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Retrospective

Album Review

Retrospective by ReveLever

Author: Cocaine for Toothaches

We’ll just start by getting the obvious out of the way: namely, Retrospective by ReveLever (released by Retro Reverb Records) is a compilation of previous releases from the last 3-4 years, which should make the act of writing a review about it silly and redundant. But as I was not familiar with this previously-released uvre, I agreed as a way to acclimatize myself to some of this back catalog of asynthwave act that is new to me.

K.I.S.S. principle

My first impression upon several listen-throughs: uncomplicated and concise. There aren’t too
many musical ideas and machinations happening at once all competing with each other. There is a rather minimalist synthwave approach, which gets the musical ideas across and lets the vocals shine without a bunch of sounds hitting the listener of the head with a sledgehammer. While there is a place for onslaught music, as well as complicated and intricate music, there is also a spot for music that’s allowed to breathe and emote. And that’s what I get from these tracks—a directness and simplicity which allows for enjoying not only in a variety of settings but also while experiencing a variety of moods.

So let’s jump in
the fire, shall we?

Room to breathe. Exotically.
And as soon as we dip our toes in the infernal lake, we’re already breaking a classic synthwave commandment with our first track “Let Me Go” . To wit—rule 4b from the tablets brought down from the Neon Mountain in the before-time and ordained by the old gods states that: 

“Synthwave producers, legitimate and true of the utmost retro credibility, shall evoketh maximum ’80s vibes by adhering to classic major (ionian) and natural minor (olian) scales and modes and useth only the doctrinal diatonic scales and chords contained therein when composing. Punishment for disobedience shall be comfy chair and the soft cushions.
Thus sayeth the Synth Gods ancient and holy.”

Yet right off the bat we’re greeted with a synth bass riff in F harmonic minor, accompanied eventually by an evocatively chromatic vocal melody to match. Heathens! Infidels! But a great way to start. That riff
is actually a call-and-response between the bass synth and a dry guitar, which is a nice interplay. And as mentioned before, there’s plenty of space for the track to breathe, and it lets the listener get into this melancholy space the harmonic minor mode provides (which is why composers use it). Shannon Lawn’s vocals, while being unashamed and comfortable with singing in a non-Yankee accent (kudos! And a big deal most Americans aren’t aware of), is clear, clean, and present and delivers the exotic nature of harmonic minor mode to great effect. And when you have a song that stands out in an exotic sonority in a genre that’s not used to it, what should you have in the solo/bridge/breakdown section? A sitar, of course! Smiles all around.

So I’m noticing that synth bass is playing a big role on these tracks, more than in most synthwave.
That is made possible by keeping the rest of the track clutter-free, both in terms of frequency response and in arrangement. Synth bass can easily get lost in a complex and crowded arrangement, and so in synthwave is often reduced to a constant staccato ostinato of a simple tone just to give it any presence at all. But when the track is set up properly, synth bass can shine, and in doing so more interesting sonic textures can be assigned to it, as well as its ability to then play interesting riffs instead of just acting like a constant helicopter in an extended Apocalypse Now film score jam.

This holds true for the second track as well, “I Don’t Want You Around”, which adds some dirt and and formant filtering to a minor-key (F-minor) funky riff to add a whole lot of character to an instrumental element that’s often overlooked in synthwave in favor of higher-pitched synths, bombastic drums, and top-end-heavy vocals. Now don’t read me wrong, esteemed reader, I’m not saying the old ways are bad: I enjoy the classic elements too.
But I am pleased when I can find folks who can unearth the oft-buried things and give them new life. Shannon has another melody that leans into the half-step intervals in the key, which give more of that melancholy feel which is becoming endearing. There is a helicopter ostinato part but it’s reserved for a lead synth during a break. The three voices that utter the title line and the end of each chorus make it feel really kind of haunting, as in being told by ghosts “I don’t want you around anymore” like some sort of reverse haunting. Which should be pretty humbling when you stop and think about it.

I’m jumping ahead to “So Wrong”, which starts with pumping filtering synth bass goodness, four- on-the-floor style. Again, the track is sparse in feel and arrangement, allowing for the listener to be able to hear the elements clearly. The lyrics here speak of the coming climatic disaster. And while I don’t object to this subject, and it is indeed a more common lyrical topic in many types of music, I never have been a fan of overly-preachy lyrics regardless of whether I agree with the point or side taken. But that’s just my personal preference. I feel the same even about the war protest songs of the ’60’s and ’70’s, much of which I love but at which I usually give a chagrin if it feels like the lyrics are one big wagging finger. I didn’t start your war, brother.

