Well-timed for an ongoing synthwave revival.
If the only note Dennis Young ever played had been the explosive cymbal crash from 1983’s “Cavern,” his place in post-punk music history would still be well-earned. As the drummer for New York No-Wavers Liquid Liquid, Young played a key role in getting generations of hipsters—and, thanks to Sugarhill Records’ appropriation of the “Cavern” beat for Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines,” even more hip-hoppers—to dance. But in the years following the group’s dissolution, Young went in an entirely different direction: crafting contemplative, Krautrock-influenced electronic music with a small arsenal of analogue synthesizers.
Synthesis / Electronic Music 1984-1988 is the second compilation of Young’s solo work to be released by German label Bureau B, following 2016’s Wave. That earlier compilation was already something of an obscurity, collecting music previously issued by Young himself on cassettes between 1985 and 1988. Synthesis, however, digs even deeper, unearthing cuts from roughly the same period that have never been released in any form. These songs in some cases feel more embryonic than the ones on Wave: especially opening track “Ghost Rocket” and closing track “Sputnik,” both of which clock in under one minute.
As a collection of outtakes from the little-heard solo career of a drummer from a short-lived No Wave band, Synthesis is by definition something of a minor work. But it also makes for a fascinating snapshot of a fertile, heterogeneous period in the development of electronic music: a moment when old-guard experimentalists like Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream were—perhaps unwittingly—occupying different regions of the same aesthetic playground as emergent house and techno DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Derrick May and Top 40 pop weirdos like the Human League and Prince.
To be clear, much of the music collected here falls squarely on the Eno/Dream side of the spectrum. The aforementioned “Ghost Rocket” sets the tone with 36 seconds of what sounds like incidental music from a movie about the moon landing. The foreboding synthscapes of “Synthesis” and “Dark Matter” resemble the work of a lo-fi Vangelis; “Teotihuacan,” with its arpeggiated Moog noodling, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hawkwind album. Among the most purely ambient works on the album is the aptly-named “Oscillations”: almost five minutes of layered synthesizer throbs and squelches of which Eno himself would be proud.
Elsewhere, though, Synthesis offers glimpses of the more commercial strain of electronic music that would dominate the latter half of the decade. The propulsive “Steeple Chase” evokes some of Liquid Liquid’s dance-punk energy—though obviously without the organic friction of live instrumentation. With its muttered spoken-word vocals and staggering, robotic synthesizer motif, “Electrovox” is the most archetypically synthpop track. The shimmering, crystalline “Guiding Spirit” sounds like early video game music as composed by Gary Numan.
Synthesis may not be an earth-shattering new discovery in electronic music, but it is a welcome and consistently engaging listen: no mean feat, especially for a compilation of 30-year-old leftovers. Well-timed for an ongoing synthwave revival celebrating analogue electronic sounds for their own sake, it’s a worthy addition to any synth fetishist’s collection.