MusiCube | Gunship (Album Review)

By John Son 22.07.2015

Like many eras before and after it, the 80s brought forward a very specific sound and look, which eventually became a style in its own right. With films and games such as Drive, Hotline Miami, and the Kickstarter-funded Kung Fury popularising the re-emergence of this style, Gunship's eponymous debut album capitalises on the rise of the synthwave genre: music heavily inspired by 80s visuals and music, specifically the soundtracks of films, video games and television shows of the era. Masterminded by Dan Haigh, Alex Westaway (both members of the alt-rock band Fightstar) and Alex Gingell, Cubed3 takes a look at how this retro throwback album fares.
Image for MusiCube | Gunship (Album Review)
The music of the 80s, specifically synthpop and its various offshoots, was subject to some criticism at the time, with adjectives such as "soulless" and "anaemic" being thrown around more than once. While there is perhaps a better degree of appreciation and understanding of the genre today, it is still worth noting that synthwave still represents a very niche sound, which is likely to find favour with a comparatively small group of listeners in relation to other genres of electronic music. It is, in essentials, the musical genre conceived sorely for the 80s enthusiast. Gunship continues to spearhead this trend and takes seriously its goal to recreate a faithfully 80s sound and feel, even down to the box art, which wouldn't look out of place in a SEGA Mega Drive game collection, or an 80s sci-fi VHS library. For those who don't harbour any particularly warm emotions - or else mere ambivalence towards the style - however, it may be difficult to summon much enthusiasm for the album and its central conceit.

The music is, as a result, of course, unmistakably and unashamedly 80s in its sound and production. There is liberal use of analogue synthesiser lines and artificial drum machines across the album to create a distinctive, aged sound with hints of modern production values, while the vocals are also typically cinematic and highly evocative of classic 80s productions. While some other artists of the synthwave genre, such as Kavinsky and Electric Youth, present a more palpable mix of modern techno sensibilities with retro sounds, Gunship opts to be a little more conservative, more inclined to adhere to a singular and less chaotic sound, which is consistent throughout most of the album.


 
This approach presents both advantages and disadvantages. While the signature sound of the album grabs on with a strong foothold in the opening tracks, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain interest in the style for the whole duration of the ten main tracks. Throughout the album there is little, if any, variation in the instrumentation utilised in the songs, so it could be said that beyond the first three tracks there is little else the album has to offer in terms of variances on the style, or new twists or takes on the established formula. Synthesisers are used to the extent that the sound becomes a little wearisome and repetitive, and the listener may find themselves craving the screams of guitar riffs or some punchy techno-inspired synthesiser dance mixes, if not only to inject some variety into the music and instrumentation.

This also has the unfortunate side-effect of blurring the lines between the individual tracks due to the lack of distinguishing features. While there are a select few tracks that stand out due to their excellent melodies and catchy hooks, many of the forgettable and less remarkable tracks are lent an additional degree of invisibility in the album's vast sea of synthesised sound. As so many of the tracks share close similarities on the surface, it may take a good few tries before the listener can develop distinct memories of each of the individual tracks. There are subtle distinguishing features present in the music and thematic concepts explored in the lyrics, but these are, as mentioned, subtle at best.

Image for MusiCube | Gunship (Album Review)


The advantages of this approach, however? Well, it goes without saying that for fans of the genre, Gunship will present massive appeal. There is no doubt that the creators have achieved a truly authentic 80s sound, harking back to a time where bold neon aesthetics, wild voluptuous hairstyles and wonky, geometric polygon computer graphics were at the absolute cutting-edge of fashion. The album is additionally not without its strong points; highlights include "Revel in Your Time": a strong and simple track with a catchy chorus and optimistically worded lyrics about potential love, and "Tech Noir": slower in tempo, almost bordering on chillout-style, where the distinctive harmonies between the guest vocalists, John Carpenter and Charlie Simpson, take centre stage to create a lush and atmospheric soundscape.

The album's release is also notable for marking the first ever time a music video has been created sorely through Grand Theft Auto V's in-game film editor on PC, made in collaboration with the serial YouTubers at 8-Bit Bastard. The song itself, "The Mountain," the opener to the album and one of its strongest tracks, is a solidly composed and dramatic piece that nicely encapsulates the feel of the entire album right from the off. It's ultimately debatable whether the music itself fits well with the world of Grand Theft Auto V, given the anachronistic differences between the two source materials, but this is no less a big step forward in the field of machinima regardless, and a worthy example of the versatility and wide-reaching influences of video games today.


 
The album finishes with a trio of remixes, which breathes some much-needed life into the track listing and shakes up the dominant sound in favour of some interesting rearrangements. "Tech Noir (Carpenter Brut Remix)" retains the vocals of the original, but introduces a quicker tempo and much more prominent percussion, as well as additional flanger effects and a slap bass line to finish off the track. The second remix, "Revel in Your Time (Miami Nights 1984 Remix)" feels like a deconstructed version of the original, with the core elements boiled down to an insistent staccato bassline and a repetitive, fairly high-pitched synthesiser arpeggio carrying the song throughout. Both of these remixes are welcome alternatives to the originals and also manage to match up in quality to the source material, but "Black Sun on the Horizon (Makeup and Vanity Set Remix)," however, has an oddly hollow sound and is the only remix of the three where the absence of the prominent synthesiser line feels jarring. Despite this, all the tracks on Gunship are solid enough to be springboards for further remixes, and it would be great to see this kind of potential be utilised to pave way for more music in the future.

6/10
Rated 6 out of 10

Good

Though it is most definitely flawed in some respects, Gunship offers a few excellent songs and a distinctive sound to add to synthwave's gradually growing popularity. It's solidly built and certainly delivers on the retro front, but it is perhaps too dependent on the listener's appreciation for a specific genre of music, which not all may have fond thoughts for. For 80s aficionados, however, it probably goes without saying that this is essential listening. Whether this will necessarily result in a wider, more "mainstream" success will remain to be seen.

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