What Is Synthwave?

What Is Synthwave?

Synthwave music has under­gone a rap­id and far-reach­ing trans­form­a­tion, both in terms of style and over­all qual­ity. As the genre pulls in new pro­du­cers and fans from diverse music styles, and older fans become increas­ingly dis­en­chanted with the tra­di­tion­al sound of the genre, it becomes more rel­ev­ant than ever to dis­cuss the nature of the music, where it has come from, and most import­antly, where it is head­ing. So, what is Synthwave?

What is Synthwave Music?

Although it’s a com­mon assump­tion for new fans to make, Synthwave is not a gen­er­al or broad term for syn­thes­izer music, and des­pite the genre’s retro styl­ings, does not include music from the ‘80s or oth­er dec­ades of the 20th cen­tury. Synthwave is a dis­tinctly mod­ern music genre begun in the mid 2000s as an homage to the pop cul­ture sounds and imagery of the 1980s and early 1990s. Conceptually, this interest in the past mani­fests itself in two sig­ni­fic­ant, and often inter­re­lated, forms.

The first con­cep­tu­al aspect of Synthwave is a roman­ti­cized vis­ion of care­free sum­mer days spent on the board­walk, at the beach, or at the video arcade. This vis­ion fre­quently ori­ents itself on images of coastal US cit­ies like Miami and Los Angeles, replete with palm trees and ocean­side sun­sets. The song­writ­ing cap­tures an ideal­ized men­tal image of the ‘80s; it’s the music­al mani­fest­a­tion of a vin­tage post­card that says “Come to L.A.” in pink let­ters above an image of a crowded beach with people on surf­boards and roller skates.

The second core con­cep­tu­al ele­ment of Synthwave involves the ‘80s ubi­quit­ous love affair with sci­ence and tech­no­logy. This aspect is expressed through syn­thwave pro­du­cers’ interest in sci­ence fic­tion, com­puters, neon lights, and futur­ist­ic super­cars. It also extends to ‘80s hor­ror movies, which them­selves fre­quently con­tained themes of sci­ence and technology.

Musically, Synthwave’s ori­gins are tied to dance genres of the mid ‘00s, spe­cific­ally house and nu disco. Early Synthwave artists put a retro-synth spin on these sounds while bor­row­ing inspir­a­tion from ‘80s Euro disco, funk, and elec­tro, as well as soundtracks for movies, tele­vi­sion, and video games. Smaller ele­ments like ‘80s jingles for tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials, VHS pro­duc­tion com­pan­ies, and nightly news pro­grams also played a role in the genre’s genesis.

Synthwave’s name can be mis­lead­ing, as the music has very little in com­mon with new wave, which is a rock-based genre that evolved out of punk acts of the ‘70s and flour­ished in Britain and North America in the ‘80s. Similarly, Synthwave is not a new or syn­onym­ous name for Synthpop, which is a much older and very dif­fer­ent style of music. Generally speak­ing, there’s little over­lap between the syn­thwave and syn­thpop genres.

Instead, syn­thwave is rooted much more deeply in European disco and elec­tron­ic dance music.

Despite Synthwave’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the ‘80s, it is not simply a rehash of old sounds and ideas; few songs from the genre could pass for vin­tage cre­ations, and very little music from the past sounds pre­cisely like Synthwave. Instead, it is a ret­ro­fu­tur­ist­ic evol­u­tion of ele­ments from the past, amal­gam­ated and taken into an altern­at­ive timeline with suit­ably dis­tinct music­al and visu­al aspects. As pro­moter Samuel Valentine suc­cinctly puts it, “syn­thwave is the music for a future that nev­er happened but every­one dreamed about in the ‘80s.” Naturally, this idea of ret­ro­fu­tur­ism can be far-ran­ging in its applic­a­tion, a fact that is rep­res­en­ted in synthwave’s diverse artistry.

What Are the Different Styles of Synthwave Music?

Even as recently as 2014, the ques­tion about syn­thwave sub­genres and styles was an easy one to answer. However, since 2015, the genre has seen an enorm­ous influx of cre­at­ors with dif­fer­ent influ­ences and back­grounds. Synthwave is rap­idly evolving and shift­ing at the edges, clos­ing the dis­tance between numer­ous oth­er genres. In early 2018, the bor­ders of syn­thwave and the closely related Darksynth genre blend into Chiptune, Vaporwave, main­stream Pop, Dubstep, Aggrotech, and many oth­er styles of music, includ­ing some Metal subgenres.

