City Pop Revisited: Beckett’s “Tapeless”
I discovered Beckett’s album, Tapeless, in a series of tweets regarding the City Pop genre:
Ask and ye shall receive. I got a number of tweets in response, some of which contained albums by various producers, and some of which asked “What is City Pop?”
I’m not going to get into what City Pop is, as that is an article in and of itself. All of that information is easily obtainable on the Wikipedia entry dedicated to it so, if you’re curious about this loose genre of 1980’s (and late 1970’s) J-Pop, the information on it is out there.
As I’ve pointed out numerous times on this blog, there are certain musical ideas espoused during the 1980’s that have remained largely untapped by synthwave producers in the present day. It’s a shame since the 1980’s was a particularly fecund decade in regard to new musical ideas and compositional styles. No genre truly embodies this renaissance quite like City Pop, with its big arrangements and complex musical ideas that draw from a wide range of influences such as pop, jazz, rock, and electronic music.
There was one tweet that got to me, and I’m so glad that I followed up on it, because what I discovered later truly shook me to the core as a fan of the synthwave genre:
I clicked on the link Beckett sent me and was instantly blown away by one of the most unique synthwave albums that I have ever heard. Listening to Tapeless really lent credence to my original tweet, namely that perhaps a few synthwave producers should try taking a crack at City Pop, a sound that definitely deserves a revisit in the present day.
I hit play and I am instantly greeted with the sounds of traffic. It’s not hard to get what this track is going for, as it’s in the title. We’re off for a jaunty visit to Tokyo, and it could not feel more joyous. Syncopated chords ring out over a syncopated kick drum and an arpeggio that spans three octaves.
The bass hits and we’re in it now. The full drum kit kicks in and the first melody of the song appears. The sound design on this decidedly happy melody is reminiscent of the infamous “E. Piano” preset on the legendary Yamaha DX7 synth. This is it, the City Pop sound: A big arrangement with various instruments working in concert with one another. This is the intersection of pop and jazz coming together, played by the vintage synth sounds of the 1980’s.
As is a popular trope in synthwave, laser blast-y toms signal the next section of the song. This section features an equally happy melody played with a synth that just has a hint of a woodwind instrument in it. The melody is accompanied by a click-y square wave arpeggio that is used so well as an accent to the end of the main melody’s phrases. It’s a nice touch that adds an extra layer of joy to the already joyous melody. Syncopated snare fills further accent this section, giving it another layer of musical interest along with the bassline.
The bass on this track is just plain brilliant, both in its rhythm and note choices. Too often in synthwave the bass just plays the root note of the chord, serving as just a way to thicken the overall sound of the track. The bassline in “City” hops around, playing notes from the chords that aren’t just the root, in a way that adds to both the harmony and the rhythm of the track.
At this point, as a voracious consumer of synthwave, I’ve grown incredibly tired of static basslines that just do not change their rhythm at any point in the song. You can tell that Beckett took some time to carefully construct an interesting bassline for “City.” The bass moves along in concert with everything else, but it also has a rhythm that simultaneously accents the rhythm in the drums while adding its own interesting, syncopated rhythms to the track.
After the woodwind-esque solo the main piano melody comes back, giving form and structure to the track. However, this doesn’t last for long, as those same laser blast toms come back to signal the next big change. A new lead enters, played by another synth that has just a hint of woodwind to it. This section is where Project Beckett really shines, showing off his compositional skills with killer leads and non-diatonic harmony.
I’m going to go off on another aside here, but this track has forced me to do it. Sadly, non-diatonic harmony is also something that is not used in synthwave nearly often enough. However, while non-diatonic harmony might not be altogether common in synthwave, this sort of harmony is very much a staple of the ever inventive City Pop genre. Beckett employs this to great effect, using chords that go outside of the key to give the track more harmonic interest.
The piano from earlier in the track plays this section out with a lead of its own, and a breakdown occurs around the 2:42 mark, signaled by some dramatic, hard hitting piano chords. Crunchy drums play from behind some sort of audio filter and then… Bam! The main piano melody comes back.
I’ve said it before in my reviews and I’ll say it again: This is the hallmark of a great composer. I love exposition sections that take the listener to the moon and back, to the point where you forget about previous sections as you get lost in the music. Beckett seamlessly brings back the main melody after an exposition section that goes off to places that I didn’t expect. We’re here again? Wow! I had forgotten all about this melody because Beckett had taken me so far away from it.
Beckett is a master at recapitulating previous themes, and the end of this track is no exception. The sounds of the city (the same sounds of traffic in the intro) come back as the track fades and the drums stop. It’s the perfect ending to a brilliantly composed tune.
