By Jerry Herrera
There are only a small handful of artists within our synthwave community that can really wail on a guitar so one would not be wrong in asking, “Is this Dance With The Dead?” when they hear shredding guitars over iron curtains of synth. The California based duo have already taken us through the crypts of undeath and down into the monstrous abyss with their first two releases and have set a course for the spirit filled netherworld with their latest album, Near Dark.
These guys are excellent at what they do so I don’t expect them to go too far off track with their formula, the way I wouldn’t expect a great white shark to be speeding toward me so it can tell me a joke. It’s just not in their nature. The first two tracks, 'Invader' and 'Dressed to Kill' are a little more on the synth heavy side although there are some absolutely soaring guitar riffs that carry each respective song to very intense heights. In particular there is a moment in 'Dressed to Kill' where most every instrument is dropped for a few moments of calm before the track explodes into fiery guitar work.
DWTD have an innate ability to create or destroy space in a track. In previous releases they’ve worked with themes of claustrophobia and terror so the majority of their sound reflected these sensations of being relentlessly pursued or trapped in a coffin as the dirt piles on. With this new album it seems like they want more open, airy spaces, but open and airy the way an abandoned mental hospital feels after the sun goes down. This isn’t to say those tense, tight moments don’t exist on Near Dark, there’s just fewer of them. 'Waves' and 'Midnight Never Ends' are examples of this creation and subsequent destruction of space.
I won’t say that the guitar sorcery is the only reason I love DWTD though there are a lot of their fans that can’t get enough of their signature riffs and licks. Personally I think they are at their best when darkly gorgeous synth melodies meet wicked shredding, then duel back and forth like warlocks casting waves of ghouls and demons at each other. 'Andromeda' is by far my favorite track on Near Dark for this exact reason. The sky cracks with thunder and thumping, deep bass gathers power in the background before surging forward with simple but ominous keys that build for a moment before glittering synths meet flanged guitars for one of the catchiest melodies I’ve heard in recent memory. It’s like watching two birds race across the sky, matching speeds, turning, rolling around each other, soaring above then below, before one breaks ahead and shoots upward directly into the sun to spread its wings and cast its shadow on the ground below for a few awesome beats, before diving back down and letting the other do the same. It’s pure synth/guitar synergy and has to be heard. Really, the track kills spectacularly.
If you can believe it, this high mark is only the halfway point of the record. 'Eye of the Storm' opens up the back half of Near Dark with gothic styled strings and sparse keys before slipping into lovely pads. It’s a moment to catch your breath before continuing on our journey but it isn’t much relief. Next is the title track and it reminds us that we are very far from the dawn and the ghosts are ever circling and ever soaring. Mournful riffs remind us that this is our fault, we played with the oujia board, said 'Bloody Mary' one too many times, and thought that séance was a good idea.
Indeed, the rest of Near Dark is decidedly more ominous in nature, spookier, if you will. The guitars stay a bit lower but the signature shred is still there but the synths are darker, more layered and more aggressive. 'The Pitt' and 'Graveyard Shift' conjure images of a sparse landscape of undead, restless spirits and we the living, tread carefully onward as twisted phantasms wisp around us. Much like the ill fated characters in the Fulci film, The Beyond, we press forward in search of safety or just in hope of outrunning the danger, only to realize too late that we can’t go back. During the final track, 'Riser', we see that our fate is sealed and that our souls are trapped in this dark place between life and death. It’s the slowest track on the album but grimly majestic.
Dance With The Dead exist at a strange crossroads within and outside of the synthwave genre. They appeal to rockers and metalheads as well as horror nuts and nostalgic synth fans. I don’t personally see any low points on Near Dark. Sure, there are slower moments or places on the record as a whole that get somewhat repetitive but there isn’t one outright disappointment on the track list. Every song has a few bars of melody or riffs that stand out as unique to it and they are the shining moments, the triumphs, the “Hell yeah!"'s. I am still grinning with satisfaction and pride for these guys and though I may not survive the journey, I will follow them to whatever macabre corner of this dark Earth they choose to go.
Dance with the Dead presents Near Dark, available on their Bandcamp page here, and is very, very highly recommended by Synthetix.FM