By Andrew B. White
For most followers of the synthwave/80s retro synth scene or whatever you want to call it, Kristine needs no introduction. With only a small amount of releases, she has defined the sound of “synthwave”, along width a handful of other artists such as Mitch Murder and Miami Nights 1984. All this with a sound that is not “outrun” nor purely instrumental or one relies in any way on common thematic references to dystopian futures and B-grade movies. There are guitars. There are pianos. Kristine sings. These are songs you heard on the radio, or at least you think you did.
Kristine might often be referred to as “a female artist in the scene”. Does that make her the Queen of Synthwave? No. In fact she’s possibly the “Supreme Ruler”. There’s no such thing as a gender divide when you are talking about great music.
So, after several years of keeping fans wanting and waiting in between sporadic single and EP releases, some fantastic collaborations with the likes of FM Attack (‘Runaway’/‘Magic’) and Futrecop! (‘Superheroes’), the Kristine album is finally here.
Simply titled “Kristine”, this is essentially a compilation of her previous releases combined with new tracks to make up a full-length album. You get all the classics from the “Modern Love” EP, and the singles ‘Radio’ and ‘The Deepest Blue’, all of which were serious hits. In fact six of the 13 tracks on the album have been released previously, and several of these date back as far as 2012. The remainder of the tracks are new for this album.
It may be fair to say that an album of entirely new songs might have been expected, especially given the time it has taken to get the album out. However, not all artists are prolific and able to churn out an album of songs every week (here’s looking at you Mr. LA Dreams!) It’s best to look at this album as a way of presenting all of Kristine’s past and present work in one package to the raft of current fans and to the many future ones it will attract. In that respect this is a pretty solid move – first-time listeners will get an album packed full of hits and the current fans get a high dosage of Kristine goodness in one place.
It is important to note that all of the previously released tracks aside from ‘Radio’ and ‘Wild Heart’ have been remixed and re-mastered to give them a coherent sound across all of the album and to fit with the new material. By remixing, this doesn’t mean “re-worked” so they do not sound different in an overly noticeable or negative way. They retain the same structures, instruments and vocals which means they haven’t lost the vibe that made them so appealing in the first place. According to Kristine ‘Summer Long Gone’ has extra synth added, there’s a different bass sound on ‘Modern Love and ‘The Deepest Blue’ gets an overhaul in the drum department. The updated mixes do iron out some of the sonic bumps that were present in the early versions – a welcome touch. Side-by-side comparisons between the old and new versions doesn’t leave the older ones sounding flat either. The originals still have their charm but it’s certainly nice to hear the retouched versions all together and you’re not just paying again for music you might already own.
Overall mixing and mastering credits are mysteriously credited to ‘Joan’ who Kristine says prefers to keep on the down-low so there is very little info about this fellow Greek's other work to be had. In any case the mix/master sounds solid and pleasing on the ears so mission accomplished. 'Radio’ and ‘Wild Heart’ are credited to their original mixer – Diamond Cut – and it doesn’t sound as if anything has been retouched on these.
You get ‘Radio’. You get ‘Modern Love’. You get ’The Deepest Blue’, ‘The Danger’ and ‘Wild Heart’ – they are all on the album. So rather than reviewing these older songs in detail let’s move on to the new ones. Kristine has had assistance on the newer tracks from high profile synthwave artists Highway Superstar, Sellorekt/LA Dreams, Sunglasses Kid and Diana Gitallog. In most cases none of these artists overtly assert their signature sounds on the songs – Kristine is still in full control here and they ‘sound’ like Kristine songs. The exception is ‘Rhythm of Love’ with it’s upbeat and bouncy backing courtesy of Sunglasses Kid. You can hear the trademark nuances where it feels like this might be more at home on a Sunglasses Kid album with Kristine as the guest vocalist. Personally I think Kristine sounds more at ease with the more serious rock stuff than the up-beat pop. Alternatively ‘Rhythm of Love’ does help to change the pace in the album sequence, to lighten things up, and with Sunglasses Kid being huge in his own right the association is certainly a smart one..
