Thanks to some solid promo work, masked stage personas, and a licensing feature that landed their music in the trailer for Thor: Raganarok, Magic Sword has become one of the biggest and most recognizable acts in synthwave. Relative to that stature, however, the group’s discography is surprisingly meager. Their debut Volume 1 wasn’t worth hearing even in 2015 when the bar for quality synthwave was significantly lower than it is today, and the recording begged questions about how well a follow-up would fare in a rapidly evolving genre.
With Awakening, we at last have our answer to those questions. In contrast with Volume 1‘s ugly production, barren songwriting, and over-indulgent song lengths, one thing is clear: Awakening has fewer songs.
In fairness, Awakening is a modest step up from Volume 1, which has aged about as well as expired milk in a hot vehicle. But relative to Awakening‘s contemporaries in 2019 and the immense jump in quality among the best artists in synthwave in recent years, Awakening turns out to be every bit as deficient as its predecessor was four years ago.
Yes, there’s a certain charm to some of the melodies and the recording’s lo-fi design, and several of its entries have songwriting moments that are funky or catchy enough to grab a listener’s ear. If it were possible to distill Awakening down to only its most likable moments, there might be one or two short songs worth of solid material. Unfortunately, those moments are practically swimming in filler.
Enjoying Awakening is like trying to eat a chicken thigh that’s slick and bloated with pulpy, white fat that surrounds and fills all the spaces between the edible parts. You can pick it apart to try to enjoy the small bits of meat that are in there, but with so many better options available, it just isn’t worth the effort.
And even once the fatty songwriting has been scraped and pushed to the side of the plate, it’s still difficult to find anything redeeming to talk about in the performances or the production.
In-keeping with synthwave’s long and nearly wall-to-wall history of terrible guitar work, Awakening features some lethargic picking alongside its plodding synth lines for a sound that is slightly but consistently below adequate, and it’s wrapped up in production that struggles to hit the median for the genre.
The album’s best moments take the form of spacey cinematic pieces like “The Harbinger” and “Shadow,” the latter of which carries meaningful atmosphere and enough of a sense of dread to put some weight behind the the thin, slightly gurgling synth tones. In both cases, these tracks’ ambient-leaning design sidesteps the possibility for many of Magic Sword’s technical and compositional weaknesses to reveal themselves, and the songs similarly benefit from their short running time.
The idea that less is always more for Magic Sword is confirmed nearly everywhere else on the album, as greater songwriting efforts invariably lead to greater disappointment.
Take “Reborn,” whose colorless synth tones drag the carcass of a guitar riff around in one of the murkiest songs produced by an established synthwave artist in recent memory. For those who can keep their finger off the skip button, the song does redeem itself slightly in the final act with a groovy section worthy of a head bob. But as with everything on Awakening, that tasty bit of endearing songwriting is forced to push its way past slipshod technical delivery and bland production, and it isn’t enough to salvage the song from mediocrity.
“Colossus” lands somewhere south of that effort on the listenable scale, droning its way across a sparse composition in a synth dirge whose guitar work feels exactly like watching a slow-motion video of a bicycle accident. Worse, the piece indulges in a six-minute running time without providing any music-related justification for it.
“Lady of Light” is similarly ambitious, and it features all of the song length of “Colossus” with half of its songwriting depth.
If there’s any truly positive takeaway from Awakening, it’s the first two minutes of the title track, whose elaborate and engaging design can be forgiven for all the unfulfilled promises it makes about the recording. Those promises perish early and hard, however, as the boisterous overture sails directly into the teeth of Magic Sword’s rocky songwriting shore, cracking and splintering on the rocks with a pale synth throb for the next three consecutive minutes.
If this were a release from an unknown newcomer to synthwave, Awakening would be a modest, unremarkable effort. But from an established creator, it’s just one more indication of how low the standards have fallen for old school synthwave.
Rating: 32 / 100 (Bad)
Song Variety: 4
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)
Special thanks to the following artists for their support on this blog. Click their names to learn more about their music.