By Jerry Herrera
CTRL ALT ESC is a Canadian duo from Toronto that have entered the synth pop/rock arena with both some catchy tunes and somewhat ironic sensibilities. It’s always an interesting and enjoyable challenge to decide whether an act is making music one would hear in the ‘80s or making music inspired by retro influences. It’s a fine, ever shifting line between the two and I don’t think many artists have a clear idea themselves. What we get then, are moments where the music takes us back to that era and moments when the genre is pushed forward by retro inspired creativity.
Commencement is an album that does both, sometimes in brilliantly timed shifts or additions of instrumentation, other times it can be a bit like a kid playing with a light switch. I think this is more a symptom of the vocal synthpop genre than anything else. It’s difficult to be a “serious” band when your influences can be seen as cheesy or “lol so retro.” You can’t really write a pained love song when you’ve got video game blips on the track, for example.
However, Commencement hooked me right away. Access is the cyberpunk intro to the album that does a great job of getting those hairs on the arms standing up before dropping us into Your Love Is Dangerous, which is itself full of ‘80s swagger and confidence. It’s definitely Robert Palmer through a dystopian lens. The following tracks are in both theme and construction similar to the first proper song. There’s not a question that these dudes are talented and have an ear for that retro sound, across the board. There’s both rocking guitars and synths, a little bit of pop and R&B flavor, plenty of 8-bit arcade accents and lyrics about fast women and guarded hearts abound. Indeed, I kept thinking of Shattered Dreams by Johnny Hates Jazz when listening to Commencement.
This is also the album’s (only) weakness. Every song has vocals and I fully admit to being a hypocrite for simultaneously loving vocal synth and also using that as a mark against an artist. But a top to bottom album featuring vocals is going to blend together at some point. Even vocalists I love deeply aren’t featured on every track by a given artist. This is also meant to say that I think the musical content on the album is plenty meaty, and some instrumental tracks here and there would be most welcome.
All that being said I think that the foundation is there for an amazing synthpop band and I get strong Chromeo vibes from these dudes. Probably the most praise I can give them is for their cover of Bizarre Love Triangle. It’s a wonderful homage to the original without trying to outdo it, or take it in a boring, twee direction. Remember Frenté? The last track, One Shot, is an emotional synth ballad about being a tough dude with a broken heart that evoked some bromotions from me.
Commencement is above all things, a pop album. From the production value to the songwriting, the aim is clear that this act wants to go places on retro synth wheels. Their sound for the most part seems to aim to be mistaken for actual ‘80s pop hits, as if seeing their name on the charts next to Hall and Oates, Glenn Frey, and Robert Palmer wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. I’m already picturing their music featured in the opening credits of a crime/romance drama, the title of the film spelled out in neon cursive as CTRL ALT ESC sings about mean streets and tough women. An enjoyable first effort, and enough genuine artistry to warrant an excitement for what comes next for these guys.
CTRL ALT ESC presents Commencement, available for purchase on their Bandcamp page here and comes very highly recommended by Synthetix.FM.