The intro to “Night” sounds like it would be at home as an introduction to any synthpop ballad. A chime-like, reverb laden synth plays in the beginning, and right off the bat I get the vibe that this track is going for. Sure, as with the previous track it’s in the title, but Beckett is just so good at conveying abstract concepts with instrumental sounds.
However, this intro is very deceptive, as it goes on for about half a minute until the drums and bass kick in. The effect is startling, as I was expecting the soft, dream-like atmosphere of the intro to continue. That’s not what happens, though, as the bass plays its pitch-bent runs in a manner reminiscent of the kind of synth bassline that you would hear in a Parliament Funkadelic tune. The bass has the dominant melody here, playing its blistering, syncopated lead while piano chords float above it.
The nighttime theme continues with a sexy sax solo right around the 53 second mark. Why do I associate the sound of a soft synths and saxophones with the night? What is it about these sounds that instantly make me think about nighttime in a city? I can’t quite put my finger on it but, once again, Beckett proves himself to be a master of conveying abstract concepts like the feeling of nighttime, or a stroll through a city, without saying any words at all.
At this point the main melody is carried by the saxophone, but the atmosphere that accompanies it shouldn’t be passed over by the listener. The piano chords, syncopated bassline, and xylophone-esque synth that accompany the sax really add to what this track is going for. There are some great chord changes here that make me suspect that Beckett has at least some background in jazz. I don’t know his origin story but I’m quite certain that, if he wanted to, Beckett could easily sit in with a jazz combo and take a solo over “Giant Steps” if he wanted to.
A piano solo enters around 2:07 that really reinforces this theory. Maybe this is what makes this track remind me of nighttime? It feels like I’m in some smoky jazz club late at night, at a point in time when laws permitted jazz clubs to be smoky.
This solo does not last for long, as right around the 2:25 mark a chord on the piano is struck that introduces the next section. The bass is still going nuts here, playing furiously over the same dramatically struck piano chords that marked the transition from the previous section. A synthesized, echoing woodblock sort of sound is used to great effect here. It adds accents to the drum track, along with claves, and it blends in very nicely with a synthesized xylophone arpeggio that occurs after it.
A syncopated drum fill hits, introducing the next sax solo, which opens with notes that go right along with the rhythm of the chord changes of the piano. The chord changes here are simply wonderful, as once again Beckett flexes his ability to go outside of the key, taking the listener to places that are unexpected, but not out of place, with the overall feel of the track. The synth chimes, along with the piano in this section, are used so well as accompaniment to the saxophone. These instruments don’t just provide chords for the sax to solo over, but rather they are just as interesting in their own right.
Come to think of it, no instrument on this track has a boring part. As a listener I’m torn between which instrument I want to focus my attention on. They’re all so well composed and rhythmically diverse. It’s one of the many reasons why Tapeless does so well as an album that I can listen to repeatedly: With every track there’s always something new to discover that I didn’t hear before, mostly because I got distracted by one of the other instruments. That’s the one tip I have for listening to Tapeless: Do not pass up listening closely to the accompaniment on this album, because it’s just as interesting as the leads, trust me.
Here we have another track that shows off Beckett’s ability to compose interesting chord changes, syncopated rhythms, and blistering leads to go along with it all. With Beckett’s understanding of music I’m quite sure that he could form the backbone of a solid progressive rock band if he wanted to. All of the elements of that genre are present on this album, it’s just delivered with a softer sound that’s more at home in the synthwave genre.
Unlike the previous tracks, “Sapphire” is a little less on the nose. Maybe this is the sound of this particular gemstone? If anyone could bring me the sound of sapphires, it would be Beckett.
That being said, there is a bit of a blue tinge to this mellow, downtempo track. Lead duties are, at first, carried by a synthesized flute lead. At around 1:35 the lead is taken over by a synth that sounds a bit brass-y, with just a hint of portamento. All of the leads are accompanied by the backdrop of a soft synth pad, which works in tandem with a chime-esque synth that hits slightly more forcefully in the mix. These accents are used particularly well in this section of the track, as it highlights chord changes and the rhythm of the drums at times.
I have to take a second to talk about the bassline here: It’s another one of Beckett’s signature bass lines. It’s syncopated, it doesn’t always play the root of the chord, and it adds a lot of rhythmic variation to the track, all while accenting various drum hits.
Again, if you only pay attention to the lead here then you’re not getting the whole picture. I’ve used the word “accent” about fifty times to far, but the truth is Beckett is really good at creating accents at just the right time. These accents generate a considerable amount of musical interest on top of the lead that they play over.
