Rise of the Machines: Future Holotape’s “Dreaming of Connections”

About year ago I saw Future Holotape live for the first time. I had heard their recordings before on the Beyond Synth podcast, so I was excited about the prospect of seeing them live at Neon Retrofest. If you haven’t seen them live before then do yourself a favor and go catch their live act if you can. They put on one hell of a show.

The duo that makes up Future Holotape consists of Ernest Mancia Escobar, who handles the vocals and some of the accompaniment, and Julianne Alexis Chang, who is an absolute synth virtuoso. Catching them live means hearing them handle their demanding music flawlessly, with Ernest’s pitch perfect vocals and Chang’s shred-tastically fast keyboard solos.

After seeing their performance I picked up a cassette copy of one of their previous albums, Terra District 1, at Neon and instantly became a fan. That tape was stuck in my Walkman for weeks, accompanying me on long walks and errands as a constant companion.

Future Holotape’s sound perfectly captures the concept of retro futurism: They employ the synthesizer and drum machine sounds of the 1980’s and 1990’s to create dark, futuristic cyberpunk soundscapes. Their music still feels futuristic despite their use of these classic sounds.

The artwork on their newest effort, Dreaming of Connections, features an android (cyborg?) being assembled on the cover along with the caption “The question is not whether machines think, but whether they dream.” This caption, a curious mix of behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s quote “The question is not whether machines think but whether men do” and the title of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a preview to the human/machine existentialism that is explored throughout Dreaming of Connections.

A rising, ominous bass note and ambient noise kicks off the album and I am instantly transported to the world that Future Holotape lives in. A noisy, echoing percussion track simulates the rhythm of a heart full of fear and nervous anticipation. Filter swept white noise is used to great effect in “Reanimated,” sending chills down my spine along with a sense of impending doom. Am I about to be murdered by a replicant? A shaky, LFO modded, high pitched synth cries out in the darkness. I’m in the universe that Future Holotape has created, and it is dark, bleak, retro, and somehow futuristic all at the same time. Although the overall feel of this track is ambient the addition of percussion and arpeggios keep the music moving, making the track far less nebulous than it would otherwise be. In less than two minutes I get a sense of where this album is taking me, and I could not be more excited. A crack of thunder ends “Reanimated” along with a a rapid arpeggio on a synth that has had its resonance knob cranked just short of feedback. We’re here, sometime in the retro future, and there is no going back.

The arpeggio that ends “Reanimated” picks up steam, makes the jump to hyperdrive, and takes me right into “Prototype 0127.” Heavily distorted power chords kick in, as does a synth pad playing quick chord stabs. This track already rocks.

Then the synth solo hits.

Before I get into the rest of this track let me just get this out of the way, because it’s going to be a common theme on Dreaming of Connections:

Julie Chang can fucking play.

I’ve seen her live and holy shit is she a virtuoso of the keyboard. When I saw Future Holotape at Neon last Summer I got to witness first hand just how well she can play. Julie was shredding on one of the newer Korg analog synths (I forget which one, either the Monologue or the Minilogue), and she was just going to town on that tiny keyboard. In 2019 it’s not hard to write in a ton of notes on a midi piano roll at a fast tempo and get a bunch of quick notes. That’s why it was so surprising to see that Future Holotape can perform everything they do in the studio live on stage. I was not expecting it, and it absolutely blew me away.

The acrobatics and pitch bending of the synth solo in “Prototype 0127” is driven forward by a percussion track heavily laden with rapid runs of a clicky kick drum. Ernest’s distinctive vocals kick in, and the metal/industrial influence on the band becomes abundantly and instantaneously clear. Mancia’s voice has a really heavy Trent Reznor vibe to it that I enjoy immensely, and the dark subject matter of the lyrics is only enhanced by their delivery.

“A lost tone! Regenerate and push to overdrive!”

Right out of the gate Mancia is letting you know what Future Holotape is all about: Taking the classic synth sounds of yesteryear, re-imagining them, and then pushing them to their limit. The lyrics contain loads of dystopian imagery. They’re vague enough that you could assign your own meaning to them, but for me, personally, I think the song is about a rebellion against whatever futuristic, nightmarish, machine-driven world the protagonist is currently living in. It feels futuristic but it’s not hard to link it to the nightmarish, machine-driven world that we currently live in in 2019.

Instrumentally the music backs up Ernest’s vocals perfectly. The first chorus is accompanied by a theremin-esque synth lead that helps enhance the intensity of the song’s main hook. After the chorus wraps up the intro plays again and then… Bam! Another face melting solo. That’s pretty much this song’s form: Intro/Verse/Chorus/Face Melting Solo/Repeat All of That Stuff Again/End in a Fit of Cyberpunk Fury. I’m already loving this album and we have ten more tracks to go.

