Drive is an important movie in its own right, but its effect on synthwave was enormous. Much was made of the film’s signature style, deliberate pace, bold cinematography and Ryan Gosling’s performance as the Driver.
However, its score may have been it’s greatest innovation. It caused a sea-change in electronic music, from grassroots innovation to the heart of the charts.
It introduced synth music to a whole new audience and showcased the ability of the style to invoke menace and wonder, often at the same time. Director Nicholas Winding-Refn and Gosling envisaged the movie whilst driving through LA at night, listening to the Chromatics Night Drive.
This led to the opening scene, where we are introduced to Gosling as a getaway driver, playing cat-and-mouse with the LAPD in the gloom of the city. This scene is choreographed to the Chromatics’ unmistakable ‘Tick of the Clock’.
The band were approached to produce the soundtrack, which in the end fell to Cliff Martinez, who emulated their style in the eerie, droning score.
However the song that really kicked off the synth renaissance was ‘Nightcall’.
French beatmaker and probable Contra master Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’ is a masterpiece. The synths are shiny and beautiful, the beat pops even at a mid-tempo, and the whole piece drips with nocturnal cool. CSS’s Lovefoxx plays a lonely android waitress at the coolest late-nite diner on the Pacific Coast Highway. Her delivery of the chorus is flawless.
Drive also showed the softness and sensuality of synth music. College’s collaboration with Electric Youth (who worked together back on Secret Diary) ‘A Real Hero’ is the main theme of the movie. It features prominently throughout, and slowly ebbs in to the final shot, of Gosling driving off into the night.
It’s a fitting theme to a story that can be read as a redemption ark or a parable of fate and the inexorability of violence. That emotional weight is reflected in the track; at once a smooth sunny slow-jam, and an ode to a halcyon daydream never to be realised.
‘A Real Hero’ demonstrates a powerful point about synth music. Whilst structurally simplistic, the synthesisers communicate emotional depth, and conflicting concepts of love, loss, hope, romance and sadness. That a track like ‘A Real Hero’ can be read as being about any of these things is a testament to it’s genius, and it wasn’t just us who thought so.
The song is the definitive synthwave song, and was even a crossover hit, with critical plaudits and commercial success. I remember, years after it’s release, hearing it in on Radio 1 in the UK, during a hot summer’s day on a car trip was friends. It was as perfect then as it ever was.
However, this was only really the beginning. Drive was no smash hit. However it soon dragged into it’s pull musicians, writers and young people hungry for nostalgia and adventure. Synthwave had a swathe of new fans, and one demographic who were particularly receptive to the style were gamers.
After the success of Far Cry 3, which returned the gaming series to it’s roots, and shifted 4.5 million units, Ubisoft green-lit an expansion project.
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon was the result; a stand-alone product available on the Xbox Live Arcade. It’s synth score, courtesy of Australian duo Power Glove, became one of the seminal works of the genre.
Their arcade-inspired sound was a continuation of the Kavinsky style. Chunky analogue drum machines, lightning-crack synth flourishes and B-movie spirit make the soundtrack an absolute must for fans of 80s cinema.
At the same time, the surrealist top-down shooter Hotline Miami was generating significant buzz online, and particularly for it’s score which in it’s own bizarre way contributed to the on-going discussion around synth music.
It’s basically a hyper-speed, chip-tune take on the lusher, atmospheric sound of more conventional synth music. It’s a good example of a favoured take on the style, faster and played tighter, with acts such as Carpenter Brut and Perturbator, who meld the menace of icy electronic scores with the fury of speed metal.
The unrelenting pace damages the moody and measured atmosphere that is so central to the integrity of synth music. However it has proven popular, with both acts touring widely and generating millions of plays on Spotify.
In 2015 synthwave took one further step, even deeper into the public conciousness…
This article is part 2 of 3. You can read part 3 here.