What signals the transition around 2:13? If you guessed toms then you’ve been paying attention. It’s a timeless trope in synthwave that isn’t going away any time soon. The percussion in this next section has this wonderful, large sounding hit that I can’t quite put my finger on. Is it a snare? A clap? A slap? This echoing hit, along with a tambourine, alternates the task of accenting (I know, there’s that word again) the second beat of the measure. It tethers the rest of the drums, which are heavily syncopated. You want offbeats? Beckett has offbeats for days. I particularly enjoyed the syncopated snare hits that play right along with the melody of the lead at 2:26. We’re not going with toms to signal the next section? Of course not. It’s Beckett. Expect the unexpected.
These snare hits bring the listener back to the main melody of the song, the one that was previously played by a synthesized flute. Once again Beckett has taken me so far outside of this theme in the exposition section that I had forgotten about it. We’re back! With this theme successfully recapitulated both the flute synth and a piano alternate playing the lead in the outro, which slowly fades as the track draws to a close.
I love the lo-fi intro to this track. It sounds like the intro to a transportation ad being played through less than ideal speakers. Is Nintendo making a sequel to Pilotwings for the Switch? If so, then this track has to be used for it. It’s mandatory.
After this brief intro the music hits, and it is unbelievably bright, uptempo, and upbeat. Our captain is speaking, letting us know our ETA. I’m already relaxing, my tray is down, and I’m sipping the drink on it.
The sound design on the melody here is fantastically retro. It’s chime-like, as we’ve heard previously, but these chimes play two octaves of the same note to thicken the melody. Again, and I can’t stress this enough with Beckett’s music, don’t just listen to the lead. The bass here is equally interesting, and it really adds so much to the upbeat feel of “Flight.”
Is this section followed by a pitch-bent lead and syncopated piano chords? Of course it is! That’s Beckett’s specialty.
There are so many great retro sounds on this track that it’s tough to keep track of them all. Punchy toms, analogue synths, FM synths, it’s all here in the mix. I’m flying in the air through a progressive synthwave citypop fever dream and I could not be happier about it.
The lead at about the 2:07 mark is just plain fantastic. It sounds a bit like a synthesized version of a shamisen and a piccolo playing an octave apart, but with portamento added to both of them. Layered sound design! This lead ends on a soaring note that fits the overall flight theme of the song perfectly.
Toms hit, signaling the next section. We’ve hit some turbulence. The sound of pouring rain and thunder surround the plane and the music takes an ominous turn. A square wave arpeggio plays off of a pulsating, syncopated 16th note bassline that signals danger ahead. My tray is up and the fasten seatbelt sign is on. Darkly portentous minor chords ring out. A square wave lead plays here over a low, sustained bass that adds to the feeling of danger. An arpeggio keeps the music moving, filling up space and giving an air of excitement to the danger.
A reverse cymbal hits around 3:14 to the backdrop of rain. The clouds have all cleared and it’s smooth sailing once again. This reverse cymbal is used again to signal the main theme coming back, the same theme that was introduced earlier after our message from the captain. A pitch bent lead plays out the track along with a delay heavy pluck. The sound of an airplane soaring through the sky ends “Flight,” and we’ve all landed safely thanks to Beckett’s skillful flight maneuvering.
Seriously, is this track in a flight sim video game? Because if it isn’t then that needs to be rectified immediately. The last time I boarded a plane was to go to Outland in Toronto, Canada. The next time I board a plane (probably to go to another synthwave festival, naturally) this track is going on a flight playlist. I got pumped at the idea of flying again merely by listening to this tune.
Also, I suddenly feel the urge to play Pilotwings again on the SNES and the Nintendo 64.
I’ve hopped off my plane to the Caribbean and I’m by the ocean at the beginning of “Breeze.” The sound of the waves and the wind greet me as a synthesized steel drum plays off in the distance. It comes closer as it fades in and syncopated chords play over it. A shaker and a bass drum add to the tropical island feel, but not too long after they are introduced a full drum kit and bass hit. This beach party is on.
The bass in this part is, as always with Beckett, rhythmically brilliant and harmonically adventurous. It also has a classic synth sound that is very reminiscent of the Korg Polysix, which is a sound that is very prevalent in synthwave.
A synthesized flute lead plays around 56 seconds in and, just like that, we have the main theme of the song.
This track is Caribbean music as interpreted by Jan Hammer. The syncopated bass is often in lock step with the kick drum, both of which add a lot of unexpected hits that add to the rhythmic interest of the track. As always with Beckett, this rhythmic ingenuity does not sound out of place, even though the rhythms of both instruments are so independent of the lead and the accompaniment that surrounds them.
