Friday, December 12, 2014

Phaserland's Electric Atlantic

By Michael CA L

I first encountered Phaserland's music when Future City Records released their fourth compilation album in late 2013. After hearing the tightly produced 'China Silver and Gold' - a highlight track on the comp, full of the funk-rock overtones and atmospheric synthesizer undertones that would become a signature Phaserland aesthetic - I was eager to hear more. Two months later, Phaserland (alternately known as Ross Trinkaus) released his first full-length album Night Talk in Paradise on Wave Runner Records, and from that point I knew that the retro synth scene had a new powerhouse producer on its hands.

With the coming of Phaserland's latest album Electric Atlantic, Trinkaus expands the themes and sounds of the first album and carries them beyond anything lovers of the synth could have possibly imagined. The album is a sweet blend of intricately-arranged, synth-centered, 80s-influenced music with a strong emphasis on funk and a deep focus on complex rhythms, arrangements and pop hooks. It blends the pumping, post-disco sounds and vocals of the dance-pop genre with the best that the synth funk genre has to offer.

It digs deep into an 80s-lover's sense of nostalgia and is a true successor to what I consider some of the 80's greatest pop moments, including those found on Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche 85, Prince's Purple Rain and Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814. Like the aforementioned, Electric Atlantic makes fantastic use of classic synthesizer technology, but the brilliance of it truly explodes from the speakers as a result of its union with Trinkaus' additional mastery of modern software and hardware. The end result is an album that's unique, inspired and fully-realized like nothing I've heard within any retro-inspired genres. The album is its own species altogether, and it's a beautiful beast to behold.

'Midnight Steps' (Featuring Heidi)

The album starts with 'Midnight Steps', a song featuring Portugal's Heidi Gubbins. Heidi, a vocalist who previously showcased her dance-pop vocal talents on Bixby Snyder's 'Moon & Back' single, will no doubt enjoy some much-deserved exposure due to her fantastic performance on this track. The listener is instantly keyed into the production, which is as gorgeously crisp as the composition is complex.

The vocals and lyrics are, like the best dance-pop, exciting and energetic and also seductive and alluring, with the classic themes of dance floor desire and uninhibited passion pressing against the listener's ear as partners might press against each other under the shimmering lights of a music club. In addition to having powerful hooks and an irresistible pop aesthetic, the song is also beautifully arranged.

Whereas a seasoned aficionado might be able to anticipate the changes in a more traditional dance-pop track as it moves from verse to chorus, with Phaserland you don't know quite what to expect as this song steps lightly from one shifting hook to another. It's a multi-layered and multi-faceted song that encouraged me as an enthusiast of complex pop music to think about the sometimes subtle differences between beauty and elegance.

'Covert Action' (Featuring Sunglasses Kid)

With 'Covert Action', Sunglasses Kid brings his flair for capturing the exuberant, fun-loving side of the 80s, including elements of 80s film soundtracks and the dramatic teen comedy. Perfectly suited to its title, 'Covert Action' has a vibe to it that's at once energetic, light-hearted and fast-paced while at the same time being suggestive of the best 80s espionage, cop or teenage escape-from-detention comedies that we know and love.

It's a song that plays like the tight, energetic score to a slick 80s teen comedy or that of an action blockbuster that composer Harold Faltermeyer might have dreamed up. And like the best action-comedies of that era, the suspense elements are never too heavy in 'Covert Action' to stop it from having an intensely fun and charismatically sleek appeal.

'Electric Atlantic' (Featuring Nikki Dodds)

Warm keyboard chords open the song, followed by thumping 4/4 drums and a huge guitar riff. London-based vocalist Nikki Dodds (a prominent and poignant presence on this album, contributing vocals to three of the tracks without mentioning the 'Hot Stunner' remix that concludes the release) delivers a performance here that has swagger, style and radiates personality.

