Full disclosure: Last summer I got to hang out with the band that made the EP I am reviewing today.
Does that make me biased? I don’t think so, since I had heard Honey Beard’s music and enjoyed it long before I ever got to meet them in person. That being said, I partied with Honey Beard at Outland last summer. I had a blast at that concert, as I got to connect with a number of synthwave fans and artists that I have only conversed with via Twitter. It was well worth the trip from Boston to Toronto to see all of those people under one roof.
I won’t get into the details, as I have already written a long article about my experience at Outland in Toronto.
Instead, today I’ll be talking about Honey Beard’s newest EP that just dropped, Whispers of Light. This will be the second review I’ve done where someone was kind enough to send me an advance copy of their album for my review. Keep them coming! I want to hear your music.
I could go on an on about how Honey Beard is comprised of two cool, fun loving dudes from Toronto, Canada, or how one of them looks like the guy who plays Mad Sweeney in American Gods (that actor is also from Canada. COINCIDENCE?), but I think that I’ve already said my piece on that subject in my rambling review of Outland.
So, without further ado, I will be taking a listen to all of the tracks on Whispers of Light and breaking them down to the best of my ability:
I hit play and a kick hits, four on the floor, with a closed high hat on the offbeat. I’m getting strong dance vibes as it pounds. A dance party is about to break out, and I’m ready to get down. An airy arpeggio fades in. The kick cuts out at 15 seconds in, a high hat fill plays, and then the bass hits.
And what a bassline it is. There’s a nice rhythm to it that makes this track immediately dance-able. My head is bobbing to the beat in anticipation of what’s to come. The full drum set and vocals enter 35 seconds into the track and I’m into it now. I wish I didn’t have to focus on the nuances of this track, because this music is meant for dancing, not studying. I press on, regardless. I could totally get down to this track, though.
Ultimately, that’s what this track is for: Having a good time. Lyrically there’s not a lot to this song, and there doesn’t need to be. This is a dance track and, knowing that, I try to free myself from thinking about this record in terms of deep music theory or pithy lyrical statements. Could this album have those elements to it later on? I don’t care. Honey Beard is all about having a good time. As mentioned earlier, I associate Honey Beard with Outland, one of the greatest times of my life, and this track captures that good time feeling to a T.
A signature synthwave tom roll hits at 1:05 and in comes the chorus. “LIKE A FIIIIIIIIRRREEEEEE!!!” That one line is all you get for the chorus of this track. Like a fire? Like a fire! Did you need any more? Were you expecting any more? You don’t need any more. You need to get off your ass and cut a rug. Start a fire purely from the friction of your shoes scuffing the floor as you furiously dance to this tune.
A ghostly, ethereal lead and synth pad enter to accompany the chorus, which beckons the listener to dance like a fire. I kind of get a strong Haddaway “What is Love?” vibe from this track. That dance tune tore it up in the 90’s and was equally minimalistic in terms of its lyrical content. Sometimes less is more, as that track was a club hit that made it all the way to SNL and the movie “A Night at the Roxbury.”
In that way “Like a Fire” is an instant synthwave dance classic. A must-spin at any synthwave dance party.
Since this blog is dedicated to breaking down tracks play by play and talking about their nuances I will get into the lyrical content. I don’t think that that’s necessarily the intention of this track, but I’m going to get into it anyway, because that’s how this blog rolls:
“And I watch you from afar
From the deep cold beneath
And you light up the night like a star
Free form but out of reach”
I like the description here, as you can paint a number of scenarios onto it. We’ve all been there, at a club or a bar, watching someone who is impossibly hot take to the dance floor. Do you have the guts to go and dance with this person? What if they’re already with someone and you could, possibly, make an ass of yourself by asking them to dance with you? It’s a tough call, unless you’ve already imbibed enough liquid courage that your dignity is playing second fiddle to your desires. I think the protagonist in this song is playing it safe. Like the stars in the night sky you can’t visit them, you can only observe their beauty.
An interesting breakdown occurs at 1:55. A synth that sounds like an electronic version of a slide whistle rings out (I think the technical term for this is “riser,” but come on, it’s an electronic slide whistle), accompanied by some claps, and we’re left with the echo of the delay heavy arpeggio that played earlier. A mellow synth pad enters here, along with a sawtooth drone that buzzes in the background, like a cicada on a hot summer day.