Diana Gitallog is probably better known for her original “darker” work but here she adds some very complimentary synth work on ‘Heroes’ and ‘Sleepless Nights’ as she did on the previously released ‘Summer Long Gone’ which is also included on the album. ‘Heroes’ is one of those anthemic songs you’d expect to find in a late '80s or early '90s blockbuster film. Think race car drivers, firemen, fighter pilots etc; the music playing behind one of those montage scenes. Fellow Greek John Bitzios lends his guitar work on ‘Heroes’, ‘Burning Fever’ and ‘Sleepless Nights’ which again features Gitallog on synths, and to which Highway Superstar provides some tasty choir samples. For comparisons, this is Kristine channeling Ann and Nancy Wilson’s power rock outfit Heart, but since Kristine really stamps her own mark on her songs its a little unfair to outrightly compare her with other artists – the Benatars et al – but it’s just fine to put her right alongside them.
Highway Superstar is also present on ‘The Deepest Blue’ (he mixed and mastered the original version) and plays some tasteful piano on the album’s close out track ‘Last Left Standing’ (check out that sublimely great ending). Alexandros Solomozis handles the lead guitars on ‘Last Left Standing’ for maximum effect.
The curve ball on the album is ‘The City’. It’s a kind of doo-woop number that could have gone awfully awry in the wrong hands but has a certain charm that makes it work. In the ‘80s several artists explored this kind sound. Think Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and the News, Katrina and the Waves, a little Springsteen even… It’s the romanticized sound of hanging out on the street corner in ‘80s New York, or Brooklyn specifically – part “Happy Days”, part ‘80s cool. The backing vocals by the Surf School Dropouts are a great touch although I feel the sax solo could have been more beefy and convincing.
From the new songs ‘Everybody’ along with ‘Burning Fever’ are probably the obvious hit singles on the album. With LA Dreams adding some choice vintage Roland synths on ‘Everybody', the song gets going right off the bat and powers through to the magical pop song length of three minutes. Get this song to radio and make a video for it and it’ll be game on!
Tracks like ‘Heroes’ and ‘Last Left Standing’ show an additional strength in the direction of Kristine’s music. This is the ‘mature’ or ‘adult-contemporary’ sound of the late '80s/early '90s. Big, textural production from female-vocal artists in the vein of Sophie B. Hawkins or early Sheryl Crow and her ‘shelved’ debut album which was produced by Hugh Padgham (Phil Collins, Paula Cole, Toni Childs etc). Interestingly, if you search YouTube you can hear Kristine covering Crow’s ‘Hundreds of Tears’ from the “Point Break” soundtrack which was also originally the binned Crow album. (The album is worth searching for on the internet as it is an excellent example of Padgham’s style). Maybe Kristine’s next album will focus on this direction more as she certainly has the ear and voice for it.
My only real musical criticisms on “Kristine” are the bass choices in a couple of the songs. The synth bass on ‘Heroes’ doesn’t quite get ‘that sound’ to make the song completely killer; ‘Sleepless Nights’ and ‘Burning Fever’ might have benefitted with something more driving in the form of a real bass and the synth bass in ‘The Danger’ always felt a little bit ‘loose’ to me until the song gets going in the choruses. Luckily the songs are just so great these aren’t deal breakers and the discrepancies might be better thought of as ’stylistic choices’.
So there you have it. “Kristine” is an album full of fantastic songs which will hopefully reach a huge audience and inspire a wave of artists to create new music in this vein. Yes this is music that borrows from the ‘80s but it is as much about a ‘feel’ as the actual instrumentation that is used. This is something that producers and artists need to understand to make the music work if they intend to go down this road. The listeners ‘get it' and that is why Kristine appeals so much – she knows how to deliver. Her song arrangements are often unconventional and she’s not the world’s most technical singer but it all comes together so well you can’t help but want to “see clearly in the dark/It was the time I fell in love with you”. And we do. Kristine's album is the definition of a Synthetix Reference Experience and you can find it on iTunes here and onb digital stores such as Google Play and Amazon and on limited edition CD here.