As Synthwave con­tin­ues to spill over into neigh­bor­ing music styles and the term is increas­ingly applied to song­writ­ing that bears no rela­tion to the ori­gin­al genre, the iden­tity and spir­it of Synthwave music becomes obscured and more dif­fi­cult to under­stand. For this reas­on, it’s use­ful to touch on dif­fer­ences between the vari­ous styles of Synthwave music and estab­lish some demarc­a­tion lines. This is done with the intent of increas­ing clar­ity, recog­ni­tion, and most import­antly, appre­ci­ation of the music.

Because this next sec­tion goes into detail about dif­fer­ences in music styles, it’s help­ful to be famil­i­ar with the import­ance of music genres before mov­ing on.

It must be briefly emphas­ized here that music genres and sub­genres shift rap­idly when they are new and grow increas­ingly rigid over time as a great­er volume of music is cre­ated in and around them. The fol­low­ing dis­cus­sion bene­fits from hind­sight and broadly sur­veys Synthwave with thou­sands of releases and more than a decade’s worth of music in mind. Also, the music styles lis­ted here are used as gen­er­al descriptors, not rigid clas­si­fic­a­tions. Very few artists in any genre can be prop­erly rep­res­en­ted by a single descriptor, and so this dis­cus­sion is a flex­ible and rel­at­ive way of look­ing at some of the styl­ist­ic choices pro­du­cers in the genre make when cre­at­ing their music.

The fol­low­ing dia­gram provides a visu­al­iz­a­tion of the Synthwave genre and its con­nec­tion to dir­ectly related music styles. Note that it is impossible to com­pletely and effect­ively organ­ize music genres in this way, and so the chart is meant as a visu­al ref­er­ence for the descrip­tions that fol­low and not a com­plete clas­si­fic­a­tion system.

Colorful venn diagram of synthwave genres and subgenres

Synthwave / Retrowave

The terms “Synthwave” and “Retrowave” are the mod­ern names for the genre, and they are used broadly when talk­ing about the music. The two terms are roughly equi­val­ent, though Synthwave is the more com­mon term when talk­ing about the music. In gen­er­al, “Synthwave” refers spe­cific­ally to the music, while “Retrowave” is an all-encom­passing term that also applies to art­work, cloth­ing, videos, and oth­er media that embody ‘80s nos­tal­gia and ‘80s retrofuturism.

Notably, NewRetroWave is not a name for the genre; it is a prom­in­ent record label and Synthwave pro­moter that focuses on new Retrowave content.

Outrun / Outrun Electro

Neon cover art of supercar with gull wing doors on beach
Miami Nights 1984 – Early Summer (2010)

In the form­at­ive days of Synthwave, “Outrun” and “Outrun Electro” were the most com­mon names for the genre, with “Synthwave” over­tak­ing them in pop­ular­ity roughly around 2014. As the genre con­tin­ues to expand, “Outrun” remains a use­ful term for describ­ing the spe­cif­ic music style estab­lished on the earli­est Synthwave releases.

Examples of form­at­ive albums that shaped the sound and visu­al aes­thet­ic of Outrun music in the late ‘00s through 2010 include:

Kavinsky
Teddy Boy (2006)
1986 (2007)
Nightcall (2010)

Futurecop!
The Unicorn & The Lost City of Alvograth (2008)

Mitch Murder
After Hours (2009)
Television (2010)

Lazerhawk
Redline (2010)

Miami Nights 1984
Early Summer (2010)

The under­ground ori­gins of the genre can be traced back fur­ther, such as to songs from MPM, but for the pur­poses of this art­icle, the short­l­ist of form­al releases provides a suit­able and com­pact under­stand­ing of early out­run music and the broad­er Synthwave genre’s foundation.

