Sometimes a record comes along that changes a lot of the definitions one held true about certain genres and what they're capable of accomplishing. This has happened to what I call soundtrack synth in C-Jeff's album Big Steel Wheels. Soundtrack synth, by my prior reckoning was essentially the background style music that would be accompanied by some kind of visual. Some of the more visionary soundtrack synth of late (especially from the likes Ogre and Protector 101) has displayed that they don't need a visual cue that the music supports. Instead, the music stands alone. It paints the pictures in our imagination, not requiring any visuals whatsoever to carry it's emotions and messages.
This style of music is the complete definition of what I mean by narrative or story in a piece of music. The music describes a scene, it conveys the emotions, sparks our inspiration with visions of places and events un-filmed, but that we as the listener fully experiences. In the case of C-Jeff's Big Steel Wheel albums we're told an incredible story that rolls along in a vividly visionary manner. I've often said how I long for a visual accompaniment for some soundtrack synth music; in this album I realise that this is not the case at all and perhaps I've been traditionally misguided by this perceived ideal. In actual fact the audio does a fantastic job, if not better, of telling the story than an experience with a visual component as it leaves things up to our own imaginations.
One of my favourite musical experiences growing up was Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds. This was a rock opera retelling of the classic by Orson Welles from the late 70s, which I ardently listened to over, and over again on cassette. There were voice overs filling in the story, but the music and songs were what drove the entire adventure. In Big Steel Wheels I feel that spark of imagination lit in a similarly explosive manner.
I'm not going to go into a track-by-track review of this album, as I feel that would be depriving you the listener the sublime experience of allowing your own imagination to run wild with possibilities and the less you know about the story, going in, the more you will get out of the experience by it's end. The story is so spectacularly told through the emotions of the music that you'll thank me by it's end for a 'spoiler free' adventure.
A few things I would like to go into about the album, however, is the quality of the homage and density of the production. There is a massive amount of homage to the legendary Vince DiCola of the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack fame throughout Big Steel Wheels and this rocks to the extreme. I personally view Transformers: The Movie's soundtracks as one of the absolute high water marks of 80s soundtrack synthscapes and likening this record by C-Jeff to it is a compliment that I give with utmost sincerity and respect.
The emotional context is vibrant, real and exhilarating in every single track on the album. Light and dark, action and introspection, love and hate and the myriad of variations in between amount to a monumentally powerful experience in it's complete form. The dexterity at which C-Jeff manages to switch gears effortlessly in each track is a testament to his skill and passion as a musician as well as his fascination with vintage synth soundtracks. The album is full of other inspirational nuances as well, videogame tinged ChipTune elements resonate within some suites in a searingly beautiful embrace with the synths while guitars intimate voices of their own, speaking an eloquent dialogue of pure elemental passion.
These instruments are what creates the density I previously mentioned. Big Steel Wheels is packed deep with densely populated passages full of vibrant details all jostling for your attention. Even the ambient pieces are layered with subtleties that make the fog like haze a tactile solid that can be felt and shaped. In the more furious moments of the album it is this outright brutal intensity that packs the biggest punch with guitars, synths and drums combining it's a tsunami of richly detailed aural spectacles.
Every instrument is engineered to a purpose through each piece, the personalities of the sounds are allowed to vocalise and intimate so much deep narrative that the sporadic samples used throughout then cut even deeper. The synthscape is rich and lush and produced magnificently well as perfectly tuned synths reverberate deeply when needed and then become delicate and fragile when required. It's an all embracing sound that envelopes the listener completely in a dense shroud of magical musical moments.
By the end of Big Steel Wheels you know you've experienced something special. Something that doesn't come along very often and something that will then be a point of reference in future musical adventures. Soundtrack synth as a fully fledged experience has reached an incredible new standard with this album and in the numerou times I've already listened to it I'm told new stories and variations on preconceived themes each time. Only time will tell if this album has the staying power I believe it has, but I know I'll be revisiting the wonders of Big Steel Wheels many times in the future as I re-explore favourite scenes and set pieces, as I would a well loved movie. The 80s magic is strong in this album, it's instantly recognisable and is impossible to deny it's power.
Big Steel Wheels is presented on C-Jeff's website here, this is definitely a Synthetix Reference Experience of the highest order and is also one of the most complete album experiences I've had the pleasure of listening to in 2013. Let C-Jeff take you on a wild ride into the turbulent world of the big rigs, where danger lurks around every corner and the link between man and machine becomes a destiny unto itself.