One of the most tragic aspects of music is that it’s very rare for a band to grow musically, and for their listeners follow them. Take Metallica for instance, as soon as they made The Black Album they were immediately labeled as sellouts for playing outside of the genre they were known for–thrash metal. Yes, they got a new audience, but their old audience felt betrayed which is an entirely unfair to Metallica.
Think of it this way, how often do you only listen to ONE music genre? Unless you’re that one guy from 4chan, everybody, even the most musically illiterate person likes music from a variety of genres. How many genres do you think a person who makes music listens to? Quite a bit. So when an artist grows musically, expresses themselves outside of genre convention, it’s far more exciting than if they were to stay pure within their musical genre.
So with that Elay Arson’s Pale Summer is a breath of fresh air, in a genre that is in desperate need of variety. The first thing that you should notice is the musicianship at work here. Before I mentioned previously, how amazed I was at their cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant song. How it made a hard hitting synth remake of an iconic Hard Rock song. They did that by really embracing all the synthwave tropes; thus making the old, new. Which is something that can work incredibly well; Hip Hop, vaporwave, plunderphonics, and lo-fi hip hop are all genres that are incredibly adept at improving upon originals. When listening to Elay Arson’s last album Borrowed Memories you get a glimpse into their musicianship, but only through a synthwave lens. It’s in this album where they show off how truly gifted they are.
Take the opening track Pale Summer, which starts with this beautiful, moody, intricate grand piano. A note on a piano can wildly differ in tone, than say a note on an organ. Besides the immediate texture differences between each sound, there is a strew of imagery between each sound. A note on a piano can be heard as something being played at an upscale bar, by a moody composer, at a classical concert, etc. While a note on an organ, can be that of an organ being played at a church, at a ball game, at a supervillain’s mansion. And with each image, comes an emotion associated with it. An organ being played at a supervillian’s mansion can provide feelings of dread, terror, menace, etc. While an organ being played at a ball game can provide feelings of joy, nostalgia, leisure, etc.
So the question now is how does Pale Summer use the textures, associated imagery, and the emotions that come from playing a piano that a normal synth cannot provide? Well the first thing I’d say is that one it sets the stage of what the listener can expect from the rest of the song. Because a piano which is so ingrained into our cultural memory as an instrument to show both virtuosity, and emotional expression. That’s mainly because of it’s association with classical music, but also because it’s a no frills kind of instrument. It’s not like a guitar, or synth that can be bent, modulated, or distorted to achieve the effect it wants to have on it’s listener. It needs to have structure, build ups, and a degree of musicianship in order for it to truly work for a track. So because of it’s association with, let’s say someone like Beethoven, the brilliant composer that dazzled our ears with music filled with so much drama and emotion–all made more tragic by the fact that he was deaf. It’s that kind of unconscious association that adds this degree of tumultuous drama which ebbs and flows throughout the track. Even with the heavy metal guitars and drums, airy synths, and guitar solos–the song itself never loses the momentum that the piano provides, for this drama to unfold. So now we’re no longer talking about a metal synth band we’re talking about musicianship, composition, drama, etc. We’ve ascended talking about genre and now we’re talking about music.
So when Oil Spill returns to form, we still have the same kind of structure that Pale Summer where instead of a piano being the launching pad for the rest of the music to explore from–we have a distorted guitar. And this distorted guitar is pitch perfect. It’s dirty, distorted, and when it needs to shred it does so perfectly. Even the synths have a layer of griminess that just adds to the overall aesthetic of the song. This song coupled with the one that preceded it, just further cements Elay Arson from most metal synth musicians. Yeah it’s easy to make an 80’s sounding song, all you have to do it plug in a chord progression into a DAW. Yet to know when to allow other instruments to take center stage, or to know what kind of aesthetic that they should have, takes musicianship. I have written about this so many times, but it needs repeating; that if you include a guitar in a metal synth track, PAY ATTENTION TO THE GUITAR! Too often people just use the most bland guitar tones, and the reason bands like Elay Arson do so well in metal synth, is because they understand the guitar. It’s a versatile instrument, and unlike a piano there are millions of possibilities, whether it’s the pedals chosen, bends, arpeggios, harmonics, muted strings, whatever; it’s an instrument that’s is very capable of expressing many different moods, genres, and textures. Which Elay Arson does with great virtuosity, and why this track, and the one preceding it works so well together.
As I mentioned earlier, that this album kind of shows how Elay Arson is growing as musicians. Yes it’s metal synth, but it’s not pure metal synth. Which with everybody creating curated synthwave/synthmetal playlists on spotify, I truly hope that people don’t pass on this album for it’s willingness to explore different sounds. After all the best music made after punk rock, was when all the musicians learned how to actually play their instruments. If it wasn’t for musicians exploring their boundaries, Joy Division would have been just another no name punk band, in a sea of no name punk bands. So with this album, I hope that people into metal synth will check it out. Not just because it’s metal synth, but because it’s great music. And at the end of the day, don’t we all just want to listen to good music?
And with that I give Elay Arson, for their musicianship, and ability to push the envelope of their sound, my full recc.