Back to the Retro Future: Synthwave and Sonar

November 1, 2021

Trilogy (2015) is the universe’s premier tour-de-force triumph of trashy nostalgia - glistening with dark paint and powered by the pulsing rush of a race track, it’s bread and circuses for a place and time given to the veneration of remixing Diana Ross at low tempo. Unlike Macintosh Plus’ nostalgia as blunt trauma, however, Carpenter Brut’s is all the searing neon exuberance of our degenerate desires concentrated in the vascular engine driving warmth around a body of flawless invention. Where entertainment so often asks us to hook into a nostalgia drip in the stead of substance, Carpenter Brut offers up a whole roast dinner drizzled by-the-by in a distilled reminiscence reduction. This French dark wizard mires himself in all the 21st century’s retrograde pining for a perceived past, surfacing to offer a perfectly packaged parcel of precision pleasure modelled on and drawing from our most vicarious tendencies.

Satanic Habitual:  The Trilogy Album Cover (Source: carpenterbrut.com)
Satanic Habitual: The Trilogy Album Cover (Source: carpenterbrut.com)

In this, he and Haruomi Hosono of the Yellow Magic Orchestra share more DNA than you might expect. Formed to ridicule broader western culture’s worst flights of Fu Manchu, FMO were a powerhouse of precision - they drafted Yukihiro Takahashi for his absurd ability to play a trap kit / syndrum combo alongside a sequencer without samples or looping. Listening to their Firecracker of a debut track unwinds into a religious probing of the man/machine divide if you’re aware every drum beat was stick-on-skin bongo-bashing decades before QBase was apple in the eye of a microchip. Less chimpanz- and more wall-ee. Like Trilogy, their eponymous debut outing Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978) burns time and paradigm to fuel its engines - from the opening beeps and boops of Computer Game “Theme from the Circus” to the aural conjuring of a ye olde earthe fairground on Mars with Cosmic Surfin’ - YMO made a vicarious future their broader canvas. Just as Cosmic Surfin’s Red Planet colonialist carousel spins to a stop with insectoid panning across l-r channels, a 44 second chiptune interlude brings us back to the neo-cool of a Tokyo hacker apartment years before such archetypes troubled the fantasies of Lasker and Parkes or Hutter and Schneider. When Carpenter Brut underscores a neon Mustang at 120 miles an hour through a Rocky Horror haze of mist and glitz towards a dark fantasy spaceship, he does so in conscious deference to what we now prefix with retro-, but what YMO and contemporaries regarded simply as futurism. Hosono and crew doused themselves in the CRT future of intergalactic exploration and VHS-quality holographic interactions that defined sci-fi in the era still defining sci-fi. Yet as with Trilogy, the excesses of Yellow Magic Orchestra (1978) are gleeful expressionism attached to clockwork craftsmanship - a focussed putdown of trying exoticism framed within a personal vision of the bright future as they perceived it would arrive: in bits and bytes and unknowably powerful dentaku. Brut concludes Disco Zombie Italia  - Trilogy’s second track - almost as Hosono himself might have mixed it: in spasmodic digital pulses fit to accompany techno-organic ritual.

In debut, then, YMO and Carpenter Brut appear like Scott / Wright; Alien / At World’s End. With Leather Teeth (2018) and Solid State Survivor (1979), they’re more Carpenter / Craven and Scream / Halloween. Brut’s racing hound bulks up for moving to the Michael Myers brand of terrifying Illinois and a YMO unexpectedly knighted by popular success spin an opus of increasing isolation and social paralysis at the hands of addiction to technology.

Launched as the fictional soundtrack to accompany Bret Halford ‘who can’t get the girl’ in his violent transformation to slasher villain, Leather Teeth (2018) is thirty minutes of laconic fury bookended by tape-in-player-clicks. Gone is the long-distance Trilogy of hurdles, crimson and satanic paraphernalia: in its place the gleeful kitsch of dime masks and muscular horror. The purist instrumentalism of Trilogy is much too lithe a beast for the stumbling 80s bildungsroman and Kristoffer Rygg’s vocal input crashes Brut’s expansive retro tendencies into a specific time and place. The kind of wooded dark suburbia ringed by flickering gas stations and dark vignettes after nightfall originally belonging to that nasty pop-cultural subset of middle American horror films in the late-70s and early-80s. Like its fictional anti-hero, Leather Teeth is Brut disfigured and reconstructed in the name of rock and roll. It’s nasty like Napalm Death - ‘in the second movie, he starts killing the girls’ - and belligerent like Braindead - ‘Living monster of the night / you made me what I am today’. If Trilogy had been a sculpted marathon against the clock, Leather Teeth was a bloody scrap outside smalltown America’s collective nightclub - haze spewing from midnight fog machines into the “moonlight” beams of tungsten ARRISUNs in rehearsal for cameras that will never roll. If it’s too short, drop by again tomorrow - they’ll be at it again.