The Outrun sound is par­tic­u­larly well rep­res­en­ted by the 2010 albums from Miami Nights 1984 and Lazerhawk, as well as their respect­ive fol­low-up releases in 2012, Turbulence and Visitors. These record­ings fea­ture many of the prom­in­ent Synthwave themes men­tioned above, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on ‘80s super­cars, night drives, beach­side sun­sets, and vin­tage sci­ence fic­tion. These aspects are visu­ally rep­res­en­ted in the album art­work and song titles, and music­ally rep­res­en­ted by vibrant, retro syn­thes­izer tones, brightly melod­ic song­writ­ing, and incor­por­a­tion of vin­tage music ele­ments from movies, tele­vi­sion, video games, and to a less­er extent, ‘80s syn­thpop and electro.

Notably, the driv­ing themes and visu­al aes­thet­ic of early Synthwave echoes the 1986 arcade racing game, Out Run, which puts play­ers behind the wheel of a vir­tu­al Ferrari Testarossa as they speed through moun­tain passes and along­side sunny, palm-tree-packed beaches. This influ­ence is fre­quently reflec­ted in artist, album, and song titles, as with The Outrunners, who released their Running for Love and Money EP in 2010, and Kavinsky, whose 2013 full-length album is simply named OutRun.

Video game Outrun cover art of 80s ferrari driving down street with palm trees
Out Run (Sega Mega Drive, 1991)

In gen­er­al, Outrun music is typ­i­fied by a stiff, four-on-the-floor beat remin­is­cent of House music and its roots in Euro Disco, as well as clean and artic­u­late syn­thes­izer melod­ies. Structurally, the music is often lin­ear in the style of its EDM influ­ences, main­tain­ing a single rhythmic pat­tern and only one or two lead melod­ies through an entire song.

Early Outrun emphas­izes ‘80s nos­tal­gia more than almost all Synthwave releases that fol­lowed, fre­quently incor­por­at­ing audio clips from Pop cul­ture of the dec­ade. Songs like Mitch Murder’s “Palmer’s Arcade” (2011), Lost Years’ “Park Avenue 1989” (2012), and Botnit’s “Hi-Score” (2013) provide excel­lent examples of the inclu­sion of ‘80s audio arti­facts into Outrun music.

Although early Synthwave was almost entirely instru­ment­al, it didn’t take long for pro­du­cers to begin con­trib­ut­ing retro vocal per­form­ances to their songs. Kristine’s Modern Love EP from 2012 marked an import­ant shift toward vocal-driv­en out­run, and Dana Jean Phoenix has been pro­lif­ic with­in the broad­er Synthwave genre, releas­ing albums under her own name and provid­ing guest vocals for dozens of prom­in­ent releases.

Outrun remains rel­ev­ant and pop­u­lar in 2017 and early 2018, with record­ings like Tokyo Rose’s The Chase: Last Runand CJ Burnett’s Moonlit City provid­ing con­tem­por­ary examples of synthwave’s pion­eer­ing sound. Other albums, like Overvad’s Massive Scoop and Ace Marino’s Cocaine Flamingo fea­ture a slightly evolved style that remains in align­ment with clas­sic Outrun.

In rela­tion to the many styles of syn­thwave music that came later, out­run forms the spir­itu­al heart of the genre, and as such, it is the music to which all oth­er Synthwave sub­genres must be com­pared. The demarc­a­tion lines that form the bound­ar­ies of the main Synthwave genre are ori­ented around the sem­in­al Outrun releases from the late ‘00s and early ‘10s.

Darksynth

Darksynth album cover art of woman on rainy city street
Perturbator – Terror 404 (2012)

Although it was dif­fi­cult to per­ceive at the time, the seeds for a second, closely related style of Synthwave music were planted with the earli­est Outrun releases. This music would come to be known as Dark Synthwave, or simply Darksynth. In con­trast to Miami Nights 1984’s vis­ion of sunny ocean­side drives and Mitch Murder’s after­noons in video arcades, Darksynth’s embrace of ‘80s ret­ro­fu­tur­ism turned toward B hor­ror movies, com­ic books, and pulp sci­ence fic­tion for its iden­tity, often incor­por­at­ing music ele­ments from Metal and Industrial genres.

The ori­gins of the Darksynth sound can be heard in the pre­vi­ously men­tioned Outrun releases, such as on Kavinsky’s “Wayfarer” and “Deadcruiser,” as well as Futurecop’s “As Seen on TV.” However, the style would not emerge in its full form until 2012 with albums like Perturbator’s Terror 404, Carpenter Brut’s EP 1, and Mega Drive’s VHS.