“Blinded By Love” follows the same template of cool-sounding synth bass taking the lead role,
setting up a minor-key mid-tempo romp with melancholy voices. Some cool changes in this song, however: a key change for the chorus, and a harmonized clean guitar lead part 2:42 in, the latter of which is not often heard in synthwave. In fact, all this minor key saturation seems to be uncommon in classic vocal synthwave, and is more reminiscent of disco (along with the sparse arrangements focus on bass), which is probably why this project has been growing on me the way it has.

“Take Me” throws a curve by starting in a major key! And during the verse it changes key,
upwards, into another major key! So much uplift! But Shannon, as ever, stays in the alto register. She’s hiding something. She just can’t quite commit to sunshine pop, and alas the chorus drops down and features a half-step chord movement, so key to the overcast feel of previous tracks. Each verse reverts back to the major key-plus-upwards-modulation, but the call of the minor is just too strong to ignore because the demon must be appeased and omg I’ve got ants all over me.

“All Alone” dips once again into the pool of funky synth bass, this time building an androgynous and slightly-shifting key. This allows for even more liberty with dark vocal melodies that don’t sound so jarring. I like the open perfect-fifth vocal harmonies in the pre-chorus and chorus, they give a hollow and empty vibe.

“Say Goodbye”, the album’s closer, changes the pace a smidgen by starting off with a straight-up drum machine. Tempo is slowed and this one is not a dance-synth track. It has more of a ballad feel, although with much of the compositional template we’ve already  established. But we’re really just leaning into the feels here with mood and lyrics:

 

“Back to my window, a misty morn/The forest weeping, the shadows warn/This world of danger, which I’ve been born/It’s taken years, overgrown with thorns/From the attic, I hear a groan/Our lonesome stranger, in his new home/Why he came here, I’m yet to know/He will speak, I’ll not take a no”

 

The lyrics are open for interpretation, I’m not one to speak definitively on that. It could be personal, it
could be political (my guess) or it could be any number of things. As always, what’s important for the listener is how the listener interprets them, or even just the mood the listener feels, or the place to which they’re transported by listening to the track.

Technically speaking, this album is very good. From a recording, engineering, mixing and
mastering perspective, it all sounds very clean, even though the songs are taken from different projects from different release dates. That speaks to a remarkable consistency. Everything is clear, clean, well- performed and well-recorded.

If you want emotive, dark synth music (but not darksynth) that still maintains a funky and danceable edge, then by all means pick up “Retrospective” by ReveLever for your very own. You won’t be disappointed. If, however, you want the synthwave version of LMFAO orsome such thing, you may be a bit disappointed, bro. Not your kind of party, bro.

There is a sadness that hangs over “Retrospective.” A layer of nimbostratus clouds blanketing the earth. It will probably rain, but rain isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s refreshing, it hides the tears, it brings growth and change and life. Dark as they are, they aren’t the end. This record wants to be a dance record of sorts, but not a very in-your-face one. It’s a dance record for those that are more into feeling feelings, not party bro’s pounding Jagermeister and Fireball with the bubble machine red-lining and a line for the bathroom just to do coke. Dancing on your way to the graveyard to write poetry, not dancing on your way to cheerleading practice (yes, my wife, the high school cheerleader and (later) cheerleading coach, would take offense). Dancing in the rain, not just dancing when the weather is perfect in the club.

“Retrospective” released on January 2nd 2023, and can be streamed/purchased here
You can follow ReveLever at the following links: 
Bandcamp
Twitter
 
 
About the author: Coke has been around music a long, long time. As a child in a family of musicians and  in-and-around a family-owned studio in the 1980’s, he has seen the ups and downs of the music scene and lifestyle. He plays/has played several instruments including piano/keyboards, guitar, bass guitar, and even dabbled on low brass and drums for a bit, as well as being a bang-average vocalist. Coke studied (and won departmental awards in) composition, theory, and classical guitar performance during undergraduate work, as well as taught private guitar lessons for children and adults. He spent ten years (up until the pandemic) as a superstar guitarist/bassist/musical director in the CCM world, before crashing down to earth, humbly surrendering all that non-existent fame and fortune for the quiet life. He now endeavors on synthwave-adjacent music, working as a shipping boss, and living with his wife and (some of) his six grown children in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, USA.

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