This tune is aptly named as it is most definitely killer driving music. This track (and this entire album, really) is highly recommended for any trip in a vehicle. A bouncy arpeggio opens “Killer Drive,” followed by a driving drum beat and sustained bass notes that occasionally contain a healthy amount of overdrive. Ernest’s voice is decidedly less angry than the previous track, opting more for a laid back, passionate delivery. Another one of Future Holotape’s patented Face Melting Solos precludes the catchy melody of the chorus (I will now be referring to all of Future Holotape’s Face Melting Solos as “FHFMS” for the sake of brevity). The bass picks up and becomes more lively in the outro, delivering its distorted rhythm as an accent to the kick drum. I don’t play the name game, but what genre of music would this tune fall under, other than synthwave? It has a little bit of everything: Distortion and FHFMS’s that are reminiscent of heavy metal, a pinch of industrial, a splash of EDM, there’s even a hint of pop with Ernest’s sultry, crooning voice singing over the heavy, down tempo accompaniment. This is pop you can bang your head to.

By track three the fog surrounding the mystery that is Dreaming of Connections is starting to clear. “A maniac that flipped the switch/Demented acts that brought me back to life.” My killer robot theory is holding water thus far. Also, if anything can be said about this band, it’s the fact that Future Holotape is the undisputed master of making robot massacre music sound very accessible.

The atmospheric sounds of windswept plains and the dragging of chains is interrupted by organs and another FHFMS. Ernest’s voice sounds distant as a square wave synth melody mirrors the melody in the vocals. The arpeggios disappear and reappear seamlessly amongst the heavy drum beat and tom rolls in “Scream to the Moon.” The chorus contains yet another piece of the puzzle that is this album: “And I’ll scream to the moon/echoes drive my direction/and I’ll long for you/old memory reflections.” This robot protagonist that has been reactivated has a motivation; it is searching for someone that it was connected to before it was deactivated. On that ominous note, just as the track started, the sound of wind, rain, and heavy machinery plays in the outro.

This track is a wonderful downtempo break from some of the more aggressive tracks on this album. The digital delay on the drums is accompanied by lush synth pads while another synth sounds out its submarine-like radar chirp. Mancia’s voice gets some well deserved rest for the duration of this instrumental track. A flute-like synth lead weaves its melody through the soft chords and the relaxed soundscape of “After Dark.” I close my eyes and imagine a futuristic city at night, in the rain, humming with the electric whir of traffic moving at a snail’s pace due to the sheer volume of vehicles on the road. This would be a perfect track for a nighttime scene in a game like Cyberpunk 2077, or maybe some of the bleaker, more introspective moments of Hotline Miami.

A dark synth drone and a pitch bent FHFMS introduces this track before the fast tempo of the drums enter, leaving the previous track in the dust as it speeds off with its pounding kick drum and arpeggiated 16th note bass line. The helicopter blade bass and syncopated chords form the perfect backdrop for Mancia’s vocals as a Blade Runner 2049-esque scenario is described in the lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, the prospect of hologram entertainment is exciting, but once those holograms start passing the Turing Test there might be a cost to it that is far more devastating than any monetary pricetag. Another flawless FHFMS brings “Outbreak” to a climax then, after reaching its soaring heights, it recedes, slowly fading away along with the rest of the track.

“STASIS~” starts off with an arpeggio that rapidly rises from the bass clef to the treble clef. This classic analog synth sound feels like it came straight out of the first track off of the 1977 album Spiral by Vangelis. The roots of Future Holotape run deep, being influenced not just by music from the 1980’s (as most synthwave tends to be), but they also seem to derive inspiration from the late 1970’s (at least with this track). A snare hits and another pitch bent FHFMS takes off. It’s very reminiscent of a synth solo by Jan Hammer, possibly from the days when he played on albums like Jeff Beck’s Wired, thus completing the late 70’s/early 80’s feel of the track. The soft delivery of the somewhat cryptic lyrics describes a crisis of existentialism, a protagonist torn by what it means to be a consciousness trapped inside of a body that is simultaneously blessed and cursed with free will. It’s a theme that is explored quite a bit in Dreaming of Connections, from the caption on the cover of the album to the songs themselves. Underneath all of the artistry of the accompaniment on this album there are some pithy statements made about what it means to be alive. The fact that a lot of the tracks on this album are thematically linked really gives Dreaming of Connections a sense of cohesion and purpose.

I love the intro to “J U S T_ M O V E”—the crackle of a needle hitting vinyl is quickly accompanied by an overdriven arpeggio that, again, has a very classic analog synth sound to it. The drums have a wonderful lo-fi synthetic crunch to them, especially the snare. Is there a FHFMS in this track? It’s Future Holotape, so yeah! Of course there is! The lyrics tell the story of someone in love, but in a way that is almost mechanical: “Every step you take/makes me melt inside/a flare of white shines from you/and I tell myself/Just move/Just move.” It almost sounds like a robot receiving instructions from its CPU when it sees the object of its programmed affection. A lot of artists write songs about love, but no one does it quite like Future Holotape. As stated previously, the exploration of consciousness is a constant theme on Dreaming of Connections, and this thematically linked material really pulls the album together to tell a story that is open to the interpretation of the listener.