Other not­able entries in the form­at­ive days of Darksynth include Dance With the Dead’s Out of Body from 2013 and early Gost EPs like The Night Prowler and Skull. Futurecop! also con­trib­uted to the gen­es­is of the Darksynth sound on the 2012 album The Movie, delving into the coarse effects and rhythmic song­writ­ing approach that has become a sig­na­ture of the genre with songs like “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Super Saiyan.”

These innov­at­ive releases clearly estab­lished a new style of Synthwave, though they often shared styl­ist­ic com­mon­al­it­ies with Outrun. For example, songs like Perturbator’s “John Holmes VHS Nightclub” and Carpenter Brut’s “LA Venice Beach ‘80s” are very near to cent­ric out­run releases of the era. Cluster Busters entire dis­co­graphy provides an example of hor­ror-tinged music that styl­ist­ic­ally rep­res­ents outrun’s early rela­tion­ship with Darksynth.

After the ini­tial impact in 2012 and 2013, Dark Synthwave began to expand rap­idly, attract­ing fans and pro­du­cers not just from Outrun, but from a diverse range of extern­al genres. By 2015, the Darksynth style was nearly as pre­val­ent as Outrun, and even artists like Mitch Murder and Nightstop, who tra­di­tion­ally focused on a glossy, Pop-ori­ented approach to their music, tried their hand at the bur­geon­ing Dark Synthwave style.

2016 and 2017 were immensely pivotal years for Darksynth, as the sub­genre argu­ably over­took the more tra­di­tion­al style in terms of notori­ety and pop­ular­ity. The grit­ti­er, more exper­i­ment­al Darksynth sound not only con­tin­ued to spread to new artists, but evolved dra­mat­ic­ally in terms of style, effect­ively form­ing its own dis­tinct­ive genre along­side Synthwave.

In 2017, artists like Dan TerminusGostFixions and Perturbator declar­at­ively pushed their music bey­ond the edges of Synthwave, estab­lish­ing new cre­at­ive approaches to Darksynth that land in rel­at­ively unex­plored territory.

The dense, rhythmic-ori­ented approach of many mod­ern Darksynth artists, as well as the inclu­sion of stronger ele­ments from genres like Dubstep, Trap, Drum and Bass, Industrial and Metal, cre­ates a sharp devi­ation away from the melod­ic, disco-ori­ented sounds of Outrun music.

2018 has already seen a hybrid Darksynth and Dubstep offer­ing in Lazerpunk’s Death & Glorya hybrid Darksynth and rock cre­ation in Carpenter Brut’s Leather Teeth and an extreme cre­ation in Gost’s Posessor that hurdles the Darksynth genre altogether.

These artists no longer share any com­mon music­al ground with out­run albums like Mitch Murder’s Burning Chrome, and they there­fore fall out­side the bound­ar­ies of the Synthwave genre. This con­scious, delib­er­ate evol­u­tion can be plainly observed in the music, album art­work, and title of Perturbator’s 2017 EP, New Model.

Darksynth has many oth­er, less con­spicu­ous, names, such as Dreadwave, Terrorwave and Horrorsynth. However, des­pite the under­stand­able mis­use, Darksynth is not syn­onym­ous with Darkwave, and the terms do not refer to the same style of music. “Dark Synthwave” and “Dark New Wave” both regret­tably shorten to the same blend word, though they are oth­er­wise unrelated.

Darkwave is a large and well estab­lished genre that grew out of goth­ic rock and new wave of the late ‘70s and has exper­i­enced a long and var­ied evol­u­tion. The Cure’s 1982 album Pornography and Wolfsheim’s 1992 album No Happy View are examples of darkwave.

The dark­wave genre has exper­i­enced its own reviv­al in recent years and retains a loy­al audi­ence in the present day. Although a few examples of hybrid cre­ations have emerged in the past year — as on Gost’s “Sigil” — dark­synth and dark­wave have fol­lowed sep­ar­ate and remark­ably dif­fer­ent gene­a­lo­gic­al paths, and gen­er­ally speak­ing, have very little in common.