Her voice, both glass-smooth and at the same time licked by a nightclub smokiness, adds a sense of liveliness and heart to the track and makes the already potent groove all the more vital-sounding and energetic. It's a vibrant dance-pop tune that's bursting with bright melodies and guitar licks, with energetic percussive elements that reinforce it to make it a highlight on the album.

'Sushi on the Monorail'

If you're like me, you know of certain songs that aren't remarkably brief in length but seem to defy the rules of time, finishing quicker than their real-time length would have suggested they would. At just over three minutes in length, 'Sushi on the Monorail' isn't especially brief, but because of its intricate arrangement, enjoyable theme of warmly-accommodated transportation, and its video game-esque qualities, it's the kind of track that injects truth into the cliché expression "getting there is half the fun".

The song maintains the charismatic warmth and vitality of the previous tracks as it escorts the listener via monorail from one side of the city to the other. It's almost like an interlude, taking the listener via monorail from an evening spent at the nightclub dancing and revelling to songs such as the previous three. As the song ends, so does the journey. The doors open and the listener steps out into a night air that's distinctly different than what was felt at the start of the journey. Gone are the bright lights and warmth of the city heart. The rider has now entered a different part of the city, this one containing darkened streets, abandoned factories and an industrialized element to it.

'Beyond the Factory'

From the opening moments of 'Beyond the Factory', the listener knows that the bright, shining lights and warm, electric-neon glow of the entertainment district and the city's warm heart have been left behind. The warm vibes and party-atmosphere behind, with this departure clearly indicated by a reverberating crash of steel against steel that echoes through the empty streets. The quiet trickle of dirty waste water can be heard as it flows from a gutter down into a drain and underneath the city, and there's a haunting, descending voice pad that speaks of unseen danger and mysterious inhabitants in this isolated end of the city. An electric howl can be heard that speaks of anger, pain and isolation. This is a dangerous and haunted place.

There's a glimmer of hope, however, as a complex, authoritative synth lead enters the mix and fights its way through the gloom, reaching for a place that offers sanctuary to the traveller in this weary and broken sector of the metropolis. As the song progresses, a fleet-footed guitar accompaniment co-mingles with the synth and the two make a break for the warmly lit bar sign that hangs a couple of city blocks away. The bar's name? 'Funk This Ship'.

'Funk This Ship'

Welcome to a source of warmth and vibrancy that the listener hasn't felt since stepping out into the night after riding the Electric Atlantic Monorail. 'Funk This Ship' is the sound of a Chicago after-hours bar where the talented mingle with the heartbroken and the result is an emotive and soulful funky vibe that inspires drinks to be poured and sorrows to be drowned in them.

Electric piano and a sharp synth lead duel in this track as it moves towards its conclusion, with an electric guitar entering the conversation as the bar's inhabitants drink in the sound and the feeling of it all towards a state of funk bliss.

'Pool Lights' (Featuring Sebastian Gampl)

An album favourite and one of the first glimpses into Phaserland's monumental new full-length album that listeners got a chance to hear via SoundCloud. There's a reason why Phaserland decided to use this track as a teaser to show his listeners...

Munich-based producer Sebastian Gampl has proven himself to be adept, just like Phaserland, at composing intricate, complex, detailed and oh-so beautifully synth-heavy arrangements, and the amalgamation of these two composers in a collaborative effort results in one of 2014's best, most beautiful and enticing tracks.

It's got powerful grooves that are propelled by tight drums and duelling basses - one tin-sounding and slap-styled, the other a low-pulsing synth bass that rumbles deep in the brain. There are parts to this song that hum and thump and others that ride a laid-back groove that is both elegant and sophisticated. The song is pure pleasure to hear and one of the album's best tracks.

'Space Command' co-written by Starforce

Starforce, the king of synthwave collaborations, brings a signature sound to this track, complete with a propulsive 4/4 beat and a future-brass synth melody that speaks of distant worlds and adventurous undertakings beyond space and time. It's science-fiction to the core, and despite not really aligning itself too closely to the rest of the album, it's a powerful song that's enjoyable as a stand alone.

