Back to the Retro-Future: How the Sounds of Last Century Are Making the Music of a New Millennium

By: Jonathan Plotkin

You slowly drive your Pontiac Grand Am along the darkened alleys of the underbelly of a diseased city, where neon signs shine permanently half lit through the neverending rain. Or maybe you’re cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway in your Ferrari Testarossa Spider, roof down, wind in your hair, shades on even though it’s midnight. Or perhaps you just broke into the mainframe of MegaCORP’s servers and now are currently whizzing your way down the electronic super highway with their top secret files in your grasp. Whatever you find yourself doing right now, the soundtrack to your various exploits all sounds surprisingly familiar and yet new at the same time.

Retro-futuristic music, as I like to call it, is music that sounds like it was written in the 80s but somehow reaches into the future with its sound. It conjures a similar aesthetic to cyperpunk fiction, envisioning a neon-soaked synthesizer-addled future that in some alternate timeline is occurring at this very moment. My first experience with the sound was probably the movie Tron: Legacy, but it wasn’t until a few years later when I saw Drive did I really understand there was more than one artist making music like this. Who would have thought that there was a whole subgenre of people making purely electronic music that emphasized synthesizers as their main body of work, instead of using them just for effects?

What makes retro-future music so unique in my mind is how well it inspires various emotions without any lyrics or even standard song structure. While of course those are never required to make a great track, I find it rather impressive how tracks like “Retrogenesis” by Perturbator or “Hydrogen” by M|O|O|N never fail to make me think I’ve been transported to a decaying city to perform horribly violent crime of some form or another. The pulsing basslines and dark, moody synths conjure up entire cityscapes in my mind that could easily have acted as backgrounds for Blade Runner. Conversely, artists like Kavinsky and Starcadian have a lighter mood in their work. The former’s “Nightcall” (i.e. that song from Drive) and the latter’s album Sunset Blood have a slower beat and generally feel less claustrophobic. They make me want to slow down and take in the sights around me, instead of speeding through the grime to get out of town. Meanwhile, other artists strive for expansive sound. Vangelis’ score for Blade Runner could be argued to have kick-started this entire genre, while Pilotpriest’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack instantly transports the listener to a world light years away from ours, with wide open galaxies where starships zip across the skies and attacks ship burn off the shoulder of Orion.

Of course you can’t classify a huge genre of music like this into 3 groups, despite the vast amount of evidence that supports the validity of the rule of three in writing. Artists like Com Truise make music that sounds more like it belongs in a late 80s or early 90s film about computer hackers where no one really understood how computers worked (like the original Tron or Hackers if the latter didn’t have so much drum and’ bass). Then there’s bands like Kraftwerk, where you wonder if they count as retro-future since it wasn’t retro when they wrote their stuff but they sure sounded like the future. And of course there are composers for indie video game soundtracks, who more and more frequently will post the entire soundtrack on the internet for at home listening. These artists sometimes combine a multitude of genres, from downtempo, to synth, to chiptune to create tracks that in one way, each tell a small part of a larger story.

But now we’re splitting hairs, so who cares? The important thing is that even in this age of easy technology, where everyone who has an internet connection can become a musician, there is still really unique and intriguing stuff out there. Why not pursue sounds of the past to create the music of the future? Retro-futuristic music might inspire you to write the next great cyberpunk novel or just put on a pair of headphones and enjoy the ride. Either way, the sounds are out there, for you to do with them what you will.

Looking to start listening to this genre but are struggling for a good jumping off point? The soundtrack to Drive, though largely an original work composed by Cliff Martinez, has some wonderful tracks by Kavinsky, Chromatics, and more. The Hotline Miami soundtrack is over 90 minutes of pulsing songs by Sun Araw, Jasper Byrne, and many other equally talented artists. Additionally, be sure to tune into Midnight Drive, Tuesdays from midnight to 1 AM with Peter Liu on WKDU 91.7 FM for the best 80s inspired synths, the perfect way to enhance your late-night driving experience.

For a wider range of electronic music, check out Jonathan’s personal show, Dr. Plotkin’s Majikal Love X-Perience, Wednesday nights from 10 PM to midnight on WKDU and be sure to follow him on Twitter @doctorplotkin for more musings about music.

Advertisements