Retro Electro

Neon Synthwave album art of man holding keytar
Damokles – Ozone Surfing (2016)

In addi­tion to “Outrun Electro,” Another com­mon name for the Synthwave genre in its early years was “Retro Electro.” Although this term has some­times been used broadly, it actu­ally refers to a spe­cif­ic style of music and is rel­ev­ant as a sub­genre descriptor in the same way as Outrun.

The con­fu­sion over the term is not sur­pris­ing, as “Electro” is one of the most badly abused and mis­un­der­stood terms in Western music. Electro’s ori­gin­al and most icon­ic sound is a form of hip-hop, and in the most basic sense, blends Funk and Synthpop with turn­tab­lism. It was developed in the early ‘80s on sem­in­al releases like Afrikaa Bombataa and Soul Sonic Force‘s 1982 album Planet RockHashim‘s 1983 Al-Naafyish, and Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock, also from 1983. Hancock’s “Rockit” is the most fam­ous example of the ori­gin­al elec­tro sound.

Retro Electro pulls that clas­sic sound into the present day and infuses it with mod­ern pro­duc­tion and the strong melod­ic sens­ib­il­it­ies of the Synthwave genre. Many Retro Synth cre­ations around 2010 con­tained ele­ments of Electro, such as on Mitch Murder’s “Action Bike,” Miami Nights 1984’s “Miami Funk,” and Digikid84’s “Lazy Lady,” hence the pre­val­ence of the terms “Outrun Electro” and “Retro Electro” in Synthwave’s early days.

Recent examples of Retro Electro include the Damokles songs “Retronomic Time Adventure” and “Electric Boogie” as well as Beckett’s “We Can Get Down.” In 2018, Retro Electro is a rel­at­ively small but vibrant sub­genre of Synthwave music, and it’s often rep­res­en­ted on a hand­ful of songs on an artist’s album along­side Synthpop and Outrun-style music.

Synthpop, House, and Nu Disco

 

Neon cover art of electric woman in glowing box meeting man
Tesla Boy – The Tesla Boy EP (2009)

An essen­tial con­trib­ut­or to the Retrowave style in gen­er­al, though not spe­cific­ally to Synthwave, is Tesla Boy. The Tesla Boy EP from 2009 and the sub­sequent Modern Thrills album from 2010 had a massive impact on the ‘80s music reviv­al, and the album art for The Tesla Boy EP remains a found­a­tion­al image in the Retrowave aes­thet­ic. Musically, Tesla Boy’s earli­est releases were a blend of mod­ern and retro styles that dif­fer from the earli­est Outrun releases. However, their rel­ev­ance to the Retrowave scene and the excite­ment they gen­er­ated for the ‘80s reviv­al can­not be understated.

Similarly, ele­ments of nu disco and house music are pre­val­ent with­in Synthwave, and their char­ac­ter­ist­ics have remained appar­ent through­out the genre’s lifespan. For example, artists includ­ing L’Equipe Du Son, Worship, and Flashworx delivered nu disco and house-infused Synthwave tracks around 2010 that were closely related to the earli­est Outrun albums. Although these releases exist on the fringe of the Synthwave genre, they rep­res­ent the sig­ni­fic­ant melt­ing pot that char­ac­ter­izes Outrun’s ori­gins. Morgan Willis’ Supernova and Garth Knight’s Kitt albums from early 2018 reveal the con­tin­ued pres­ence of these influ­ences with­in Synthwave.

Synthpop is a massive genre on its own with dec­ades worth of evol­u­tion, and it is his­tor­ic­ally tied to its music­al sib­ling in Industrial music. However, the genre does over­lap to some degree with Synthwave.

Perhaps no one rep­res­ents the hybrid style of Synthpop and Synthwave bet­ter than Mecha Maiko, first with her darkly atmo­spher­ic cre­ations as part of Dead Astronauts, then with a solo debut in early 2018. Her song “Electric Heat” is an excel­lent example of a song that can be clas­si­fied as both Synthpop and Synthwave. Alex’s Simulations album is a sim­il­arly excel­lent example of a Synthwave-Synthpop creation.

