Using a dynamic blend of songwriting approaches, LukHash combines synthwave and chiptune melodies together on an EDM foundation for plenty of satisfying moments on Better than Reality. The recording isn’t without a few rough edges, and not every song lives up to LukHash’s high potential, though the good news is there are more highlights than lowlights and it’s easy to come away from the recording with a real sense of satisfaction.
Better Than Reality contains a hefty tracklist, serving up a 14-piece meal with enough variety to satisfy almost any synthwave fan. Nearly every song finishes in under four minutes, which is precisely enough time to get its point across while leaving listeners hungry to hear their favorites again. The fat tracklist is generally a good thing, and LukHash’s dedication to diversity in his music helps to keep things moving, though some notable inconsistencies in the technical execution and occasional dips in songwriting quality make the trek across all 14 entries feel a little longer than it should.
Still, at least half the album capitalizes on the best parts of LukHash’s unique style and offers flavorful melodies, admirable twists in song direction, and an undeniable energy that radiates from each entry on Better Than Reality.
The recording opens on “Perpetual Motion,” which easily rates among the strongest tracks on the recording. The song comes out of the gate on a driving rhythm section, and it’s easy to be pulled into the heavily textured and multi-layered composition as LukHash begins threading bright melodies into the mix.
The high point of “Perpetual Motion” comes near the midpoint when LukHash abruptly pulls the bottom out of the music and drops listeners into a funky chiptune interlude. The break is completely unexpected, and the infinitely likable melodies within it make for a meaningful bit of diversity as well as something to look forward to on repeat listens.
Unfortunately, the many strengths of the song are partly negated by a brief flash of guitar work in the first half that is considerably less adept and well executed than any other element. The clumsy guitar solo is relatively inoffensive in its first appearance and forgivable in light of “Perpetual Motion”’s other strengths, though it’s regrettably not the last time listeners will be forced to confront the instrument on Better Than Reality.
In fact, one of the guitar’s most conspicuous disasters arrives on the very next track, “Neon Thrills,” where the broader spotlight afforded the instrument gives it a better opportunity to unravel the otherwise fine work LukHash has done. The guitar’s extended lead early in the track is enough to make a person physically grimace, and when it returns with an equally slipshod performance to close out the song, it effectively spoils “Neon Thrills” enough to make it worth skipping on all repeat listens of the album.
The limping notes of the guitar are part of a broader pattern of choppy execution throughout Better Than Reality, and although no aspect ever causes a listener’s eye to twitch in the same way as the guitar does, few moments on the recording ever feel tight, clean, and fully in sync. In many cases, the busier the compositions become, the more hectic and uneven they become as well.
There’s a surprise upside to the loose execution though, which is that it occasionally works in favor of LukHash’s lively songwriting and gives the tracks a kinetic energy that a tightly executed version wouldn’t have. It’s a dual-edged sword in that way, and it surprisingly aids the music as often as it damages it.
That said, LukHash’s remarkable creative energy comes through in its most satisfying forms near the midpoint of the album, beginning with “Proxima,” which chooses a beautiful chiptune melody as its lead and allows it to rise over the patient composition in perfectly timed moments. Like many great chiptune and bitpop songs, the lead is remarkably sweet, and it hums like an 8-bit hummingbird near the listener’s eardrum when it hits protracted notes.
“Proxima” is also one of the cleanest entries on the album, offering well-balanced production that allows the melodies to sing clearly across a composition that never feels out of sorts the way some entries on Better Than Reality do. If there’s one song to recommend as an initiation to the album, it’s “Proxima.”
Similarly bright spots on the album arrive a short time later on “Cyberninja” and “Walkman,” preceded by an enjoyably chunky effort on “Holograms” that shifts its chiptune elements from the lead to a fat and crunchy rhythm section with worthwhile results.
As the name suggests, “Cyberninja” offers a slightly darker and sci-fi themed piece, and its pounding rhythm supports an array of melodies that weave in and out of one another in a highly satisfying composition. “Walkman” contrasts it perfectly on the next track with one of the funkiest and most dance-oriented pieces on the album, and its relentlessly bright and upbeat spirit almost literally makes it shine through the speakers.
In both cases, LukHash has loaded the songs with creative enthusiasm and they each ripple with the marks of a creator who is fully in his element. The moment when “Walkman” descends from its effervescent main section into a series of unexpected shifts in the midpoint break is one of the most inspired moments on the album and it makes “Walkman” worth returning to numerous times.
Other great moments arrive on Better Than Reality’s back half, particularly on the EDM backbone of “Paper Doll,” which turns out to be one of the more subtle and elegant offerings in LukHash’s repertoire. The vigorous build-ups in the track are punctuated perfectly by a Mario coin-block chime before dropping into sections laced with introspective piano melodies. More than almost any song on the recording, “Paper Doll” reflects LukHash’s wide influences and immense creative potential, exquisitely mashing up genres in a way that would seem illogical in concept.
As wonderful as these tracks are, however, they’re not enough to salvage the album in its entirety: when Better Than Reality is good, it’s very good. Its best songs are packed with inspired and detailed touches that offer valuable surprises for the listener and make return visits even more satisfying than the first.
On the other hand, some slippery execution causes some tracks to become discordant, and the production occasionally turns LukHash’s dense compositions to musical mud, as on the curiously titled “Museum of Failed Efforts.”
And then there’s that dreadful guitar work.
Better Than Reality doesn’t exactly live up to its name, though there are moments when its elements of uptempo EDM, chiptune, and synthwave collide in a way makes the songs gratifying in a deep, lasting way that lingers even after a person walks away from the album.
If nothing else, LukHash’s Better Than Reality is unique, and in a veritable ocean of mid-tier, predictable synthwave, that alone makes it worthwhile. The listener who applies a bit of work to trim away the less desirable parts of the album will find gloriously sweet and occasionally graceful moments that promise even better things to come from LukHash going forward.
Rating: 78 / 100 (Good)
Song Variety: 10
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Enjoy the best songs from Better Than Reality in Iron Skullet’s popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist.