Thursday, June 16, 2016
Volkor X Means War
By Rick Shithouse
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the 80s inspired synth scene in 2016 that the darker end of the spectrum has become much more prolific this year. The seeds sewn over the last couple of years seem to have sprouted a bountiful crop of producers taking their music to the worlds of horror and monsters instead of vacationing with palm trees and sports cars.
I believe it would be an insult to call this a 'trend' as that word as we know it is about marketing, not about creativity in its modern milieu but whatever forces have been summoned have definitely put a lot of producers under their diabolical control. What I, personally, have found interesting with this influx of evil is that my own expectations have been raised exponentially as a result in what is being released. Many releases have fallen flat on me as a segment of the dark synth producers have eschewed much of the 80s inspirations and instead opted for more mechanical or industrial styles. This is all a wonderful exploration of music and something I wholly encourage every producer to experiment with, but for me; it isn't something that I enjoy listening to.
Which brings us to Volkor X's much awaited and sublimely promoted new record This Means War (which I always read in a Bugs Bunny voice unfortunately..). I wasn't quite expecting what I got with this record as from much of what I took from the marketing and direction was that Mr X was going full-dark synth, in a way which I interpreted in abandoning the 80s influences based on current styles. Instead, what I got was an absolutely splendid homage to darker sounds; still infused with tonnes of 80s homage, but refined in a way that genuinely engaged and impressed me.
I'll be using the word refinement a lot throughout this review as I find it does the perfect job of describing the entire This Means War experience. The most obvious refinement is in the number of tracks which initially made me think this was more of an EP, but it's definitely a full LP experience upon listening to it in its entirety. That this consists of 'only' seven tracks is not a negative. It's a positive. The refinement and weight given to each of the tracks gives perfect pacing and content from beginning to end. Over arching story elements contained in some of the more spacey themes tie the chapters into succinct set pieces while Volkor X tightens up the structures of the tracks themselves into high tensile titanium towers of unbreakable musical fortitude.
What took me on the journey of This Means War through its seven movements and beyond was the richly textured passages of each track, describing a specific part of the story beautifully. The set up and story are classic schlocky sci-fi with aliens taking over the earth and the rest of the universe. It's tropey as all get out, but that's not the point. The story and plot are familiar but in the context of the music they're made vital and engaging. I must say, personal bias of my own comes into this a great deal when it comes to this kind of concept as the 70s musical experience of Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds was one of my absolute favourite things to listen to growing up and in many respects Volkor X follows on from Wayne's work in a delightfully contradictory modern yet retro way.
The use of a specific melody or refrain to keep the story tied together is used exceedingly well throughout the album and the opening introductory passage. But it's much more than that. Calling it an 'intro track' is really insulting the depths that 'Prelude To War' explores. The malicious tone is established immediately but it's the light, echoing spacey synths that intimate the callings from a distant galaxy so beautifully. These sounds summon visions. They're entrenched in the shared musical memories of generations. But then the rest of music kicks in and the plodding swagger gives unerring focus, direction and intention. All of the parts of the music work together as one well oiled machine of interstellar destruction and, again, the refinement of the songwriting makes this opening piece the perfect stage setter. Before the opening credits are even halfway through you know this is going to rock damned hard.
This Means War makes each track speak for itself in a verbose and eloquent way that doesn't require segues or much in the way of set ups. Volkor X drops from the star filled heavens with explosive force and you're right in the middle at ground zero. And the reason this works so well, and flows so effortlessly from track to track is the contrasts Volkor X uses in every single piece of music he's created in this album. For all the foreboding dread and impending annihilation promised in 'Masked Death' there is also a soaring beauty in the synths that is comforting and warm. The churning maliciousness is right there in front of you alright, the death machine isn't pretending it's anything else, but that hope and humanity is ever present; regardless of how black and bleak the set pieces become.
Even better is that This Means War switches tempos often, repurposing ideas in new formats that give entirely new angles to the story and give the listener fascinating insights into the broader aspects of the story. In 'Run Away' we're given a bouncier and energetic part of the story that feels like it's introducing a young protagonist into the story who's being set up to be the narrative's hero. The melodies are energetic and engaging and a slight moroseness lines the atmosphere more than dominating it. The structure of this piece is incredibly rewarding as it rolls on with a grandiose and inspiring build. A hugely rewarding experience that exudes a refined flavour all its own.
The beauty of Volkor X's melodies is really what drew me into this album so much. Keeping dark forces threatening to explode at every turn while tempering them back with absolutely soulful and uplifting melodies becomes something incredibly powerful in 'Beacon'. This track is absolutely stunning in presentation and execution and works every single element to perfection, delivering the kinds of thrills I'd expect on something like a Tommy album, but in a different universe entirely. Haunting, moving, inspiring and rockin to the max; all at once. Powerful music delivered by the most powerful means. As the middle point of the record this track is astoundingly climactic and a perfect example of darker synth music being completely emotionally fuelled.
Following 'Beacon' we're given a more OutRun flavoured piece of the story next in 'The Bomb'. An obvious influence from Carpenter Brut can be felt throughout the opening stages but Volkor X reintroduces those gorgeous thematic elements of space oriented synth into the mix to tell the story in crisp, clean electronic dialogue against the thundering back section. It must also be stated that the use of samples throughout this record really give it a charmingly kitsch atmosphere that really nails that schlocky sc-fi invasion motif. Not to mention the spectacularly well incorporated guitars which really give ample amounts of another kind of voice to the story.
Volkor X strips things back and rebuilds again from scratch in the hauntingly massive 'Hypersleep'. The neural hum of the synths build deeper and deeper with the percussion coming on like megaton explosions amid the skittish memories and flashbacks that fragment in quick succession before our eyes. The stasis psyche goes deeper and deeper into fitful slumber until huge choirs of synth beauty cascade into the mind's eye. Deeply meditative and full of character, 'Hypersleep' provides a aural human nightmare to the album that one can't be sure of being real or fantasy.
And then the aftershock lands with full intergalactic force with 'This Means War' finally bringing on the high energy explosive action we've been promised throughout the preceding chapters. The final track really takes the story into a more crystallised vision of the all out attack with subtlety giving way to frenetic energies and high powered sonic assaults. The melodic narratives sketched out in previous tracks evolve into bigger, powerful entities and live and breathe with synth fuelled mayhem.
It's interesting that Volkor X decided to make the final track of the record essentially three movements permanently fused together. The middle movement slows down and delivers some more delicate pieces of the story outside of the furious melee and then takes both worlds and slams them together in a genuinely vast finale that is as powerful as it is triumphant with a synth guitar grandeur you can't help but be inspired by. This is like the synthwave equivalent of symphonic metal. Synthphonic, perhaps? Epic, regardless.
Volkor X has crafted something very special in this record. To call it dark synth would be tantamount to a slap in the face as it's much, much bigger than that. It's soundtrack based in many respects of its writing yet loves to switch gears from high energy OutRun into deeply atmospheric ideas without losing the focus of the plot or incorporating anything remotely jarring. As I've stated numerous times throughout this review it's the refinement of every facet of production and songwriting that stands out so much from beginning to end. This record may not introduce any wildly obscure new elements or influences into the fray but it doesn't need to. This Means War gets everything it sets out to do done absolutely perfectly.
Volkor X presents This Means War on his Bandcamp page here in digitally downloadable formats, CD, Cassette AND vinyl! Catering to all lovers of physical formats in a way most befitting of such a spectacular record. This Means War stands out from the crowd and the passion and ability of the producer shines through every single second, making it a Synthetix Reference Experience of the highest order.