At the start of this track there is the feeling that an alarm has been set off in “Recall,” only the alarm sound is brilliantly replicated by the buzzing of a synthesizer. Another pulsating, helicopter blade 16th note bass line enters, accompanied by a pounding kick drum and syncopated chords. The drum beat kicks into overdrive and more arpeggios are layered on top of the sequenced bass. White noise is used to great affect, creating the sound of rushing wind and further increasing the musical drama. Later on the melody takes over in the low register, which flows on top of an even lower register sine wave bass. More arpeggios enter in a crescendo that eventually gives way to another bass-driven melody. The melody of the track appears and disappears in both the upper register and the lower register. The intense and frantic nature of “Recall” is occasionally interrupted by breakdowns that make the frenzy of notes a lot easier to digest. A frenetic arpeggio plays out at the end of this track, bringing a resolution to the chaos by abruptly ending. Game developers take note: “Recall” would be the perfect accompaniment for a boss fight in a video game.

A very clear, concerted effort was placed into the track order of this album. That isn’t something you have to do in this day and age, especially when anything can be ordered a la carte as singles from Bandcamp, iTunes, and any streaming platform. It’s a nice touch that makes Dreaming of Connections a very well put together work of art. While the previous track was very hectic and note heavy, “c o n t i n u e…” is, by contrast, much more laid back. Like the previous track it still has a pulsating, 16th note bassline, but the BPM has dropped considerably, leaving ample space in between the snares on the second and fourth beats. “c o n t i n u e…” is another track that explores the crisis of existentialism from the mind of artificial intelligence. A faster paced, well constructed plucked lead does a good job of filling in the wide space in between the beats of this track, giving movement to the otherwise downtempo accompaniment. All of this space gives Mancia’s vocals room to ponder whether or not something made of non-organic wires and circuits can truly be alive.

This track kicks off with synthwave’s most familiar bassline rhythm: A 16th note rest followed by three 16th notes each beat. It’s become a bit of a cliché in recent years, but it is used well in this track, and it is not the main feature nor is it the only rhythm in the bass on “Night Shade.” A fantastic sequence with a high amount of resonance fleshes out the main melody at the beginning of the track, interrupted periodically by a a synth that sounds like an artificial recreation of a woodwind instrument. Is there a FHFMS in this track? You know there is! God I hope I get to see this band live again. Both Ernest and Julie are just as good live as they are on this album.

Dreaming of Connections ends with a bang! A wild, feverish arpeggio opens up this track, low in the mix, along with the sound of wind and rain. A storm is coming. A strange, vocoder-like sound enters. Is this a human voice? I can’t tell. I also can’t discern if what enters next is a guitar or a synth recreation of a guitar. There is a lot of crazy sound design on this track. Future Holotape is pulling out all the stops to give this album the sendoff that it deserves. A kick enters, followed by a flourish of percussion, and then “The Disruptor” kicks into high gear. The sequenced bassline is intense. There is something of a pitch shift relatively early on in the song. Are we in a new key? I don’t care. This is outrun at its finest—fast, intense car chase music that gets your blood pumping. The breakdown has another chord change that is decidedly non-diatonic. Not only can Future Holotape play their instruments well, but they can also compose to a high degree of proficiency. This is, bar none, my favorite instrumental track on Dreaming of Connections. Wait, is it instrumental? Bandcamp lists only one line in the lyrics: “I am the distruptor.” Is that what is being said during the vocoder riff in the beginning? Wow! I love it. This track is probably the best ending to a synthwave album that I have ever heard.

Another FHFMS comes fast and heavy. Future Holotape is going for it in this track, pushing both their physical skills and their compositional skills to the limit. Solo after solo is ripped and my jaw is on the floor. After a flurry of notes the track ends as it began, with the sound of pouring rain, and Dreaming of Connections draws to a close.

So there you have it: All twelve tracks of Dreaming of Connections broken down to the best of my ability and given the Retro Danger Zone treatment. My final verdict: This may be the best Future Holotape release to date. I’m going to have to listen to my previous favorite, Terra District 1, fifty more times in order to conclude that this is absolutely true, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Dreaming of Connections is a thematically cohesive album that blends together the best elements of instrumental synthwave and synthwave with vocals. I would say that this album would appeal most to synthwave fans that enjoy a heavier darkwave sound and, if you hate synthwave with vocals (why, though?), then you’re in luck because there are plenty of burning instrumental tracks on this album as well. As for me, I love this band and I love this record. Dreaming of Connections is easily one of the best synthwave albums of 2019, and I am more than thrilled to have it in my ever growing sythwave collection on Bandcamp.

In the immortal words of Levar Burton, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” You can listen to Dreaming of Connections via the following music outlets:

Bandcamp: https://futureholotape.bandcamp.com/album/dreaming-of-connections

iTunes: https://music.apple.com/lk/album/dreaming-of-connections/1472979555

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/0ACs2gZ7p2B0XmFJTr3deM

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/music/album?id=Bgcjtqblisubeptgu5msevk342a&tid=song-Tqagid6csjcit6noa773owvjjii&hl=en_US

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