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Synthwave music has undergone a rapid and far-reaching transformation in the past two years, both in terms of style and overall quality. As the genre pulls in new producers and fans from diverse music styles, and older fans become increasingly disenchanted with the traditional sound of the genre, it becomes more relevant than ever to discuss the nature of the music, where it has come from, and most importantly, where it is heading. So, what is synthwave?
What is Synthwave Music?
Although it’s a common assumption for new fans to make, synthwave is not a general or broad term for synthesizer music, and despite the genre’s retro stylings, does not include music from the ‘80s or other decades of the 20th century. Synthwave is a distinctly modern music genre begun in the mid 2000s as an homage to the pop culture sounds and imagery of the 1980s and early 1990s. Conceptually, this interest in the past manifests itself in two significant, and often interrelated, forms.
The first conceptual aspect of synthwave is a romanticized vision of carefree summer days spent on the boardwalk, at the beach, or at the video arcade. This vision frequently orients itself on images of coastal US cities like Miami and Los Angeles, replete with palm trees and oceanside sunsets. The songwriting captures an idealized mental image of the ‘80s; it’s the musical manifestation of a vintage postcard that says “Come to L.A.” in pink letters above an image of a crowded beach with people on surfboards and roller skates.
The second core conceptual element of synthwave involves the ‘80s ubiquitous love affair with science and technology. This aspect is expressed through synthwave producers’ interest in science fiction, computers, neon lights, and futuristic supercars. It also extends to ‘80s horror movies, which themselves frequently contained themes of science and technology.
Follow Iron Skullet’s popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist for the best songs from synthwave’s current era.
Musically, synthwave’s origins are tied to dance genres of the mid ‘00s, specifically house and nu disco. Early synthwave artists put a retro-synth spin on these sounds while borrowing inspiration from ‘80s Euro disco, funk, and electro, as well as soundtracks for movies, television, and video games. Smaller elements like ‘80s jingles for television commercials, VHS production companies, and nightly news programs also played a role in the genre’s genesis.
Synthwave’s name can be misleading, as the music has very little in common with new wave, which is a rock-based genre that evolved out of punk acts of the ‘70s and flourished in Britain and North America in the ‘80s. Similarly, synthwave is not a new or synonymous name for synthpop, which is a much older and very different style of music. Generally speaking, there’s little overlap between the synthwave and synthpop genres.
Instead, synthwave is rooted much more deeply in European disco and electronic dance music.
Despite synthwave’s preoccupation with the ‘80s, it is not simply a rehash of old sounds and ideas; few songs from the genre could pass for vintage creations, and very little music from the past sounds precisely like synthwave. Instead, it is a retrofuturistic evolution of elements from the past, amalgamated and taken into an alternative timeline with suitably distinct musical and visual aspects. As promoter Samuel Valentine succinctly puts it, “synthwave is the music for a future that never happened but everyone dreamed about in the ‘80s.” Naturally, this idea of retrofuturism can be far-ranging in its application, a fact that is represented in synthwave’s diverse artistry.
What Are the Different Styles of Synthwave Music?
Even as recently as 2014, the question about synthwave subgenres and styles was an easy one to answer. However, since 2015, the genre has seen an enormous influx of creators with different influences and backgrounds. Synthwave is rapidly evolving and shifting at the edges, closing the distance between numerous other genres. In early 2018, the borders of synthwave and the closely related darksynth genre blend into chiptune, vaporwave, mainstream pop, dubstep, aggrotech, and many other styles of music, including some metal subgenres.
As synthwave continues to spill over into neighboring music styles and the term is increasingly applied to songwriting that bears no relation to the original genre, the identity and spirit of synthwave music becomes obscured and more difficult to understand. For this reason, it’s useful to touch on differences between the various styles of synthwave music and establish some demarcation lines. This is done with the intent of increasing clarity, recognition, and most importantly, appreciation of the music.
Because this next section goes into detail about differences in music styles, it’s helpful to be familiar with the importance of music genres before moving on.