Pop Synthwave / Dreamwave

Neon Synthwave cover art of shopping mall and video game arcade
The Midnight – Kids (2018)

In the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, a gentler style of Retro Synth music emerged along­side Nu Disco and Outrun. This subtle vari­ation, with its softly sculp­ted tex­tures, breathy vocals, and down­tempo deliv­ery soon came be known appro­pri­ately as “Dreamwave”. Significant Dreamwave cre­ations include most of the songs in FM Attack‘s dis­co­graphy, includ­ing those on the found­a­tion­al Dreamatic from 2009 and the more med­it­at­ive sub­sequent albums, Deja Vu and Stellar.

Electric Youth’s Innerworld, Trevor Something’s Synthetic Love, and Timecop1983’s Journeys, all from 2014, are also examples of Dreamwave. The col­lab­or­a­tion between Electric Youth and College on the song “A Real Hero,” fea­tured on the Drive soundtrack from 2011, is the most fam­ous example of Dreamwave.

Dreamwave remained a rel­at­ively small sub­genre of music until around 2015, at which point it began gain­ing tre­mend­ous trac­tion thanks to three innov­at­ive releases: The Midnight’s Days of Thunder, Gunship’s self-titled debut, and Timecop1983’s Reflections. The impact of these for­ward-think­ing cre­ations was echoed a short year later with FM-84’s pivotal Atlas album. Together, these four albums set the stage for an excit­ing new style of music that is still rap­idly devel­op­ing and expand­ing in 2018.

Increasingly, artists work­ing in this realm of music have dropped the Dreamwave sound and its close roots along­side Outrun, favor­ing Pop song struc­tures with softer pro­duc­tion, more elab­or­ate rhythm sec­tions, and a host of mod­ern effects ripped from main­stream genres. Similarly, and in a dra­mat­ic shift away from tra­di­tion­al Synthwave, these albums incor­por­ate dis­tinctly mod­ern vocal styles that bear little or no resemb­lance to music of the 1980s.

The res­ults caters toward a young­er, more main­stream audi­ence in the late ’10s, a fact that has begun draw­ing a high num­ber of new listen­ers who have little know­ledge or interest in Synthwave’s pion­eer­ing acts like Miami Nights 1984 and Mitch Murder.

The incor­por­a­tion of main­stream Pop in the vocals and effects, the new emphas­is on Pop song struc­tures, and the style’s immense pop­ular­ity rel­at­ive to oth­er Synthwave sub­genres has quickly led to a second, closely related style of music: Pop Synthwave, or simply, Popwave.

Acts like The Bad Dreamers and Prizm con­tin­ue to redefine Popwave music and push the edges of the broad­er Synthwave genre in new dir­ec­tions, form­ing a dis­tinct, hybrid form of con­tem­por­ary Pop music. The Bad Dreamers’ song “Who You Run To” in the link above is a Popwave-defin­ing cre­ation that stakes its claim in new ter­rit­ory far from the sounds of Synthwave pioneers.

The sounds of Pop Synthwave have exploded in pop­ular­ity in 2018, with Gunship, The Midnight, and Timecop1983 con­tinu­ing to evolve their per­son­al styles along­side artists like NINAWolf ClubMoonrunner83, Ollie Wride, and New Arcades.

However, with new music styles comes new con­fu­sion over terms, and just as Dark Synthwave is some­times mis­takenly referred to as “Darkwave”, Popwave artists are now mis­takenly being described as “Synthpop”. If you're hav­ing an "Ahh" exper­i­ence right now, you might also be inter­ested in our art­icle 'Why Synthwave Isn't Synthpop (And Why It Matters)'.

Synthpop, like Synthwave, is not a gen­er­al or broad term for syn­thes­izer music, and des­pite the under­stand­able con­fu­sion, Popwave and Dreamwave artists like The Midnight and FM-84 are not Synthpop acts. In terms of style, these artists are actu­ally rap­idly dis­tan­cing them­selves from the sounds of Synthpop and mov­ing into a lush, warmly com­mer­cial approach that has noth­ing in com­mon with the starkly min­im­al and robot­ic tones of the older genre.

Cinematic Synthwave

Synthwave cover art of woman licking bloody knife blade
Meteor – Voyage into Fear (2018)

Synthwave draws heav­ily from movie scores and soundtracks of the ‘80s, and a high num­ber of artists pay trib­ute to this influ­ence on their albums. Cinematic Synthwave with out­er space themes is espe­cially pre­val­ent. These cre­ations reflect clas­sic film scores like John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, Vangelis’ Blade Runner, Tangerine Dream’s Thief, and Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator. Cinematic and ambi­ent Synthwave songs often rep­res­ent the nearest styl­ist­ic con­nec­tion to music from the ‘80s, and in a few cases, they are nearly indis­tin­guish­able from the film scores they emulate.