The mix becomes so laid back that it’s time for a drink with an umbrella in it. There are soft synth pads, chimes, synthesized pan flutes, all playing in lock step with the funky, jazzy dynamics of the synthesized bass runs and the drum kit.
A cymbal introduces the next section and the sound design on the bass morphs into something that sounds more like a fretted bass. Another woodwind-esque synth lead plays against a backdrop of soft synth chords and chorus/reverb/delay infused synth chimes.
It gets busy, with a number of layers acting in concert, up until a breakdown where most of the instruments cut out around 2:52. The Korg Polysix-esque sound design in the bass comes back under a soft synth pad. More and more instruments slowly get introduced back into the mix before toms signal the end of the track, which brings back the shaker and the synthesized steel drum that were heard in the beginning. The sounds of the ocean come back as well, brilliantly tying the outro to the intro.
I can’t help but feel like this track is at least partly influenced by the video game Out Run. It’s not just the title, which makes me think of the track “Passing Breeze” from the Out Run soundtrack. Maybe it’s the tropical island sounds, which conjure up the first level of the game as you drive along a beach lined with palm trees. Or maybe it’s the fact that both tracks have leads that play over heavily syncopated chords. Or perhaps it’s the fact that both tracks have a heavily syncopated bass line that is in lock step with the bass drum. Whatever it is, I feel like Beckett is tapping into the true roots of synthwave on “Breeze.” “Out Run” has become a term that is synonymous with the genre, as some synthwave albums are also classified as “Outrun” in addition to being labelled synthwave. We seem to use this term no matter how far synthwave gets away from the actual soundtrack of the game Out Run. “Breeze,” however, is true Outrun. It’s jazzy, it’s upbeat, and it reminds me so much of both the game and its soundtrack.
I hear the sound of birds chirping in the distance. This doesn’t last for long before I’m hit with three instruments: Chorused synth bass, drums, and soft synth chords. Rise and shine! A dreamy sounding synth with reverb and delay carries the main melody in this part, playing over a snappy snare that sounds like it’s coming from an 808 drum machine. More instruments are added as two leads play a call and response, almost like two birds chirping at each other during the first light of dawn. It’s almost as if the two leads are having a conversation, as one asks questions and the other finishes each musical phrase with the answer.
Jazzy, syncopated chords build tension around 1:43. This theme is repeated to usher in the next section, which uses a synth to carry both the chords and the melody. There’s a call and response here as well, as other synths respond to the chord melody solo.
This second call and response section is ended abruptly by a drastically non-diatonic chord change at 2:40. What is going on? Did Beckett just pull off some sort of brilliant remote modulation? I don’t know how he does it. If Beckett is trying to convey the concept of dawn in this track, and the previous section was the call and response of birds at daybreak, then this section is me having my morning coffee.
The excitement builds, but returns to its previous mellow state, as more leads with varying sound design play off of each other. The main melody in the first call and response section is brought back, followed by the section of tension building chords that signaled a transition previously. These chords signal a transition here as well, only this time it’s the end of the track, which brings back the sounds of birds chirping in the distance.
That’s a constant theme on Tapeless: Intros that serve as outros. It really ties these tracks together and serves to give them form and cohesion no matter how busy, layered, and complex they get.
Signature Beckett syncopated chords kick off the last track of the album, followed by a guitar that makes an appearance to play the lead. Oh, come on! Beckett plays guitar, too? What can’t he do, musically? Does he ever suck at anything?
Is it a guitar, though? As I’ve heard in previous reviews, producers like Crockett are absolute masters of making a synth sound like a guitar. With technology being what it is in 2019 I can’t discern what’s real anymore. That being said, if this is fake guitar, I can’t tell because it has so much nuance to it. I hear slides and vibrato, making me really believe that human fingers and a fretboard are behind this sound.
There’s a synth that joins in with the guitar lead that has some fantastically funky sound design. It has kind of a wah/envelope filter sound that would totally work on a track by Stevie Wonder. The same goes for the funky bassline in this part as well. “Crush” is a burning dance track that you can get down to but, as with all things Beckett, it is musically brilliant as well.
There’s a breakdown about 36 seconds in that introduces some new instruments the way that Beckett introduces new instruments on this album: Syncopated chords.
I’ve used that phrase quite a bit now. Upon re-reading this article and editing it I found that phrase coming up over and over again, but there’s no way to go in-depth on these tracks and not use that phrase a million times. Beckett is a master of rhythm and, if you listen to the influences upon this album (J-Pop, City Pop, and, although he doesn’t claim it, I swear the soundtrack to Out Run is also in here), then you know that syncopated chords are very much a staple in the genres that inspired Tapeless. Downbeats be damned, this album just isn’t going to deliver chord changes the way that a lot of generic, run-of-the-mill synthwave delivers them.
