Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Plug And Play Betamaxx's Swan Song

By James Mann

Hypnotic. Lush. Sublime. These words come to mind and even fall short when attempting to characterize the music of Betamaxx on paper. The compositions of this music wizard, who without reservation falls into the upper echelon of the scene, creates soundscapes so moving, so nostalgic, and so touching that his work falls into a category of its own. Betamaxx has been generating superb synth based compositions for years now, gracing listeners with his intuitive, thoughtful and dynamic tracks which cover and evoke such expansive ranges of emotions and talent. His latest release, Plug and Play, is a stunning piece of work, delving into the deepest corner of this musician's prodigious mind, and transcending the best synth based, retro themed tracks out there.  

Through past albums such as the explosive debut release Legacy, to more current works including Interface and Sophisticated Technology, this artist has managed to pioneer and develop such a unique and  impressive sound with complexities in instrumentation and rhythms, while touching on multiple genres. His ability to retain that signature production and feel while growing and developing as an artist has kept listeners strapped in with headphones along for the sweet ride.

This last and final release for the Pittsburg native spans a wide array of gorgeous melodies and beats, putting this enchanter of arrangements in prime position to deliver his strongest and most impressive album yet. "With Plug & Play I essentially wanted to show what I'm capable of in terms of the different derivatives of synthwave music. I wanted to put my best foot forward with this release by picking from what I feel is the best I have to offer with this project."  In a producer laden world driven by plug-ins used to emulate instruments, Betamaxx has an arsenal of hardware synths he uses to create tracks, and the authenticity, thickness and richness of these sounds are verified through his exceptional final journey.

'Take Off' launches the album into full throttle, and transcends the listener directly into the world of Betamaxx. It's a beautiful and dark song, a delicate balance this artist has on lock with his proficiency in arrangements and musical sensibilities. That signature distant and pensive arpeggiation of lush synths stamp a familiar sound of his, while venturing into new territory with unapologetic freshness. Quickly the track escalates into a breakbeat, layering glassy melodies on top of rich, full bodied synths and drums to create a gorgeous soundscape that quickly fills the speakers, channeling the confidence and talent of this powerhouse. A great retro themed instrumental indeed.

There are times as an avid audiophile you crave to hear the right notes, the right progressions to satiate your ears. 'Integrated Circuitry' nails it, combining somber and lush chords to culminate in a sonic wall of pure Betamaxx bliss. A beautiful, pensive melody is laid out with care and a strong 4/4 beat carries the track, needless to say an emotional connection is achieved. I must interject here and say Betamaxx knows production. He also knows drums. The crafting of his sound is delicate and full of purpose, 'Integrated Circuitry' is no exception. I am reminded how well his instruments are mixed and mastered, particularly on this piece. One of my favorites on the album.

'Dreamer' featuring Rat Rios is a hauntingly beautiful track full of energy and emotion. The vocal accompaniment allows for a perfect fit, demonstrating another side of this artist who can create tracks that I dare say are club and radio worthy. A beautiful retro based/disco rhythm with sequenced synths carry the flowing notes of the Betamaxx machine to a dimension filled with light and wonder. There is a sense of sadness and emotion in the crystalline voice of Rat Rios that sends chills up the spine, blending into an immense track that is truly enjoyable. I visualize myself on a late Saturday night swaying on a packed dance floor, eyes closed with fractals of light streaking across my closed eyes while this gem plays on. Stunning track and without reservation one of the best on the album.

'Mechanized' is an incredibly thoughtful piece, with melodies that evoke memories of the NES/8 bit world, however with much greater sophistication. A driving rhythm lays out a platform that evolves into a world of full-bodied synths and possibilities that blend effortlessly. This track takes a more thematic approach, as I envision 80s technology and equipment being showcased in a commercial through montage fashion. The delight in Betamaxx tracks is allowing the listener to imagine and draw on any visual they want, as the music fits so well in different situations.

It's your first day of school. You walk through the hallway in unfamiliar territory amid a haze of sounds and activity, stopping to fidget with your new locker combination. You put your books away just as the girl from homeroom breezes by and flashes a smile in your direction. A step back into a simpler and more innocent time in life, 'Take me Back' is pure nostalgia and one of the greatest arrangements on the album. Growing up in the 80s, I instantly remember moments and memories I had shelved until hearing this piece; funny how the power of a particular synth sound and chord progression brings that all back. A true journey of bliss filled melodies, driving bass and drums that turn this into one of the most gorgeous retro-based tracks I've ever heard.

