There’s a certain horror in nostalgia. A yearning for things that once were but can never be again. Nostalgia makes you a ghost, haunting a certain place even though it’s changed completely as the years pass. Maybe that’s why horror movies that invoke certain time periods are so popular. The wholesome 50s b-movie, the weird 60s kaiju flicks, or the gory 80s teen slasher films. Modern stuff just doesn’t cut it after a certain point. This is the defining principle behind the neon-slick, blood-soaked music genre called synthwave. Honestly, just blame John Carpenter.
Synthwave is a music genre that started to gain prominence in the late 2000s. It’s part aesthetic and part musical experimentation. It takes huge inspiration from everything 1980s with different offshoots of the genre focused on different things. The most popular type of synthwave you might have seen is called “outrun.” Its hallmarks are glitzy bright pink and orange neons, usually in the shape of a palm tree on an Apple II-style computer background or a fancy Miami Vice-style sports car straight from a blank VHS case. This is the type of synthwave that draws influence musically from everything from Nintendo to Flock of Seagulls. It’s like if someone made a playlist in ode to that pastel teal and purple cup that was everywhere in the 1980s. Don’t get me wrong, outrun synthwave is very fun but it’s not why we’re here today. It won’t surprise you to know that my favorite kind of synthwave takes its inspiration from 80s glam hair metal and horror movies. Let’s go down the corn-syrup-blood-drenched rabbit hole known as dark synthwave.
It all starts with the theme from John Carpenter’s seminal horror film, Halloween. You know the one: the tinkling staccato keyboard dancing before a looming, dreadful drone? It hits the same fear receptors in the brain that Psycho’s iconic violins did, and it’s no wonder it inspired a legion of people to flock to a synthesizer and try their hands at creating similarly terrifying soundscapes. Dark synthwave is obsessed with attacking zombie hordes, with summoning Satan in a basement, with the moment between when the young babysitter spots the masked killer and when his knife finds her ribcage. It’s sharp and discordant, resolving into something both beautiful and terrible.
Almost every dark synthwave artist will cite John Carpenter as their inspiration (along with composer Vangelis, who scored the movie Blade Runner, and the band Tangerine Dream). So much so, in fact, that John Carpenter has lent his voice to oodles of songs and even was the main narrator of a 2019 documentary about the genre called The Rise of the Synths, which is fantastic and I sincerely suggest you check it out if you have a free evening. It has interviews with every big synthwave artist so far, going over their inspirations, their love of horror, and why they chose synthwave as a way to funnel their creativity and love of the 1980s. One of the standout interviews is with a French musician who is quite possibly the most popular synthwave artist right now (and my own personal favorite), the enigmatic Carpenter Brut.
While other synthwave artists stake their claim on certain genres (Gunship picked space, The Midnight picked John Hughes and video games, Dance With the Dead picked zombies and monsters), Carpenter Brut picked Satanism, serial killers, and slasher flicks. His music comes from a black metal background and he’s said before in interviews that he uses a synth like he would a guitar, leading to mind-bending synth solos and a sound that is unrelenting, hyper-fast, and evil as hell. His standout single “Turbo Killer” sounds like something dredged up straight from a goat-sacrificing black mass, and the music video is simply bonkers, with the focus on women with glowing inverted crosses on their foreheads and a non-Euclidean car chase on a spaceship. It makes absolutely no sense and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
Many synthwave tracks are instrumentals only, focused on creating a vibe and a sense of time and place (with that time usually being, like, a Friday night in 1985, and the place a movie theater playing a Jason Voorhees flick). When Carpenter Brut utilizes vocals, he gets metal singers to do the honors, creating an intense and weirdly pleasing mashup. Many synthwave albums are concept albums as well, focused on telling a story through tidbits of lore in song titles and repeated melodies in different tracks. Carpenter Brut’s 2015 album, TRILOGY, is all about the murder spree of a man named Matt Stryker who sells his soul to the Devil. There’s witchcraft, car chases, and Hammer horror-style gore galore.
Synthwave is very much obsessed with visuals and aesthetics, so album covers look like everything from lurid Heavy Metal comics-style pin ups to bright Nintendo-esque scenery and schlocky zombie b-movie posters. Neon is incredibly prominent, even for the most goth of dark synth acts, which somehow adds to the weird 80s-style futurism and slasher horror vibes. Song inspirations range from Stephen King novels to the Satanic Panic to sci-fi horror like Alien. It’s all fair game and many songs will utilize sounds and dialogue from films of the era to give their music a more authentic flair. Most musicians in the genre create larger than life personas to hide behind, even going so far as to perform while masked in concert or never doing interviews and dropping albums out of the blue like capricious deities. They have the flair of weird metal bands of bygone years, doing everything from selling vinyl records pressed with their own blood to creating elaborate games to announce super secret concerts. I mean, who doesn’t want to go to a synthwave show and let a guy in a skeleton costume behind a synthesizer howl at them for an hour?
Electronic music waxes and wanes in popularity. We all remember the heyday of EDM several years ago and the lasting impact of bands like Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, and Daft Punk. Modern artists still come back to dip their toes back into that sound for a new hit single, like Avicii, Diplo, and most recently the crazy popular “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd. We’re in the middle of another upswing in dark synthwave, with acts like Nine Inch Nails and Ghost inviting bands like HEALTH and good ol’ Carpenter Brut to duet on an album or make stunning remixes of classic songs, turning something heavy and dark into a new glittering horrorshow.
Nothing will ever hit like stuff from the 80s did. We’re all still obsessed with that time period in one way or another, searching for a similar high to recapture the feeling of listening to Madonna for the first time or seeing Back to the Future in a packed theater (just look at the success of Stranger Things). Synthwave seeks to capture that essence and use it to reach even greater heights of excess and glamor and terror, one hand wrapped around a Nintendo controller and the other around a glinting butcher knife.
If electronic music isn’t your jam, then join me next time as we visit a town called Millhaven, which is under a terrible curse (that curse being Nick Cave and his desire to write an entire album full of nothing but brutal, bloody murder).