By Rick Shithouse
I'm not exactly sure at what exact point in time Highway Superstar went from being new rocker on the block to the genuine superstar his monicker describes. Somewhere between his debut in early 2013 and his first full length album at the end of that same year Alex Karlinsky became one of the integral musical cogs of the 80s inspired synth scene featuring heavily in big name releases, collaborations and projects the broke far outside of the scene.
Of course his presence on the Kung Fury soundtrack was something we all applauded and his expansion into other genres throughout 2014 has found the Highway Superstar ready to unleash his second full length album: Endgame. I'll make no bones at all about stating that Highway Superstar is one of my absolute favourite producers of 80s inspired synth music; and one of the main reasons for this is how hard he pushes his own creativity and reinvents himself as he strives for his own 'musical truth' (© JVC,1982). I often talk of the journeys producers take in their music, the places they visit, the experiences they take with them and the destinations they arrive at. Much like the highway in his name, Highway Superstar is a genuine journeyman that travels far and wide of many diverse 80s inspirations. Someone always looking to improve their songwriting, expand their horizons and make everything they do a step above they last thing they created.
So where was Highway Superstar to take us next? What glittering 80s destinations did he have in mind for Endgame? The answer is refined diversity. The Highway Superstar sound has refined itself to a pristine pop edge that takes cues from 80s library influences and eschewed any unnecessary trappings that confused or hindered the storytelling. It's like a concentration of ideas and 80s motifs that sparkle undiluted and bursting with those scrumptious 80s flavours.
The pop side of Highway Superstar has always been one of the scene's strongest examples of classic 80s songwriting that uses vocals and lyrics to drive the music instead of just riding shotgun. The opening piece for Endgame exemplifies this exceedingly well as Dana Jean Phoenix joins forces with the Superstar himself in 'Cast Away'. The gentleness of the synths and the driving beat combines with DJP's voice into something inspirational. Cinematic bridges, chugging guitar riffs and a high class tone makes this song rock damned hard without losing its accessible 80s pop-ability.
2015 will be remembered by myself, and hopefully many others, as the year 80s library music came back and found a modern home to nestle in and flourish. Highway Superstar's definitely embracing this most radical brand of music and launches the dashing 'Deadlock Danger' into the mix to create a smoother mood to groove to. Pinpoint synth acrobatics dazzle against bright guitar details and evocative sax play. The presence of every element is tuned for maximum excitement with Highway Superstar orchestrating incredibly entertaining and death defying sets pieces from beginning to end.
A new voice for the Highway Superstar sound saunters onto the scene in the next track 'Hunters'. Honey Colonna teams up with Highway Superstar numerous times throughout Endgame with a voice that has a soulful and sultry tone with just the right mix of mid to late 80s pop and R&B that befits the music perfectly. The music in this track is highly excitable and explosive while Colonna's voice becomes a soothing and smoothing element that tames the music's energy like a ubiquitous aural honey. Colonna's presence adds a deeper affectation to Highway Superstar's sound and both artists feel like they're genuinely on the same wavelength; something that comes through time and time again throughout Endgame.
The teamwork rocks even harder in the next piece as 'Dream Diary' features both artistes taking up vocal duties in a bold duet that puts a lot on the line and reaps the rewards for taking the risk. Highway Superstar has finally introduced his voice as true dimension to his sound and 'Dream Diary' is a showcase for this. The vocal performance is suave while remaining honest and doesn't try to mimic anyone directly. A definite influence of many vintage Italo singers can be felt in the delivery, which is totally rockin, but this isn't s throw away experiment as the vocal is developed and tuneful, swaggering when it needs to and embracingly warm when it wants to be too. The performance of both vocalists on 'Dream Diary' is wonderful. Truly a high water mark in songwriting and delivery and an experience one can enjoy visually thanks to the fantastic official video for the track available for your perusal here.