It must be briefly emphasized here that music genres and subgenres shift rapidly when they are new and grow increasingly rigid over time as a greater volume of music is created in and around them. The following discussion benefits from hindsight and broadly surveys synthwave with thousands of releases and more than a decade’s worth of music in mind. Also, the music styles listed here are used as general descriptors, not rigid classifications. Very few artists in any genre can be properly represented by a single descriptor, and so this discussion is a flexible and relative way of looking at some of the stylistic choices producers in the genre make when creating their music.
The following diagram provides a visualization of the synthwave genre and its connection to directly related music styles. Note that it is impossible to completely and effectively organize music genres in this way, and so the chart is meant as a visual reference for the descriptions that follow and not a complete classification system.
Synthwave / Retrowave
The terms “synthwave” and “retrowave” are the modern names for the genre, and they are used broadly when talking about the music. The two terms are roughly equivalent, though synthwave is the more common term when talking about the music. In general, “synthwave” refers specifically to the music, while “retrowave” is an all-encompassing term that also applies to artwork, clothing, videos, and other media that embody ‘80s nostalgia and ‘80s retrofuturism.
Notably, NewRetroWave is not a name for the genre; it is a prominent record label and synthwave promoter that focuses on new retrowave content.
Outrun / Outrun Electro
In the formative days of synthwave, “outrun” and “outrun electro” were the most common names for the genre, with “synthwave” overtaking them in popularity roughly around 2014. As the genre continues to expand, “outrun” remains a useful term for describing the specific music style established on the earliest synthwave releases.
Examples of formative albums that shaped the sound and visual aesthetic of outrun music in the late ‘00s through 2010 include:
Teddy Boy (2006)
The Unicorn & The Lost City of Alvograth (2008)
After Hours (2009)
The underground origins of the genre can be traced back further, such as to songs from MPM, but for the purposes of this article, the shortlist of formal releases provides a suitable and compact understanding of early outrun music and the broader synthwave genre’s foundation.
The outrun sound is particularly well represented by the 2010 albums from Miami Nights 1984 and Lazerhawk, as well as their respective follow-up releases in 2012, Turbulence and Visitors. These recordings feature many of the prominent synthwave themes mentioned above, with a particular focus on ‘80s supercars, night drives, beachside sunsets, and vintage science fiction. These aspects are visually represented in the album artwork and song titles, and musically represented by vibrant, retro synthesizer tones, brightly melodic songwriting, and incorporation of vintage music elements from movies, television, video games, and to a lesser extent, ‘80s synthpop and electro.
Notably, the driving themes and visual aesthetic of early synthwave echoes the 1986 arcade racing game, Out Run, which puts players behind the wheel of a virtual Ferrari Testarossa as they speed through mountain passes and alongside sunny, palm-tree-packed beaches. This influence is frequently reflected in artist, album, and song titles, as with The Outrunners, who released their Running for Love and Money EP in 2010, and Kavinsky, whose 2013 full-length album is simply named OutRun.
In general, outrun music is typified by a stiff, four-on-the-floor beat reminiscent of house music and its roots in Euro disco, as well as clean and articulate synthesizer melodies. Structurally, the music is often linear in the style of its EDM influences, maintaining a single rhythmic pattern and only one or two lead melodies through an entire song.
Early outrun emphasizes ‘80s nostalgia more than almost all synthwave releases that followed, frequently incorporating audio clips from pop culture of the decade. Songs like Mitch Murder’s “Palmer’s Arcade” (2011), Lost Years’ “Park Avenue 1989” (2012), and Botnit’s “Hi-Score” (2013) provide excellent examples of the inclusion of ‘80s audio artifacts into outrun music.
Although early synthwave was almost entirely instrumental, it didn’t take long for producers to begin contributing retro vocal performances to their songs. Kristine’s Modern Love EP from 2012 marked an important shift toward vocal-driven outrun, and Dana Jean Phoenix has been prolific within the broader synthwave genre, releasing albums under her own name and providing guest vocals for dozens of prominent releases.