The build up from the breakdown here is brilliant. Claps hold the beat steady in the swirling ethereal void created by the synth pads, then the words “like a fire” ring out in the void and the main hook of the song comes back with a vengeance. The bass is more furious now, playing a 16th note arpeggio underneath the 16th note, delay laden arpeggio that plays above it.
Toms hit around 3:34 and that slide whistle synth/riser comes back. This same riser plays again shortly afterwards, signalling the end of the track. Only the bass remains now, fading away to draw the track to a close.
“Like A Fire” lives up to its namesake in that it is pure synthwave dance track fire. It functions exactly as intended: It makes you want to get up and get down.
A continuous 16th note bass line hits at the beginning of “This Is Forever.” The sound design on this bass would easily be at home in a darkwave track. Reverb drenched vocals accompany the bass, creating an eerie atmosphere to this track.
Claps ring out around 23 seconds in, along with the line “This is Forever,” and then the full drum kit enters. It’s a dramatic effect that makes for a solid intro to this tune.
The rhythm in the bass at this point is, as I have pointed out in previous reviews, perhaps the most common rhythm in synthwave at this point—namely a 16th note rest followed by three 16th notes bassline. It’s a trope in synthwave that has seen some mileage, but given the fact that its not the only rhythm used in the bass on this track it gets a pass here. Besides, at this point this bassline rhythm just a thing that synthwave does. As I’ve said before, it’s like complaining that ska plays chords in the offbeat. Yeah, it’s ska. What did you expect?
This section after the intro features a classic sounding EDM synth stab lead that provides a counter melody to the vocals. Tom rolls queue the heartfelt vocals, which re-enter the mix around 34 seconds in. About a minute into the track a breakdown occurs. The drums cut out and we’re left with the pounding 16th note bassline, EDM lead, and the vocals. Again, like the intro, the line “this is forever” signals the end of the breakdown, only this time the line is accompanied by a whooshing, white noise synth that brings the full drum kit back into the mix. This dramatic effect works well in that it reintroduces a theme and it serves to give “This Is Forever” its own form and structure.
I love the sound design of the arpeggiated lead that plays around 1:23. It sounds like the synth that plays it has had its resonance knob cranked just short of feedback, with the LFO modding the filter. There’s a nasal chirp to it that just works so well here, as it is a sharp contrast to the synth stab sound of the EDM lead that played previously.
The whooshing, airy, white noise synth that was first introduced in the breakdown comes back to re-introduce the vocals as the high resonance synth keeps playing in the background. This section does not last for long as another breakdown occurs shortly after, and it plays out much in the same fashion as the first breakdown: The white noise synth is once again used to signal the entry of the full drum kit back into the mix.
Every time these breakdowns occur in this track Honey Beard introduces new sound design in the synth that plays the lead after the breakdown. It’s a nice touch that provides a decent amount of variation to “This Is Forever.” This time the lead that plays has this almost “music box” quality to it, as it chimes out its clicky, metallic, almost kalimba-esque melody.
The EDM synth stab returns and, along with the kalimba synth, it serves to bring “This Is Forever” to a climax. It gets busy here, with layer upon layer acting in concert, before it all abruptly ends at 3:35 and we’re left with the resonance heavy synth (that was introduced previously) and a shimmering, echoing synth that provides a counter melody. Both synths play out the track in a floaty, almost angelic fashion, adding gravitas to the outro.
An audio filter masks the puslating 8th note bass and synth arpeggio that introduce “Under the Ferris Wheel.” This audio filter is slowly lifted and then the TOMS HIT.
On this site I’ve already talked about how you know shit is going down in synthwave when the TOMS HIT. That’s just what happens when TOMS HIT. When TOMS HIT I instantly yell, “OH SHIT, SOMETHING’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN!”
The vocals enter the mix (I told you shit was about to happen) and a classic 80’s style synth chime carries a melody of its own along with the vocals.
The snare on beats two and four has a nice, punchy “GOOJ!” sound here, leading me believe that Honey Beard used a classic Simmons SDSV for the drum track. That’s a precise musical term, by the way. GOOJ. Every electronic musician worth their salt knows that GOOJ is the sound that a Simmons snare makes.