Cinematic Synthwave is pro­duced by artists in diverse areas of the lar­ger genre, and is often rep­res­en­ted on one or two dis­tinct songs on an album. For example, Perturbator, Mega Drive, Timecop1983, Crockett, and Scandroid have cre­ated cine­mat­ic music that is styl­ist­ic­ally sim­il­ar, even though the artists are oth­er­wise quite dif­fer­ent from one another.

Fittingly, Synthwave artists also reg­u­larly cre­ate music for video games, tele­vi­sion, and movies, as on Power Glove’s soundtracks for the Blood Dragon games, Makeup and Vanity Set’s Hit TV, and Meteor’s Voyage into Fear.

Cyberpunk Synthwave (Cybersynth)

Illustrated cover art for Roborg Cybercrime album
Roborg – CyberCrime (2017)

As Darksynth fore­run­ners delve deep­er into non-melod­ic song­writ­ing with exper­i­ment­al rhythms and deeply dis­tor­ted synth bass, the genre has begun to frac­ture down the middle. A clear schism is appar­ent at the start of 2018, with many artists main­tain­ing a more dir­ect evol­u­tion of the style estab­lished on early releases from artists like Mega Drive and Power Glove. These Cyberpunk Synthwave artists often mix or replace the ‘80s nos­tal­gia of tra­di­tion­al Synthwave with sci­ence fic­tion and Cyberpunk themes for a brood­ing, futur­ist­ic soundscape.

In many cases, Cybersynth artists pre­serve the strong melod­ic hooks of Synthwave and early Darksynth while incor­por­at­ing increas­ingly gritty effects, prom­in­ent elec­tric gui­tar, and ener­get­ic rhythms for an elab­or­ate and excit­ing new sound. This music has a flu­id song­writ­ing approach that dif­fers sig­ni­fic­antly from the stat­ic beats of out­run and the extreme rhythmic approaches of mod­ern Darksynth music. It also leans toward detailed and com­plex song com­pos­i­tions more than most oth­er Synthwave cre­ations. The ori­gins of the style can be traced back to songs like Power Glove’s “Night Force” (2012), Mega Drive’s “Acid Spit” (2014), and OGRE’s “Don’t Call Me a Hero” (2014), though the music has been rap­idly expand­ing and form­ing its own iden­tity in the past two years.

Zombie Hyperdrive’s Hyperion album from 2016 marks the begin­ning of a wave of new Cybersynth releases, and 2017 saw sev­er­al excel­lent record­ings from IsidorAstral TalesRoborg, and 3Force that fur­ther advanced the genre. Many estab­lished out­run artists have also begun trend­ing toward the new sound, with Nightstop’s Time Recoil soundtrack offer­ing an example of the grow­ing interest in the style. A com­par­is­on of Astral Tales’ “Colonies” and Isidor’s “Sirius A” with Lazerpunk’s “Warmachine” and Daniel Deluxe’s “Renegades” reveals the vast divide in the cre­at­ive dir­ec­tions of artists at the edges of Synthwave and Darksynth.

Another look at the genre map reveals some of the diversity and evol­u­tion of Synthwave music through spe­cif­ic albums. Once again, it’s import­ant to note that it’s impossible to fully clas­si­fy music in this way, and so these place­ments are approx­im­a­tions meant as a visu­al­iz­a­tion tool.

Colorful venn diagram of synthwave and its subgenres by Iron Skullet

What Is the Future of Synthwave?

There are no cer­tain­ties in life, though the next few years hold sev­er­al assur­ances for Synthwave fans. These include the con­tin­ued rise in prom­in­ence of Cybersynth and Darksynth, the con­tin­ued integ­ra­tion of Synthwave into main­stream Pop, and a decline of older styles like Outrun and Retro Electro.