Outrun remains relevant and popular in 2017 and early 2018, with recordings like Tokyo Rose’s The Chase: Last Run and CJ Burnett’s Moonlit City providing contemporary examples of synthwave’s pioneering sound. Other albums, like Overvad’s Massive Scoop and Ace Marino’s Cocaine Flamingo feature a slightly evolved style that remains in alignment with classic outrun.
In relation to the many styles of synthwave music that came later, outrun forms the spiritual heart of the genre, and as such, it is the music to which all other synthwave subgenres must be compared. The demarcation lines that form the boundaries of the main synthwave genre are oriented around the seminal outrun releases from the late ‘00s and early ‘10s.
Although it was difficult to perceive at the time, the seeds for a second, closely related style of synthwave music were planted with the earliest outrun releases. This music would come to be known as dark synthwave, or simply darksynth. In contrast to Miami Nights 1984’s vision of sunny oceanside drives and Mitch Murder’s afternoons in video arcades, darksynth’s embrace of ‘80s retrofuturism turned toward B horror movies, comic books, and pulp science fiction for its identity, often incorporating music elements from metal and industrial genres.
The origins of the darksynth sound can be heard in the previously mentioned outrun releases, such as on Kavinsky’s “Wayfarer” and “Deadcruiser,” as well as Futurecop’s “As Seen on TV.” However, the style would not emerge in its full form until 2012 with albums like Perturbator’s Terror 404, Carpenter Brut’s EP 1, and Mega Drive’s VHS.
Other notable entries in the formative days of darksynth include Dance With the Dead’s Out of Body from 2013 and early Gost EPs like The Night Prowler and Skull. Futurecop! also contributed to the genesis of the darksynth sound on the 2012 album The Movie, delving into the coarse effects and rhythmic songwriting approach that has become a signature of the genre with songs like “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Super Saiyan.”
These innovative releases clearly established a new style of synthwave, though they often shared stylistic commonalities with outrun. For example, songs like Perturbator’s “John Holmes VHS Nightclub” and Carpenter Brut’s “LA Venice Beach ‘80s” are very near to centric outrun releases of the era. Cluster Buster’s entire discography provides an example of horror-tinged music that stylistically represents outrun’s early relationship with darksynth.
After the initial impact in 2012 and 2013, dark synthwave began to expand rapidly, attracting fans and producers not just from outrun, but from a diverse range of external genres. By 2015, the darksynth style was nearly as prevalent as outrun, and even artists like Mitch Murder and Nightstop, who traditionally focused on a glossy, pop-oriented approach to their music, tried their hand at the burgeoning dark synthwave style.
2016 and 2017 were immensely pivotal years for darksynth, as the subgenre arguably overtook the more traditional style in terms of notoriety and popularity. The grittier, more experimental darksynth sound not only continued to spread to new artists, but evolved dramatically in terms of style, effectively forming its own distinctive genre alongside synthwave.
In 2017, artists like Dan Terminus, Gost, Fixions and Perturbator declaratively pushed their music beyond the edges of synthwave, establishing new creative approaches to darksynth that land in relatively unexplored territory.
The dense, rhythmic-oriented approach of many modern darksynth artists, as well as the inclusion of stronger elements from genres like dubstep, trap, drum and bass, industrial, and metal, creates a sharp deviation away from the melodic, disco-oriented sounds of outrun music.
2018 has already seen a hybrid darksynth and dubstep offering in Lazerpunk’s Death & Glory, a hybrid darksynth and rock creation in Carpenter Brut’s Leather Teeth, and an extreme creation in Gost’s Posessor that hurdles the darksynth genre altogether.
These artists no longer share any common musical ground with outrun albums like Mitch Murder’s Burning Chrome, and they therefore fall outside the boundaries of the synthwave genre. This conscious, deliberate evolution can be plainly observed in the music, album artwork, and title of Perturbator’s 2017 EP, New Model.
Follow Iron Skullet’s Darksynth playlist on Spotify for the darkest and heaviest music in the genre.
Darksynth has many other, less conspicuous, names, such as dreadwave, terrorwave, and horrorsynth. However, despite the understandable misuse, darksynth is not synonymous with darkwave, and the terms do not refer to the same style of music. “Dark synthwave” and “dark new wave” both regrettably shorten to the same blend word, though they are otherwise unrelated.