It's a reminder that this is not exclusively a journey on the Electric Atlantic Monorail towards all its interconnected stops, and it's a joyful celebration of diversity of styles and individuals, bound together by common love of the synthesizer and by profound talent within the increasingly-broad synthwave genre.

'Your Move'

This banger of a song song begins with rock drums and an aggressive, overdriven guitar fade-in that would make Billy Idol jealous. The guitar soon gives way to an arpeggiated synth extravaganza and expands into a song that's a co-mingling of the two elements together. The result is a track that battles 'Covert Action' for supremacy as the best montage sequence you wish you'd heard in your favourite 80s film score back 30 years ago.

It's the sound of a training session before the big fight or of outcast teenagers getting ready to do battle in the streets against a rival gang, with killer moves on display and special moves being polished by the best of the best. Shredding, fearless and imposing guitar is in one corner of the ring and funky, flashy, skilfully coordinated synth is in the other. Both are legendary superstars within the Electric Atlantic arena.

'Hot Stunner' (Featuring Nikki Dodds)

Here we have another dance-pop track that features the exquisite vocal talents of Nikki Dodds. 'Hot Stunner' focuses on the warmth and casual, dressed-down vibes of summertime flings and fun, with lyrics like "We cruise, driving so fast, embracing the sunlight" coaxing the listener to drop the teenage angst routine and start appreciating the here and now a little bit more.

The song is a breezy homage to the carefree moments of life and the simple yet undeniably enjoyable pleasures offered by things like the sensation of sunshine on bare skin or cruising fast on winding, coastal roads.

'Hot Stunner' moves fast and has a bounce to it. It makes a person want to forget about the melodrama that often goes hand-in-hand with the overly-cerebral for just a little while. It encourages you to streamline your focus. To simplify. To zero in on the simple pleasures in life for just a few minutes of earth-bound ecstasy. Nikki Dodds, in that smoky-slick, commanding and shrewd voice of wisdom, believes you deserve it, even if your parents just don't understand you.

'Fourth Dimension' (Featuring Timecop1983)

Beginning with a sound clip from the legendary 1976 science fiction film Logan's Run, 'Fourth Dimension' (which features the prolific master of nostalgia-laced synthwave Timecop1983 himself) is the soundtrack to a trip down memory lane. The aforementioned film is a perfect example of the retro-futurism that is created when a film about a far-away future becomes weathered and dated. Instead of looking, as it was perhaps originally intended to, like an awesome glimpse into our world of the distant tomorrow, it becomes a wonderfully archaic glimpse at alternate history or timeline, where the futuristic looks vintage.

Logan's Run, as with many other media and cultural artefacts from times gone by, features a future that looks like yesterday. Or perhaps, like so many fashion trends and techno-fads, everything comes full circle and the classic becomes cutting edge once again, regaining a value that wasn't seen or appreciated the first time around. Retro culture, synthwave and 80's inspired music in general are a powerful example of this. Our love of the 80's era coaxes us to look at it from a fresh perspective and hold it in our hands again, except we brush it off, clean it up, reshape and retouch what we want, and maintain the vital core of it while building on it and turning it into something that's luminously fresh.

We're building upon a foundation that wasn't nearly done being mined, explored or understood the first time around, and Timecop1983 and Phaserland are both masters of taking subtle bits from times gone by and giving them the attention and care that is much deserved. 'Fourth Dimension' is a prime example of this process.

'Kissing in Berlin'

'Kissing in Berlin' is the first of Electric Atlantic's two legitimate slow jams (the other being 'Soft Scene'), and initiates the gentle come-down phase that ends with that track to close the album proper.

