In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the sudden widespread availability of synthesizers and drum machines changed popular music forever. The emergence of post-punk and new wave introduced American bands to the art of synthesizer-driven pop rock. Before too long, nearly every song on the radio featured some kind of synthesizer or drum machine. They became so overused in fact that 80s music has become immediately recognizable now for its cheesy synth lines, perhaps epitomized in Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” The arrival of grunge in the 90s did away with the synthesizer for a while. By the new millennium, it seemed like the synthetic sounds and catchy dance beats of the 80s were gone for good.
There is a point after a certain amount of time has passed, that what was once clichéd and cheesy somehow gains camp appeal. Perhaps hipsters are to blame for constantly repackaging old fashions that have gone out of style or are in bad taste for the sake of irony. Whatever the case, a host of new artists have in recent years rekindled the synthesizer craze of the 80s, including Alan Palomo’s Neon Indian. Palomo’s first album released under the name Neon Indian was 2009’s “Psychic Chasms,” establishing his characteristic washed out soundscapes and heavily filtered vocals. “Psychic Chasms” proved to be among the first in a new genre of music now called chillwave. The genre is marked by catchy synth hooks, dance beats and heavy use of sample distortion and modification, resulting in an aurally complex and unique sound. Neon Indian’s first album would’ve fit right in with the radio lineup in 1985, but Palomo’s sophomore album “Era Extrana,” which released Sept. 13, is more experimental and takes the classic pop hook of the 80s to whole new level.
Palomo’s previous arrangements were fairly straightforward, mixing sun-drenched synthesizers with drum sounds you might expect to hear in the music for an episode of Miami Vice. “Era Extrana” is much more intricate, with greater variation in tempo and rhythm. The beats are sophisticated, sounding more like something from related artist Com Truise. Neon Indian and Com Truise are touring together this fall, and while their music was always somewhat similar, they seem to have grown closer together in terms of style and experimentation.
The distortion and heavy filtering on tracks like “Fallout” and “Future Sick” make for a wide, atmospheric sound. Palomo pans distorted noises and sizzling cymbal crashes across the speakers, causing a dizzying, psychedelic effect on the listener. The sounds seem to play tricks on the ear. Just when you think you’ve got your finger on what it is you’re hearing, it shifts and changes into something else entirely. Palomo’s manipulation of samples and analog tones creates a sound that seems both retro and modern at once. Because the listener knows that they are hearing a straightforward, cheesy synth line that has been modified and distorted, there is both an awareness of the retro sounds and the modern computer technology used to manipulate them. Like a hipster wearing a “Frankie say Relax” t-shirt or some other retro attire, Palomo has repackaged something old and cliché – 80’s synth-pop – and created something new with ironic appeal- a terrific piece of mindbending psychedelic music. Artistically, “Era Extrana” is a serious achievement, so a comparison to hipsters may not be appropriate. The same brand of kitschy irony is at play, however, in both cases.
Fans of Palomo’s earlier work will enjoy the single “Polish Girl,” with its easy-to-dance-to beat and catchy chorus. The album’s best song is perhaps “Suns Irrupt,” with its intricate layering of rhythms and bass line grooves. “Hex Girlfriend” begins teasingly with “Friday flight feeling smeared and vexed/Girl caught, parking lot of the Cineplex/Stupid face looking so perplexed/Seeming like it was caught in a hex,” and provides the most interesting lyrical moments on the album. Palomo’s reverb-filled vocals soar when he sings in the chorus “Does it make you, does it make you feel alright?” The groovy riffs and sophisticated beats on “Era Extrana” will certainly have fans of synthesizer driven pop, or 80s music more generally, feeling alright. If find yourself in a nostalgic, 80s retro mood, get some acid washed jeans, wear your sunglasses at night and listen to Neon Indian’s newest album.
Photo: Courtesy of Mom and Pop Music Inc.