Darkwave is a large and well established genre that grew out of gothic rock and new wave of the late ‘70s and has experienced a long and varied evolution. The Cure’s 1982 album Pornography and Wolfsheim’s 1992 album No Happy View are examples of darkwave.
The darkwave genre has experienced its own revival in recent years and retains a loyal audience in the present day. Although a few examples of hybrid creations have emerged in the past year — as on Gost’s “Sigil” — darksynth and darkwave have followed separate and remarkably different genealogical paths, and generally speaking, have very little in common.
In addition to “outrun electro,” Another common name for the synthwave genre in its early years was “retro electro.” Although this term has sometimes been used broadly, it actually refers to a specific style of music and is relevant as a subgenre descriptor in the same way as outrun.
The confusion over the term is not surprising, as “electro” is one of the most badly abused and misunderstood terms in Western music. Electro’s original and most iconic sound is a form of hip-hop, and in the most basic sense, blends funk and synthpop with turntablism. It was developed in the early ‘80s on seminal releases like Afrikaa Bombataa and Soul Sonic Force‘s 1982 album Planet Rock, Hashim‘s 1983 Al-Naafyish, and Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock, also from 1983. Hancock’s “Rockit” is the most famous example of the original electro sound.
Retro electro pulls that classic sound into the present day and infuses it with modern production and the strong melodic sensibilities of the synthwave genre. Many retro synth creations around 2010 contained elements of electro, such as on Mitch Murder’s “Action Bike,” Miami Nights 1984’s “Miami Funk,” and Digikid84’s “Lazy Lady,” hence the prevalence of the terms “outrun electro” and “retro electro” in synthwave’s early days.
Recent examples of retro electro include the Damokles songs “Retronomic Time Adventure” and “Electric Boogie” as well as Beckett’s “We Can Get Down.” In 2018, retro electro is a relatively small but vibrant subgenre of synthwave music, and it’s often represented on a handful of songs on an artist’s album alongside synthpop and outrun-style music
Synthpop, House, and Nu Disco
An essential contributor to the retrowave style in general, though not specifically to synthwave, is Tesla Boy. The Tesla Boy EP from 2009 and the subsequent Modern Thrills album from 2010 had a massive impact on the ‘80s music revival, and the album art for The Tesla Boy EP remains a foundational image in the retrowave aesthetic. Musically, Tesla Boy’s earliest releases were a blend of modern and retro styles that differ from the earliest outrun releases. However, their relevance to the retrowave scene and the excitement they generated for the ‘80s revival cannot be understated.
Similarly, elements of nu disco and house music are prevalent within synthwave, and their characteristics have remained apparent throughout the genre’s lifespan. For example, artists including L’Equipe Du Son, Worship, and Flashworx delivered nu disco and house-infused synthwave tracks around 2010 that were closely related to the earliest outrun albums. Although these releases exist on the fringe of the synthwave genre, they represent the significant melting pot that characterizes outrun’s origins. Morgan Willis’ Supernova and Garth Knight’s Kitt albums from early 2018 reveal the continued presence of these influences within synthwave.
Synthpop is a massive genre on its own with decades worth of evolution, and it is historically tied to its musical sibling in industrial music. However, the genre does overlap to some degree with synthwave.
Perhaps no one represents the hybrid style of synthpop and synthwave better than Mecha Maiko, first with her darkly atmospheric creations as part of Dead Astronauts, then with a solo debut in early 2018. Her song “Electric Heat” is an excellent example of a song that can be classified as both synthpop and synthwave. Alex’s Simulations album is a similarly excellent example of a synthwave-synthpop creation.
Pop Synthwave / Dreamwave
In the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, a gentler style of retro synth music emerged alongside nu disco and outrun. This subtle variation, with its softly sculpted textures, breathy vocals, and downtempo delivery soon came be known appropriately as “dreamwave”. Significant dreamwave creations include most of the songs in FM Attack‘s discography, including those on the foundational Dreamatic from 2009 and the more meditative subsequent albums, Deja Vu and Stellar.