After the guitar solo a mellow, synthesized vibraphone is featured prominently, backed up by funky palm muted guitar. This section is Lionel Hampton meets Prince and I love it. The overtones on the synth sound design are slightly detuned, adding extra color to the harmony of the chords. The previous wah/envelope filter synth comes back for a lead. There’s also a nice Moog-y sounding lead that joins in until the next section, where the track builds up in intensity from this laid back vibraphone funk.
The syncopated chords get pounded more furiously here, right around the 1:09 mark. I haven’t talked about it thus far, so I’d like to take a second here to applaud Beckett’s use of dynamics on this record. I have over 200 synthwave albums in my Bandcamp collection now. I’m a sucker for the sound, having grown up in the 1980’s and therefore possessing a deep nostalgia for the soundtrack of my youth. I’ve enjoyed the albums in my collection, but I lament the loss of dynamics in a lot of synthwave. Is it the heavy use of compression that kills the idea of loud and soft in much of modern music? I can’t point to any one culprit, since my knowledge of electronic music production is pretty sparse. That being said, it is a breath of fresh air to listen to Tapeless and hear dynamics being used to such great effect.
The energetic, slappy snare on beats two and four in this section further heighten the dynamics. Beckett is going for it, bringing out as many tricks as he can to pump vibrant sounds into this raucous section. The compositional and sound design genius being employed here creates an upbeat contrast to the previous laid back section.
At 1:27 we get another signature Beckett lead. Claps accent the offbeat, and the drum fills work in tandem with the hopping bassline, beckoning the listener to nod their head to the beat.
This exposition section doesn’t last too long as the guitar lead comes back, along with the wah pedal synth lead. The return of this theme is seamless, recapitulating the previous theme in a way that absolutely blindsides me. How did Beckett make this transition so smoothly?
This section leads right into a different section which features a lead that, working together with the chords, brings the melody to lofty heights. The chord changes here are, once again, decidedly non-diatonic, leading me to believe that Beckett has a PhD in composition and music theory. The bassline is less syncopated here, thumping along with the downbeat. These pulsating downbeats are brief, as the bass periodically chooses to accent the syncopated rhythm of the drum fills and chords. It creates a driving effect that is contrasted by the more laid back nature of the lead in this section.
The drum fill break down at 3:03 brings back the main theme of the song, which was introduced at the beginning of the track. A tom roll ushers in the last note of the guitar solo, as both “Crush” and Tapeless draw to a close.
Well, there you have it, my take on every track of Tapeless. Once again I’ve gotten so into the music I was listening to that I’ve decided to write a book about it. My apologies for being wordy here. At the same time, if I really wanted to go in depth on this album, I could have written a book on each track. This music is deep and complex, and it would require musical expertise far greater than my own to adequately dissect this record.
Tapeless is a ride through the multiple genres that influenced it. As I said in the introduction to this journey through the album, City Pop is a genre that deserves a revisit in synthwave. Much like City Pop, synthwave is a loose genre that encompasses a variety of sounds, only with the added caveat that these sounds have their roots firmly planted in the past. Sadly, as more producers throw their hat into the ring, I think more and more synthwave albums lose sight of these roots, being influenced more and more by other synthwave producers that are popular in the present day. In that way, a lot of synthwave being produced today becomes a copy of a copy, paying no homage to the sounds that inspired it, but rather paying homage to the sounds of the sounds that inspired it.
Beckett will have none of that nonsense. He’s too smart for it. For Tapeless Beckett tapped right into the source, and that’s why it’s as brilliant as it is original. There is no synthwave album in my Bandcamp collection that sounds like Tapeless. I think that, if synthwave is to survive as a genre, we need more of this kind unique thinking. The music of the 1980’s had so many sounds that are still vastly under-utilized by synthwave producers. I’ve had some producers tweet at me to say that they’ve left the synthwave genre because they find it too restrictive. In my opinion it’s only restrictive if you compose within the well-tread paths that people typically associate synthwave with. Yes, if you’re trying to sound like John Carpenter or Tangerine Dream or Depeche Mode that’s great, but just know that there are so many producers that have beaten you to the punch on those sounds. That doesn’t mean you can’t produce a solid album within those confines, but just be aware that you are daring to tread a path that is well worn from the people who came before you. Beckett chose the less tread path of City Pop for Tapeless, and by doing so he has breathed new life into the synthwave genre.
You can listen to Tapeless via the following media outlets:
Amazon Music: https://music.amazon.com/albums/B07S4DW589
Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/album/tapeless/1465077890