Darksynth’s Takeover

The easi­est pre­dic­tion for 2018 and bey­ond is the con­tin­ued devel­op­ment of Darksynth. As men­tioned before, Darksynth is now large and dis­tinct enough from Synthwave to con­sti­tute its own genre, albeit with some over­lap, and the expan­sion of the music to new artists with more diverse cre­at­ive vis­ions is assured. The con­tin­ued blend­ing of Darksynth with Industrial, Metal, EBM, and EDM pro­duces new innov­a­tions on an almost weekly basis, with artists like Gregorio FrancoShredder 1984Battlejuice, and Electric Dragon push­ing in dis­tinctly new and dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions with each release. Darksynth is now tap­ping into mar­kets that have no interest in the retro ‘80s Pop fla­vor­ings of Synthwave music. Expect it to thrive with its new audience.

Pop Synthwave Hits the Mainstream

The focus on emotive vocal per­form­ances, sen­ti­ment­al lyr­ics, and influ­ences from com­mer­cial-friendly music genres has opened a new and fin­an­cially viable mar­ket for Synthwave. The diver­gent, hybrid sound of Popwave has already proven cap­able of attract­ing a massive fol­low­ing from Generation Z listen­ers, and by cast­ing aside many of Synthwave’s ‘80s under­pin­nings, these artists have cre­ated a clear­er path to mon­et­ary rewards for their work. As Popwave artists like Gunship and The Midnight con­tin­ue to push out­ward into main­stream styles, artists Outside the Synthwave genre increas­ingly incor­por­ate the ret­rowave visu­al aes­thet­ic into their album art­work, even if their music is unre­lated. 2018 is cer­tain to see many more pro­du­cers tap into Synthwave’s new com­mer­cial possibilities.

The Decline of Classic Synthwave

Outrun isn’t dead…yet. (Update: it is.) However, the aver­age shelf life of a music genre is between 10 and 15 years, and since 2008 can roughly be marked as Outrun’s first full year of life, the clock is tick­ing. The Outrun sound was still going strong in 2017, though as an increas­ing num­ber of older artists explore the edges of the genre and a young­er crowd of fans and pro­du­cers come to the scene with no per­son­al memor­ies of the ‘80s and little know­ledge of music from the era, the sounds of true Synthwave music appear to be enter­ing their final years of retro glory.

Compounding the decline, many long­time fans have become dis­en­chanted with the older styles of the genre, a fact that’s partly due to the high num­ber of new­comers to the scene. New pro­du­cers and listen­ers have climbed aboard the Synthwave raft en masse, and although their enthu­si­asm is earn­est, the sud­denly crowded scene has begun to sink under its own weight. For many estab­lished fans, the cur­rent pil­ing on from a broad­er audi­ence has suf­foc­ated the artist­ic integ­rity and enthu­si­asm for the retro ‘80s product, trans­form­ing its ori­gin­al­ity into a tired cliche.

As an increas­ing num­ber of lackluster albums are released and long­time cre­at­ors and listen­ers turn away from the over­sat­ur­ated style, the demise of out­run and oth­er early Synthwave sounds becomes increas­ingly easy to per­ceive. However, giv­en the vibrancy of tal­en­ted cre­at­ors in 2017, Outrun likely has good years left in it. The best news for clas­sic Synthwave fans is that his­tor­ic­ally, the strongest releases with­in a genre often arrive in its final years as the style is per­fec­ted and its most tal­en­ted artists con­tin­ue to con­trib­ute before mov­ing on to new ideas.

The Rise of Cyberpunk Synthwave

The music pro­duced in 2017 by artists like RoborgMangadriveDeadlife, and Neon Droid engages a Cyberpunk-infused, futur­ist­ic sound that reg­u­larly sur­passes the ori­gin­al­ity and qual­ity of new Outrun releases. Although many Cybersynth artists are cur­rently and right­fully grouped with Darksynth, the con­tin­ued evol­u­tion and growth of both styles of music in the com­ing years will make their music­al dif­fer­ences and con­cep­tu­al lean­ings increas­ingly easy to perceive.

With its embrace of the clas­sic Dark Synthwave sound and its com­mit­ment to the melod­ic heart of Outrun, Cybersynth has already become a haven for weary pro­du­cers and fans look­ing for new life in the syn­thwave genre. Cybersynth will con­tin­ue its rap­id expan­sion as a dis­en­chanted Outrun pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to shift its atten­tion to new music­al horizons.