Electric Youth’s Innerworld, Trevor Something’s Synthetic Love, and Timecop1983’s Journeys, all from 2014, are also examples of dreamwave. The collaboration between Electric Youth and College on the song “A Real Hero,” featured on the Drive soundtrack from 2011, is the most famous example of dreamwave.
Dreamwave remained a relatively small subgenre of music until around 2015, at which point it began gaining tremendous traction thanks to three innovative releases: The Midnight’s Days of Thunder, Gunship’s self-titled debut, and Timecop1983’s Reflections. The impact of these forward-thinking creations was echoed a short year later with FM-84’s pivotal Atlas album. Together, these four albums set the stage for an exciting new style of music that is still rapidly developing and expanding in 2018.
Increasingly, artists working in this realm of music have dropped the dreamwave sound and its close roots alongside outrun, favoring pop song structures with softer production, more elaborate rhythm sections, and a host of modern effects ripped from mainstream genres. Similarly, and in a dramatic shift away from traditional synthwave, these albums incorporate distinctly modern vocal styles that bear little or no resemblance to music of the 1980s.
The results caters toward a younger, more mainstream audience in the late ’10s, a fact that has begun drawing a high number of new listeners who have little knowledge or interest in synthwave’s pioneering acts like Miami Nights 1984 and Mitch Murder.
The incorporation of mainstream pop in the vocals and effects, the new emphasis on pop song structures, and the style’s immense popularity relative to other synthwave subgenres has quickly led to a second, closely related style of music: pop synthwave, or simply, popwave.
Acts like The Bad Dreamers and Prizm continue to redefine popwave music and push the edges of the broader synthwave genre in new directions, forming a distinct, hybrid form of contemporary pop music. The Bad Dreamers’ song “Who You Run To” in the link above is a popwave-defining creation that stakes its claim in new territory far from the sounds of synthwave pioneers.
The sounds of pop synthwave have exploded in popularity in 2018, with Gunship, The Midnight, and Timecop1983 continuing to evolve their personal styles alongside artists like NINA, Wolf Club, Moonrunner83, Ollie Wride, and New Arcades.
However, with new music styles comes new confusion over terms, and just as dark synthwave is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “darkwave,” popwave artists are now mistakenly being described as “synthpop.”
Synthpop, like synthwave, is not a general or broad term for synthesizer music, and despite the understandable confusion, popwave and dreamwave artists like The Midnight and FM-84 are not synthpop acts. In terms of style, these artists are actually rapidly distancing themselves from the sounds of synthpop and moving into a lush, warmly commercial approach that has nothing in common with the starkly minimal and robotic tones of the older genre.
Follow Iron Skullet’s Synthwave Dreams playlist on Spotify for dreamy, pop-flavored synthwave music.
Synthwave draws heavily from movie scores and soundtracks of the ‘80s, and a high number of artists pay tribute to this influence on their albums. Cinematic synthwave with outer space themes is especially prevalent. These creations reflect classic film scores like John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Vangelis’ Blade Runner, Tangerine Dream’s Thief, and Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator. Cinematic and ambient synthwave songs often represent the nearest stylistic connection to music from the ‘80s, and in a few cases, they are nearly indistinguishable from the film scores they emulate.
Cinematic synthwave is produced by artists in diverse areas of the larger genre, and is often represented on one or two distinct songs on an album. For example, Perturbator, Mega Drive, Timecop1983, Crockett, and Scandroid have created cinematic music that is stylistically similar, even though the artists are otherwise quite different from one another.
Fittingly, synthwave artists also regularly create music for video games, television, and movies, as on Power Glove’s soundtracks for the Blood Dragon games, Makeup and Vanity Set’s Hit TV, and Meteor’s Voyage into Fear.
Follow Iron Skullet’s Cinematic Synthwave / Spacewave playlist for the most epic ambient and cinematic synth songs in the galaxy.
Genre labels are valuable tools for understanding and communicating with one another about music. The responsible use of them increases clarity, recognition, and appreciation of artists’ creations.