Released just a year after their techno-positive debut, YMO’s Solid State Survivor taps a vein of horror similar to Leather Teeth, but Haruono’s digital demon is menacing less for its scars and knives than whimsical inhumanity. Technopolis opens the album with a synthesised exclamation of ‘Tokyo!’, our robotic vocalist only going on to offer a single recurrent expansion on this theme: ‘T-E-C-H-N-O-P-O-L-I-S’. As though the track is trapped in a mainframe simulation desynchronised from itself by a matter of silicone milliseconds, each letter is synthesised to fall on either side of the main beat. Now intentionally thematising what drummer Takahashi had expressed by extension on the earlier release, YMO take the cold, artless bridge yawning between man and machine as portent of doom beyond the digital. The bizarro workaday bustle of the urban metropolis found everywhere from Hitachi ads to Teitotsu Monogatari is given carnival backing with Rydeen, undercut by a dissonant synthesised lick left to recur above the rest of the mix. Castalia picks up the spiral, carrying action from the ostensibly content cogs spinning in Tokyo’s machined cycle of day-night into a stark black-white chasm hewn from the violent crime and cowed cries of an industrially oppressed populace. The centrepiece of YMO’s stark prophecy, Behind the Mask, follows this discordance with a warbling bar of upbeat synth that might not have been out of place on a Flaming Lips opener. Voice straining against the vocaliser and saccharinity of his aural accompaniment, it takes our robotic vocalist to clarify thematic purpose: ‘Now the mask you’re wearing / is stoney and staring… There’s nothing in your eyes / that marks where you cried’. Unhappy is the robot, at having to dream such human dreams.

Plastic Fanartastic - Solid State Survivor (Source: hhv.de)
Plastic Fanartastic - Solid State Survivor (Source: hhv.de)

The whimsical pachinko of a Day Tripper cover that comes next is nothing if not malfunctioning dancehall, lacerated as it is with electronic intercuts overtaking a guitar mixed in uncomfortable proximity to the listener. Utilitarian beeps flash the cover into conclusion and usher in Insomnia - a song you’d be forgiven for interpreting as a mournful ode to the smartphone generation. ‘Cannot sleep at all / I’m insomniac / Cannot sleep at all / I’m insomniac / I’m just alive beneath these caffeine eyes’ comes the only refrain for a song designed to reflect both the soulful cares of its soulless robot protagonist and a listening audience only just beginning to lose their souls to Apple IIs and Atari 800s. Just as Leather Teeth deconstructs Trilogy while scavenging its core canine identity, Solid State Survivor repurposes the almost tropically-infused optimism of YMO’s debut to play at songwriting doomsday. Its violence is the sandpaper erosion of humanity in the workshop we devised for ourselves. The title track exercises a terse rhetorical inversion in closing the record: ‘Minds blind / Empty eyes / Blank tongues ablaze / No names / Breathe in dreams / Stand in line, cracked smiles’. Later: ‘Marilyn Monroe’s not home / So I sit alone with the video / And Tokyo Rose is on the phone.’ What are the machines if not enslaved to us and what are we if not in rapture to the machines?

It is ideological simplicity that drives both artists’ sophomore showings - dual inversions on themes still caught in the gravity of futuristic nostalgia. Brut’s Halford and YMO’s techpocalypse, meanwhile, function as antiheroes for aural battlegrounds of pressure-cooker brevity. The prescience of Solid State Survivor was borne out not only in the band’s own disintegration, but by the million miles of ethernet cable that came to criss-cross the globe and incise social order like a cadaver - eventually creating a tongue-biting lust for neon-slasher-synth-nostalgia of the highest order. When Carpenter Brut chills my spine, he does so in part because I’m a 21st century regressive consciously oblivious to the pop cultural tsunami acting like gamma radiation on the dopamine factory that is my brain. The other part, though, is pure digitised genius. Just remember: ‘Beware of the beast / Inside your heart / When you’re dancing in the dark.’

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