Slowing the mood back to a casual saunter and taking in the coolness of the evening air as the sun dips ever lower on the horizon 'Century Club Blues' wends its way through the skyline softly. This bass driven affair brings a sensually jazz inspired tone to the proceedings and relies heavily on the groove of the bassline to hold the accompanying elements in place. The finger snaps dictate the pace as the melodies hang in their air like exhaled smoke in some basement dive bar where no one makes eye contact and the musician off in the corner is existing in an entirely different dimension of existence to the patrons. A somehow warming sense of disassociation runs through this experience that is both tantalising and charming in its own right.
Following on from this little divergence we're back in pop mode, this time with a darker tone that typifies much of the best original 80s pop music. 'Burn This City' marks Highway Superstar's first full vocal performance (although Honey Colonna provides some lovely backing vocals) and really brings himself into the spotlight where he belongs. The raspy tone of Highway Superstar's voice adds a masculine facet to the sound and adds a layer of emotional rawness to the atmosphere. The music is really dialled back on this piece, playing a barely supporting role to Karlinsky's yearning vocals. Definitely one of the strongest tracks on the album, a completely new experience in the scope of Highway Superstar's music and something that he should be applauded fervently for. This takes hard work, passion and balls and Highway Superstar leaves nothing in the tank in the process.
Brighter tones warm things up with the next two complimentary chapters, 'Kasumi's Theme' and 'Kasumi's Journey'. These two pieces really typify the tightness of the music writing on Endgame. The focus is so tight and figure hugging every instrument traces narrow lines around each curve but
never at the risk of becoming regimented or soulless. Highway Superstar revels in this tight knit tapestry of sounds and gives sharp accents when required and makes the narrative turn on dime when he wants to extract as much excitement as possible from the tonal tension. In doing this he also ensures the synthscape remains uncluttered and clean, removing extraneous distractions so you never lose that integral storyline through each exciting set piece.
Following these two excursions comes one of the most incredible pieces of music on the album as Highway Superstar enlists not one, not two but THREE of my favourite artists from the scene to create the absolutely mesmerising epic 'Save You'. Joining the Superstar is Miranda Carey, Sebastian Gampl and Phaserland! Just seeing all these names together is like wet dream of 80s collaborations but the song itself is totally rockin to the max. The album really peaks in these five and a half minutes of dramatic and emotional 80s pop perfection. Miranda Carey takes on a more Kristine-like attitude in her vocal style in this track and the music matches this frame of mind perfectly. The perfect mix of talents for the perfect mix of sounds. Stellar in every respect.
The climax rides out into the post apocalyptic desert wasteland as 'Stalemate Punks' bring in some powerhouse, heavily accented percussion to go blow for blow with the duelling synth melodies. The action is smooth and exchanges brutality for finesse as Highway Superstar gets deeper and deeper into the groove in what plays out like a live jam of synths, steel and fluorescent mohawks. You just can't deny the Library influence that holds this track together though and that is something Highway Superstar has become very, very efficient in employing throughout Endgame's chapters.
Our final piece in the Endgame experience is the bloopy bleepy introduced 'Nebular' which launches into the great unknown with a deliberate count down to build pressure and rocks that tension as hard as possible until we are launched into the chase. The swell of thoughtful synth play strips things back to a zero gravity caress of slow motion set pieces before the tyres hit the asphalt and rev into synth oblivion, screaming with intensity and leaving a trail of burning light to the horizon. The beauty and drama that Highway Superstar can switch between in a nanosecond makes this one damned thrilling ride and closes the album out in the most exciting manner.
Rosso Corsa Records presents Highway Superstar's Endgame album on their Bandcamp page here in the usual array of digitally downloadable formats. This album is of vast importance, in many respects. It marks a huge amount progression, diversity and exploration for Highway Superstar and it makes a case for how important collaborative work is and the benefits achieved. Endgame literally does everything right in homage to classic 80s sounds and giving them relevance in 2015 in an album that is easily one of the most complete and satisfying musical experiences of the year. Highway Superstar's Endgame is most certainly a Synthetix Reference Experience.