By Michael CA L
Syntax is a producer that's got his act together, and he got it together fast. Around this time last year, San Diego's James Mann was only just becoming a familiar name to those with their finger on the retro-electronic pulse through the release of his Sunrise EP on 30th Floor Records. This seven song EP gave synth-heads and electronic music aficionados a potent dose of ambient, cinematic, retro-futuristic compositions that contained within each of them the unique capacity to both sooth and energize the listener (a rare and complex feat), and at the same time delivered a poignant example of how to make the most of each second of soundspace by creating dense, beautifully atmospheric exercises in synthesis that are memorable and emotionally stirring.
Before being encouraged to get his music out into the open by TFR label boss Mike George, James was composing music casually while at the same time working full time in Southern California's highly-demanding television industry and, no-doubt, balancing his work responsibilities with a plethora of other time-consuming endeavours. The thing is, James Mann is perhaps one of the busiest, hardest-working personalities both within the retro-synth scene and in life outside of it. There's rarely a moment when he's not focused on one project or another, and if he's not busy composing richly-textured synth tracks or performing them live, he's working longs days and nights with camera in hand, dedicating quality time to the people in his life, or, just for the fun of it, accepting a challenging and labour-intensive contract in a teaching position that focuses on his work in media. Somehow he gets it all done, and perhaps the most shocking thing is that he gets it all done with a smile on his face, energy to spare, and an eagerness for more.
Since those fateful, initial communiqués with Mike George and the subsequent release of the Sunrise EP (remember, this was just a year ago), Syntax has gone on to release the full-length Island Universe album (with guest appearances by Droid Bishop and Tape Loader), started performing live sets at various venues around Southern California, remixed tracks by artists such as Hide and Sequence, contributed songs to a handful of compilations albums, and has now released his much-anticipated Transmissions album. With this new release, Syntax continues to explore that sweet spot between intensity and calm; that indefinable place where electricity and atmosphere intermingle. It's a place where many seek to go but are rarely able to express in a manner as finely and succinctly balanced. The result is a powerhouse of an album that contains all of the atmosphere and densely-textured elements that Syntax's listeners have come to value, but does so in a manner that, true to the life of James Mann, is always densely occupied, always progressive, and always building upon itself.
From the opening seconds until its final moments, the album's first track "Intro" contains within it a powerfully resonating arpeggio, expressive chimes and expansive, densely textured synthwork that each contribute to a powerful, cumulative effect and let the listener know that they're in for a deep exploration of sound and the space between it. It's a potent collage and one that, inside its brief but poignant one minute and twenty-seven second microcosm, introduces listeners to many elements that they will hear again (albeit in various shapes, forms and contexts) as they move through the album and experience the nuanced variety of Syntax's sonic world.
Songs like "Tangents", "Sernride" and "Transmissions (featuring STARFORCE)" are lush and atmospheric, with haunting pads that push all the right buttons on brains such as my own that are tuned towards the atmospheric side of synthwave. Each of these tracks makes full use of stereophonic treatment, meticulous production, and precise mixing and mastering courtesy of ToneBox. Using his evident understanding of how to express organic, human statements through the use of digital technology, Syntax creates a headphone dream in tracks such as these. It's a dream that is emotional, symbolic, heartfelt and brilliantly subtle, reaffirming the concept of less is more in an often deceptively complex manner. "Transmissions (feat. STARFORCE)" in particular is a powerful achievement and quite honestly one of the great collaborations within the retro-synth genre. It's a song that is deeply unique and utterly memorable, and yet perhaps has its distant roots planted in the works of legendary synth masters such as Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. It's a radiant highlight within the continuous shimmer of the Transmissions whole, which says much about the consistency and power of this collection of music.
On the more forceful, up-tempo and storm-driven end of the Transmissions spectrum are tracks like "Parsec," "Transit," "Moonraker," "Catigern," and "Vermillion." Through their use of intense rhythms, pacing and quick-fire melodic changes, these tracks contain all of the irresistible incursion, kinetic energy, density and pressure of a tempestuous weather system rolling in from the beyond. "Vermillion" was the first track heard by most listeners when it came to their introduction to Syntax's new album. Released via Syntax's Soundcloud page, the listener was given an enticing morsel of rhythmic and rolling Syntactic energy to savour until the time when the album was released. In a manner that is distinctly Syntaxian, arpeggios and dense layers of rhythm collide with swirling ambience on this track. Merging with pads and synth stabs that criss-cross the frequency spectrum, all these aspects blend to create a unique display of sound in which space and a tight focus contrast each other with all the ebb, flow and collision of a tempest releasing its energy on the home-shores of Syntax's Pacific coast.
Among the album's mid-tempo tracks are "Sonar," "Lillium (feat. Droid Bishop)," "Startseite," "Yuriko," "Stratus (feat. HOME)" and "Polaris." "Yuriko" starts out in a deceptively gentle manner but morphs into a fast-paced rollick that has distinctive drum and bass influences. Approaching the listener out of the black like a dark omen being carried by all the weight and relentlessness of a black-cloud nightmare, "Polarius" is a brooding track that enters the ears sounding like the aural representation of impending doom. "Stratus (feat. HOME)" is a track that lies somewhere between the realm of the down and mid-tempo. It's one that carries a heaviness and dark intensity and yet was pieced together with an obvious respect for subtlety and the delicate. This collaboration of ideas from Syntax and HOME is incredibly effective, and the song impressively highlights the ability of both artists to capture the aforementioned elements together in one potent composition.
Transmissions encompasses so very much within its hour-long runtime. It's an album that contains a beautiful balance between the heavy-hitting, high-tempo and utterly danceable tracks and the lush, smouldering tracks that slow-burn their way through the body's conductor mediums and into the brain. When one takes a look at the life and times of James Mann, the super-charged creator of the Syntax project, it's not too hard to understand how such a powerful, superbly executed procedure in the harnessing, distillation, transfer and transmission of energy could come to be. James Mann is a man who gets things done. It's impossible to say for sure, but perhaps he's one of the hardest working people within the synthwave community. Whatever the case, his music is a genuine reflection of his world - one where energy is never wasted, only shaped and directed towards one remarkable endeavour or another, and one where there's a constant forward momentum. Until his next creative burst of energy provides us with a new example of retro-inspired excellence, I can only say that Syntax's latest release Transmissions comes very, very highly recommended from Synthetix.FM.
Transmissions is available here through 30th Floor Records' Bandcamp page.