If there were an award for The Most Underwhelming Synthwave Artist, Stilz would own it four years running. Hyperspace Drifter 3 is just the latest in a long series of mediocre releases that holds real potential but consistently, mystifyingly, fails to deliver even a single worthwhile track.
It’s true there are thousands of unremarkable synthwave artists, and in that regard, it’s barely even worth mentioning Stilz. Yet there’s something relatively unique about the artist: the first 60 to 90 seconds of each track promise something special, and almost every one is well-made enough to catch a listener’s ear. There’s a glimmer of hope shimmering under the surface, yet sticking with any song past those opening moments yields nothing but the worst kind of synthwave monotony.
Looking for memorable and engaging melodies? There isn’t a single one on Hyperspace Drifter 3. How about a surprising twist in the compositions to add depth and replay value to the music? You might as well be ghost hunting.
If the idea of a single music idea looped for four minutes at a time with a few mild melodies sprinkled in sounds epic and exciting, then Hyperspace Drifter 3 and the rest of Stilz’ discography offer plenty to enjoy.
If, on the other hand, you’re already worn out from the endless stream of uninspired synthwave running on a creative treadmill, then there are far better ways to spend your time with the genre.
The unexceptional songwriting of Stilz’ latest offering digs in right away, offering four minutes of space-themed tedium on the title track, “Hyperspace Drifter 3.” As with every Stilz creation, the first 90 seconds hold potential, particularly as the artist layers in new elements and appears to be building toward something special. Yes, the production is a little raw and the overall tone of the music is generic, but there’s a certain grim, extraterrestrial vibe in it that invites a person to go deeper,
That investigation will time and again prove to be fruitless, however, as instead of a world of wonders and new experiences, Stilz’ universe consists of little more than moon rocks and debris.
The meat of the opening song is pleasant but plain, and it’s easy to feel a sense of indifference about it the longer it runs. The first real yawns set in once “Hyperspace Drifter 3” reaches the three-minute mark and Stilz strips back the lead melody for a brief rhythmic break. This can safely be described as synthwave’s “I’ve run out of ideas” break, and eyes are likely to begin watering under heavy lids a moment later as Stilz predictably — and true to the creative bankruptcy signaled by the break — returns to the exact same, plodding section that preceded it.
The title track isn’t exactly unlikable, yet it’s so creatively common that it could be — and absolutely is — produced in equal quantity and quality by an army of lackluster synthwave artists.
Nap time arrives even faster than expected as Stilz begins unfurling 11 more routine retro synth tracks with scarcely any identifiable characteristics. Drooping eyelids will be particularly prevalent among those who experienced the 20 apathetic entries on last year’s Sentient or especially the 125 or so other interchangeable pieces of retro synth music occupying Stilz’ discography.
“Singularity” piles on the underwhelming opener with one of several forgettable cinematic pieces, echoed with even greater indifference on later tracks including “Binary Star,” “Memory Alpha,” and “Look Beyond.” Once again, it’s easy to believe these songs might deliver some amount of value based on their opening moments, though anyone familiar with previous Stilz albums won’t be surprised to learn that “Singularity” travels about ten feet in its journey through space and calls it good enough.
The gentle melodies that glide into the composition on “Singularity” shine out nicely over a shuffling effect that feels like a piece of broken spacecraft hurtling end-over-end through the galaxy. The track welcomes listeners into its cosmic soundscape with commendable grace, and it’s easy to stay there for its first half.
Yet once again, Stilz refuses to add elements of meaningful interest to the composition, allowing it to drift aimlessly in its same form for the remainder of the track. By the time “Singularity” wraps, it’s exceedingly difficult to remember anything about it. Nothing compelling happens within those four minutes, and the generally pleasing tone of it simply isn’t enough to spare it from mediocrity.
Related: The Cinematic Synthwave / Spacewave playlist, featuring the best ambient and cinematic tracks in the known universe
These tracks tell a story. They aren’t afraid to move from their starting point and travel to new and exciting places, allowing listeners to take the journey with them. The songwriting shifts can be subtle, and in some cases, massive compositional changes take place in small increments. So small, in fact, a person may not realize they’re happening until a once-subdued track is suddenly swelling through the speakers with grand and forbiddingly cosmic synth strings. Those shifts give them an epic feel that their production and cover art never could on their own.
Finding these moments is remarkably difficult on Hyperspace Drifter 3, and the recording offers increasingly few redeeming qualities as it progresses. By the time the album reaches “Memory Alpha” and “Rewind Time,” Stilz’ songwriting structure has been reduced to the synthwave equivalent of Lincoln Logs. Even entries that offer some amount of nuance and detail, like “Anomaly,” still rest on bland rhythm sections and eventually fall into groan-inducing repetition.
The beauty of outer space lies in its infinite unknowns. Gazing into the stars activates the imagination and summons thoughts of distant worlds, extraordinary celestial events, and an endless universe with the possibility of undiscovered lifeforms. The best ambient and cinematic spacewave creations capture that feeling with unpredictable songwriting and treat their creative space as a wide-open realm where anything is possible.
Stilz’ music, by contrast, is finite. It reveals every bit of itself in the opening moments and gives no incentive to go exploring beyond those first few seconds. In spite of its themes of intergalactic adventure, every song feels small and plainly understood. Listening to Hyperspace Drifter 3 is the equivalent of lying on a blanket, staring up at the stars, and being able to say with complete certainty, “I’m able to see the entire universe from here.”
Hyperspace Drifter 3 is the opposite of epic, and its all-too-mundane creations refuse to let the listener dream.
This naturally leads to questions and thoughts like:
There has to be more to the album, right? Just look at that awesome cover art!
Isn’t this released by NewRetroWave? It’s kind of popular, it has to be good!
But these are the deeply embedded and often subconscious traps of a music culture that wants consumers to follow names and shiny packaging over their own instincts. There are plenty of great cinematic and space-themed tracks in synthwave, and not a single one of them is on Hyperspace Drifter 3.
Climb aboard Stilz’ synthwave ship and prepare for intergalactic exploits if you like, but don’t be surprised to be back later in the afternoon with the depressing realization that the universe is much smaller than you expected.
Rating: 50 / 100 (Mediocre)
Song Variety: 5
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)
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