itself in the background of the intro section. The riff slides in and out of the song just before the vocals enter and is then forgotten for the next two minutes. Suddenly, wonderfully, the riff slips back in beneath the melodic vocal lead for the final 30 seconds, adding an exquisitely subtle bit of detail and variety while padding the composition’s final escalation and providing a real sense of closure.
It’s similarly worth tracking the gentle synth melody that opens “Believe” and the way it runs persistently through the background of the entire song. It’s first accented and mirrored by the bassline during the intro, then superbly escalated and enhanced in the middle of the first vocal chorus section with a second melody line that pushes harder to the front of the mix. Once again, these delicate pieces of the composition are arranged and balanced with such care and inspiration that they create edifying hills and valleys in the composition without making any dramatic shifts.
If subtlety is the mark of great art, “Believe” is a masterpiece.
The other two Vandal Moon collabs, “New World” and “Mixed Emotions,” are similarly compelling, and they’re packed with more imagination and enthusiasm than half of the entries on New World‘s main tracklist combined. “Believe” retroactively causes “Let You Go” and “My Life” to feel like perfunctory bits delivered from a sense of tradition and consistency with past releases than from a burning creative desire.
The result is that New World is something of a mixed bag in terms of both quality and style. It holds aspects that reflect synthwave’s EDM and nu disco roots in the ’00s as well as elements from the rapidly emerging darkwave revival of the late ’10s. Some pieces are imaginative and ingenious while others are routine and barely worth hearing the first time.
The best parts of New World are exceptional, it’s simply a shame there aren’t more of them.
Rating: 80 / 100 (Great)
Song Variety: 7
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)
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Enjoy FM Attack and Vandal Moon’s New World collaborations in Iron Skullet’s Post-Punk and Darkwave playlist.