Where does the synthwave movement find itself in the year 2021? After all, looking back now it is surprising to see just how far the sub-genre made it through the last decade. What started off as an oddly retro offshoot of French house, with various bedroom producers incorporating their rather kitsch affection for 1980s cinema, television and arcade games into their dancefloor-ready electronica, gradually spread its tendrils out to define a good chunk of cinema, television and video games released in the 2010s.
From the early successes of Drive and the Hotline Miami games, via the roaring electronic scores of Paul Leonard-Morgan and Jóhann Jóhannsson to the world-conquering sensation that was Stranger Things, synthwave rode the tide of 80s nostalgia from success to success. Hell, original synth godfather John Carpenter even got in on the action, forming a touring band, releasing three albums of original music and narrating 2019 documentary ‘Rise Of The Synths’.
Throughout it all there was James Kent (aka Perturbator), right at the cutting edge, injecting a dose of darkness and intensity he brought from his black metal roots with some of the most important and daring releases from the entire scene – 2014’s ‘Dangerous Days’, 2016’s ‘The Uncanny Valley’ and 2017’s behemothic ‘New Model’. After this he never disappeared completely, chucking out the occasional remix or collaboration here and there. But it certainly seems that he has taken his time to take stock and map out the next phase of the Perturbator project before putting out a new collection of music under the moniker.
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Thanks to a couple of factors (last year’s disastrous launch of Cyberpunk 2077, the cultural reset brought about by the pandemic, the fact no-one could give less of a shit about the impending fourth season of Stranger Things), there is a general consensus that the synthwave wave is genuinely finished now. Given that Kent was anticipating this back in 2017, it comes as no surprise that ‘Lustful Sacraments’ is being sold as a complete departure from the scene that birthed him.
Is it successful in this aim? Well, that depends on your definition of ‘synthwave’. If that label means the sound of his old bangers like ‘Miami Disco’ or ‘Future Club’, the kind of music still churned out by a host of acts with names like Power Glove and Mega Drive, then yes, this is very different. The only classic high-stepper here is lead single ‘Excess’, and even that is punctured to ribbons by Maniac 2121’s barked, almost oi-punk vocals.
But if synthwave is more about the practise of nabbing music from the 1980s and punching it up for a modern audience, well, this is absolutely what Perturbator is doing here, albeit with a wider pool of references from that era. Sisters of Mercy’s influence lies heavy across this record, with spindly gothic guitar licks fusing perfectly with Kent’s typically foreboding style to provide the musical backbone to most of the record.
This synthesis pays off huge dividends on songs like the title track and ‘Messalina, Messalina’, the latter of which also demonstrates the enhanced cinematic sweep of this record. While Perturbator has always had a talent for world-building, the results have never been quite so widescreen and soundtrack-esque, especially on the album’s superior second half. Time and again on ‘Lustful Sacraments’, Kent disregards formulaic song structures for something more freeform and progressive.
The other notable difference here is the increased presence of guest vocals across the record. The aforementioned Maniac 2121, Kent’s wife BILIAL, Virginia post-punkers True Body and French doom-mongers Hangman’s Chair all rock up to layer their sonorous human narrations over the album’s deepening sense of dread. This atmosphere thickens and crystallises until it reaches it’s glorious climax on ‘God Says’, a soaring slice of electro-doom that enters realms neither Perturbator nor his peers have tried to reach before.
While some might be disappointed that Kent has elected not to dive further into the harsh industrial textures he started to explore on ‘New Model’, ‘Lustful Sacraments’ is still a genuinely exciting step for the synthwave retro-inspired dark electronic musician, demonstrating a mastery of composition and atmosphere that should see him grow and flourish as an artist as the scene that spawns him fades into the past it idolises.
Words: Josh Gray
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