Destination: Synthwave Horror
By Wil Forbis
I think it goes without saying that the horror and sci-fi films of the 1980s are the highest form of art ever created by man. I'm talking about theatrical movies like Scanners, Terminator, Def-Con 4, Night of the Comet, Maniac Cop and their lower budget, direct to video brethren. These were movies that featured explicit gore, titillating T&A, post apocalyptic dystopias, flesh eating mutants, and killer robots. (Oh, I forgot a great movie! Killbots, also released as Chopping Mall!) These were movies that had no qualms about appealing to the base needs of the lizard brain.
When I was a kid, these movies would appear at theaters or video shops and then gradually fade away, lost forever I presumed. How could I have predicted that the rise of the Internet would lead to a second life for such movies as they were uploaded to youtube and other pirate sites, or legally offered by Amazon or Netflix? But such a resurgence has occurred and I've been able to rewatch many of the cinematic treasures of my teenhood.
80s horror and sci-fi flicks stand out in many ways, but one area in which they sizzled was soundtracks. The scores of this era had a distinct, ultra modern (at the time) sound using alien synthesizer chords, throbbing, computer generated bass tones and ‘verbed out electronic drums. The use of electronic over acoustic was probably driven by economics as much as anything---the big budget orchestrations of mid-20th century composers like Bernard Herrmann (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Psycho, Taxi Driver) were much more expensive to record than the electric/synthetic melodies and beats used by composers like John Carpenter (director of horror classics like Halloween and They Live who also scored his own films) Brad Fieldel (composer for Terminator, Fright Night) and the Italian instrumental group, Goblin (composers for most of Dario Argento's horror films.)
Trends come and go, of course. The synth driven sounds that defined 80s flicks fell out of favor and movie music ultimately returned to the orchestral style of the classic eras. However, a couple years ago, the soundtrack stylings of the 80s had a comeback on the internet in the form of the music genre synthwave. Synthwave* is all about taking specific features of 80s soundtracks and combining them with modern recording techniques. And here's the thing: the synthwave movement, considering it's humble influences, is surprisingly big. Groups like MegaDrive, Laserhawk, Power Glove, Disasterpiece, and Perturbator have racked up millions of hits on media sites and some have scored movies or video games.
*I should be clear about one thing: the term synthwave refers to the full gamut of 80s influenced compositions, some of it scary, some of more in the vein of non-creepy composers like Tangerine Dream. For this article I am focusing on the scary stuff, which sometimes goes by the title of "Outrun." (As in, "music to play while you try to outrun approaching monsters.")
I discovered synthwave in a roundabout manner. I’ve been recording music for years, usually in the traditional styles of rock or jazz. Several years ago I began experimenting with the Mac's music program, Garage Band, which lends itself well to electronic music. I found myself gravitating towards writing music that to my ears
sounded like 80s sci-fi tunes. When I posted it online I discovered other people making similar sounds, in particular an Orange County dou, Dance With Dead, who have garnered hundreds of thousands of hits on sites like soundcloud and youtube. It was only fairly recently that I learned this kind of music had a name and a online scene supporting it.
What drives this renewed interested in a form of music that was under the radar even during its heyday? Is it simple nostalgia (even for fans who weren’t alive in the 80s*)? I think that is part of it; while listening to synthwave, I definitely feel a certain youthful excitement arise in me; I almost go back in time and “become” the younger me---a kid for whom horror and sci-fi films were a delicious and dark taboo.
* I’m reminded of this interesting science study that observed people being nostalgic not only for the music of their youth (no surprise there) but for that of their parents’ generation.
As I’ve noted before, nostalgia for the 80s is not simply “happy nostalgia.” Despite the eternal neon glow, there was a darkness that saturated the decade, driven by the sense that we were coming closer to an all-out nuclear war that could destroy civilization. So many of the films scored in the prototypical synthwave style were about this threat or the grim dystopias that could appear in its wake. And part of what drove this fear, I think, was the sense that humanity was becoming more and more mechanized, that the computers were taking over. (This was brilliantly explored in two definitive ‘80s flicks: The Terminator and WarGames.)
Film composers of the day had to capture this foreboding and the synth tools that had just become commercially viable were the perfect vehicle. For one thing, synths were an affordable substitute for the sonic wash created by a traditional, orchestral string section. But they also had a cold, unsentimental flavor that nicely represented any sort of inhuman threat that does not feel "pity, remorse or fear" (to borrow a phrase used to to describe the unstoppable antagonist in The Terminator.) As modern synthwave composer Disasterpiece notes…
“I think synth music—because it’s not rooted in traditional instruments, and because humans can’t generate these kinds of sounds—it lends itself well [to horror]. You can do a lot of weird, unsettling things with it, so I think it fits really well with a lot of the emotions that horror film directors try to capture.”
I find myself wondering whether what also makes the technologically driven synth sound so disquieting is that it awakens our fear of human obsolesce. On one hand, electronic tools for creating music are wonderful democratizers; they allow bedroom musicians to have a shot at becoming superstars. But such music will always have a certain disarming sheen, devoid of the sonic imperfections that plague and augment traditional acoustic music. There's a question as to how much of the art is human and how much is computer. And the fear of technology seems more and more legitimate as society grapples with the advent of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. Synthwave may be the perfect music for us to explore this future of unknowns.
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