It's a beautiful track that has a certain swagger-like quality. Docile as the track might be, however, nobody's falling under the spell of sleep here. It's a potent and commanding song, with a bass line that has a synthetic thump to it and acts as a dynamic lead melody for much of the tune. This rhythmic centre is accompanied by airy synth pads that drift in and out of the song's main focus, and that thumping bassline as well as some hard-hitting snare drums keep the song edgy enough so that there's no mistaking the song for a lullaby.

The energies that this song harbours are radiating through the gaps that each sweeping and lush pad smear against the listener's ears. The song got an edge to it that's just sharp enough to hook itself into the velvet layers that brush against it. It's a deceptively powerful track and certain to be a highlight for any listeners that appreciate the power that can sometimes resonate from that which may initially seem innocuous.

'Straight to You' (Featuring Nikki Dodds)

Nikki Dodds is back here with a mid-tempo jam that's full of the good stuff that 80s pop music was made of. It's a straightforward tune with a traditional verse/chorus interplay that's accessible and feel-good.

The song is saturated in warm synths and chime-filled percussion that put a glow to the tune, and the lyrics are steeped in retro-romance, brimming with the kind of lover-speak that is so pleasingly reminiscent of the best that 80s romantic pop had to offer. It's a charming track and further lulls the listener towards the album's gentle conclusion.

'Soft Scene'

A companion piece to 'Kissing in Berlin'; 'Soft Scene' closes out the the album with another great slow jam. It's a gorgeous, lush-sounding track that exploits my love of the romantic and downtempo synth song. Whereas 'Kissing in Berlin' has a certain commanding presence due to the reverb-laden snare hits and rhythmic, marching bassline, 'Soft Scene' is more submissive and instead drifts like a timid-yet-graceful couple as they take tentative steps together on a softly-lit dance floor.

As if a pair of dancers opt to exit the beachside nightclub in favour of a walk along the sandy shoreline, the gentle sound of waves lapping that can be heard throughout the track takes over as the music ends. It's a beautifully fitting end to things. What started as a frenetic metropolitan experience full of diverse sounds and complex expressions ends with a streamlining of focus, with the music becoming less immediate and more reflective as the assorted personalities the listener's been introduced to throughout their trip on the Electric Atlantic pack up their things and head off in separate directions towards their individual destinations.

With 'Soft Scene' we're left now with a more streamlined and exclusive focus. The crowd has departed and it's now a one-on-one thing, with eyes moving from lover to the ocean-blanketed horizon where the sun will rise on tomorrow's new day.

'Hot Stunner' (Farfletched Remix)"

And as if to prove that two lovers on a beach are not, contrary to what they might believe while they're caught in that passionate moment, the only people on earth, Phaserland cheekily interrupts their romantic moment with one last funky treat. This final bit of exultation goes by a name we've heard before: 'Hot Stunner', but this time the track is remixed by Dundee, Scotland's Farfletched, who has made a name for himself remixing the works of artists such as Vincenzo Salvia and Futurecop!.

His interpretation of 'Hot Stunner' retains the bounce and energy of the original while adding a disco bassline that's got punch and power. It has octave jumps that cannot be shaken from the brain once heard, and the song is a friendly and welcome reminder that there's always someone awake and partying their ass off in the world of Phaserland's Electric Atlantic.

Waverunner Records presents Phaserland's Electric Atlantic album for purchase in digital formats on their Bandcamp page here. If tomorrow's new day brings another Phaserland release, all the better for fans of 80s-inspired music that is boldly progressive, experimental and innovative. Both his first full-length release Night Talk in Paradise and his new masterpiece Electric Atlantic prove that producer Ross Trinkaus has an incredible talent that is exciting to experience and unafraid to push musical boundaries.

The entire release radiates a clear passion for synthesizer music through a variety of genres and does so with a dexterity, expressiveness, and purposeful forward-movement towards new ground. Electric Atlantic is a beautiful and powerful release, and it is my distinct pleasure to praise this release as a Synthetix Reference Experience.

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