A calypso sounding synthesizer kicks off the next track, 'Life on the Grid', and develops into a breakbeat journey filled with pleasure inducing vibes, eventually turning into a sweet disco dance celebration. What a treat, as it's a collaboration with another synth master from Pennsylvania, the one and only Arcade High. Combining the two styles of these artists are effortless and sweet, as a bouncing complex baseline gives way to lush arrangements on top. 8-bit melodies blend in from Arcade High, reminding me of his classic 'One Year Ago'.

'Regeneration' is a turning point in Plug and Play. Betamaxx shifts gears and takes a fast turn into a ravaged, desolate landscape with the best imaginable soundtrack. An intense, driving bass coupled with an echoed vocal backdrop play into a track of monumental proportions. The synth lead in this is so strong and thematic, I can't help but wonder how deep the inspiration was behind this. The richness and layout of the notes and drums have such confidence, it's apparent to the listener this artist is master craft and has been creating music for years. Is that cowbell I hear? Perfect. Halfway through the track I'm blown to orbit with extremely detailed synth work that proves this man is not just chords, but a proficient machine set to destroy and claim a spot with one of the greatest tracks I have heard in the genre. Fantastic.

Sleek. Sexy. Smooth as ice. 'Disco Dust' is a track unlike one I've ever heard from Betamaxx. Lo-fi disco funk comes to mind, as a crawling bass and electro-house drum escort you into a late night club filled with dancers, dollar bills and shame. Talk box vocals from Mike McG creates a suave finesse that is so fitting. I really love this, as I stood up from my computer to test my strutting moves. Once again, the diversity of this artist is evident, the genres are crossed and still under the umbrella of the Betamaxx sound.

'Guided by Moonlight' is a sensual piece that builds on the familiar warm synth sounds of the 80s, gaining a nice momentum as it progresses. The allure is strong in this, as an interlude-esque melody enters and is quickly supported with an appropriate synth bass and drums, ramping up the energy into an outrun style track. Excellent driving tune, as the shimmering notes and rhythm block out anything else in the mind apart from the music. Classic Betamaxx sound, and check out the complex tom work in the bridge!

'Electric Cruise' is a hypnotic, vocoder adventure traversing a different side of Betamaxx. Deliberate and slower than his other tracks, this crafted composition blends warm synth sounds and even moog-oriented psychedelic melodies, taking the listener on a magnificent journey through several genres and decades. I really enjoyed this, as the placement and pacing fit perfectly on the album in addition to being a marvelous piece. I felt Tangerine Dream/Jarre melodies in this, and after asking Betamaxx about his influences, the response was fitting.  "…legends like Georgio Moroder, John Carpenter, and Tangerine Dream have been among a few of my favorite inspirational artists behind this project."

'Departure' is an awe-inspiring and aptly named track for the last segment of the Betamaxx journey, and what an astounding piece of work it is. The emotion spills through each note in this almost ambient/down tempo arrangement, carefully and considerately wrapping up a project that has been years in the making. Rich, deep synths cover a backdrop in earnest, while a post-rock guitar along the lines of Hammock blend together in a highly emotional manner. The realization that Betamaxx will be retired hits home.

Plug and Play is a remarkable album, and I would say without reservation it's a masterpiece in the Betamaxx collection. Exceptional arrangements, retro and future vibes, and astounding production value leave this as a chef d'oeuvre for this one man machine. Betamaxx delivers on all fronts and exceeds any expectations you may have had regarding his last release. It's rare to see an artist encapsulate and own a sound that offers variety, crossing genres and at the same time continuing to produce amazing music across such a dedicated  fan base. This artist's ability to paint the soundtrack to our lives, to our past, and to our future is a beautiful thing. Plug and Play is available here through Telefuture records in digital formats and limited edition cassette preorder. Plug and Play comes very, very, highly recommended through Synthetix.FM.

I have not yet delved into the departure of Betamaxx from our beloved scene. I wanted to hold off until the end of this review, and to be honest there isn't much "delving" to do. For several years this artist has not just been a force in the scope of retro based artists, but one of the most influential as well, having created and patented such a unique sound to share with all synth lovers and in their collections at home. The love and music he's created and shared with listeners has been immense. However, there are times when an artist feels they have outgrown a project and have to move on to other endeavors, not for the fans but most importantly for themselves.

"The end of the road is a very bittersweet feeling with Betamaxx. A part of me still really wants to produce this music, but at the same time i feel that it is time for me to move on to something different to grow as a musician. The fans, and friends i've met along the way have been amazing. The support for this project has grown more immensely than i would have ever thought possible."

Thank you Betamaxx. It's never good bye. It's see you later.

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