What a difference a summer can make. When Netflix launched its supernatural Stranger Things series back in July, people immediately binged on all eight of its episodes. It tapped into the zeitgeist, and thousands upon thousands have since become obsessed with the show and its ’80s-set aesthetics. Beyond the feathered hair and retro wardrobes, this includes shout-outs to Dungeons & Dragons geekdom and vintage cinema. Enigmatic, Eggo-munching main character Eleven, for instance, acts as an analogue to Spielberg-ian friendly stranger E.T. That said, she also labels herself a monster to her friends, and carries the same kind of is-she-or-isn’t-she-vibe that thrives throughout John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing. With the latter sci-fi flick in mind, another of Stranger Things’ strongest attributes is its moody, era-appropriate keyboard score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The pair’s slick synth minimalism has been praised so much that already two volumes of cues have already been issued. The acclaim has also done wonders for the musicians’ main project, the equally synth-driven S U R V I V E.
The Austin four-piece–which also includes Adam Jones and Mark Donica– have been working together since 2009, and issued a self-titled release from 2012 through cult Italian cold wave imprint Mannequin. Four years later, they’ve prepped RR7349 for venerable metal label Relapse. Between the move to a bigger record company and the buzz behind Stranger Things, S U R V I V E’s profile is soaring right now.
For fans looking for more retro keyboard wizardry from Dixon and Stein, RR7439 certainly delivers the goods. And, at 9 songs long, it’s more immediately approachable than the hefty 75 cuts that comprise the two volumes of Stranger Things music.
“A.H.B.” is an awesome opener, a chilly stomp kneading a simple digitized one-two beat into a rich bed of keyboards. A mid-piece breakdown brings the track down to a woozy slow-drip of melted synths–had this been dropped 30 years back, listeners may well have taken off their orange foam headphones and checked their Walkmans to make sure their Energizers still had juice. The pace of “Other” is just as leisurely, but this mechano-crawl, too, comes equipped with lush and hypnotic keyboard work.
There are definitely vintage touchstones to S U R V I V E’s sound, like the tense oscillations of classic John Carpenter scores, but RR7349 isn’t straight nostalgia. The foursome’s “High Rise” features a powerfully boomed beat that could just as easily work on a record from electro pop crew Purity Ring, or even something you’d find on an experimental trap mixtape. Save for the preference for digital drums, they’re also in the same wheelhouse as now-label mates Zombi. Keeping in mind S U R V I V E’s horror score heritage, “High Rise” features a spine-shivering ripple of sound that could be likened to a set of fingers sinisterly raking across a picket fence.
Most ominous and awe-inspiring is “Wardenclyffe,” the album’s centrepiece. Its opening passage has synth-bass tones offering up a dark and sinewy groove, its steadfast beat pounding like a battle anthem. A temporary reprieve fades out the drums for an optimistic, open skies rise of synths, but soon returns to its haunted motif.
Parts of RR7349 are just as driving (“Copter”), but the album also allows for some breathing room. “Low Fog” is a desolate, minimalist miasma of ambient electronics.
From a marketing standpoint, it’s a great time to be S U R V I V E, as RR7349 hits retailers as Stranger Things fever is still going strong. S U R V I V E tours this fall, and their shows will no doubt be filled with a mix of synth score aficionados and curious Netflix addicts. And there’s bound to be some Barb and Demogorgon cosplay going on at the band’s Halloween show in Brooklyn. The momentum is here. Who know how long it’ll last?
Then again, Stranger Things has happened.
– review by Gregory Adams