“Another Summer day, and we’re rolling
Chillin’ at the arcade, and we’re scoping”
Honey Beard is laying the 80’s vibes on thick here, and I am instantly reminded of the hot, humid summers of my youth where the arcade promised not only a good time, but also the sweet relief of air conditioning. The Dream Machine arcade near me at the time had AC and a four player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cabinet, and that was all I needed to beat the Summertime blues. During the summer the best my parents’ house could ever provide to beat the heat was an oscillating fan and the same Sega Master System games that I had already beaten a million times over. Going to the arcade really was a no-brainer, as I literally not figuratively chilled at the arcade.
Honey Beard is really channeling Corey Hart on this track. Never surrender! It’s a pitchier Corey Hart, as huge amounts of reverb are used well to mask any small defects in the singing. This is not off-putting, however, as I always appreciate a pitchy 80’s track. I mean, I listen to Joy Division, so obviously that sort of thing just isn’t a concern for me. It also proves that Honey Beard doesn’t really overdo it with pitch correction software (do they even use it at all?). This is a breath of fresh air in 2019 as music sounds more and more like it’s made by robots and not actual human beings.
Are there epic breakdowns? It’s Honey Beard! Of course there are! (If there’s one thing I can say about this EP it’s that all of the breakdowns are epic. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.) There’s a breakdown at 1:20 that accentuates the line “Nowhere to run.” Intense! There’s an even bigger breakdown at 2:03 that’s signaled by a change in rhythm in the bass. Even more intense! And what ends the silence of this epic breakdown and brings the track back in a fit of 80’s synthpop fury? That Simmons snare! GOOJ!
Lyrically speaking, this track brings all of the nostalgia as it is a tale of youth and unrequited love. I’ve been married for 12 years now but I still remember those days. Wait, do I have nostalgia for being young and in love and not being loved in return? Eh, maybe not. But I do miss the Dream Machine arcade quite a bit.
Also, as per the lyrical content of this song, I definitely drank booze under a Ferris wheel at some point in my high school career. I grew up in rural New Hampshire so that kind of behavior was mandatory at state fairs.
The last of the epic breakdowns of this track occurs at 2:40. The drums cut out and we’re left with that same pulsating 8th note bassline from the intro, along with an arpeggio and a soaring synth pad. A shaky, upper register synth with its wavy pitch modded by the LFO plays softly here. It’s a classic sound that really adds to this already classic sounding, retro-inspired track. This high pitched synth squeals out a few notes before the track ends, leaving me with silence and a lot of memories of how far I’ve come from the days when I thought drinking under an amusement park ride was the coolest thing anyone could possibly do. Nowadays, instead of booze under a Ferris wheel, I’m good with a cherry coke next to a Five Guys. Oh, to be a kid again.
Sub bass? What is happening? Did Honey Beard go full Darkwave and not tell anyone? There’s definitely a sub bass at the intro to “Cross My Heart,” along with an arpeggio that heightens the tension. A darkwave-esque synth melody enters around 18 seconds in and I’m wondering if Honey Beard has suddenly gone goth. Wind swept white noise cries out 30 seconds in, claps enter, and then the beat drops.
This drop is epic, as it ushers in a four on the floor beat with claps on two and four. The sub bass is still going here, as is the arpeggio, bringing a strong dance vibe to the otherwise dark and ominous atmosphere.
Even the lyrics are dark here:
“All the secrets in my life have come to terrorize
All my wrongs have come to right as they form a line”
We were talking about getting loaded under Ferris wheels as a kid in the previous track and now we’re singing about… Vampires? “Sun is arising and I lose my high…Can’t you see we do these things to stay alive…I will not die.”
I’m taking these lines out of context as they do not appear next to each other, but the lyrical content of this song definitely sounds like vampires to me. There are multiple meanings you could assign to these lyrics, as this song could also be about someone who feels that they have committed such heinous, grievous wrong in their life that there can be no redemption for them anymore. The lyrics in this track are open to the interpretation of the listener and that, for me at least, will always be the hallmark of great songwriting. I have to admit that I am a sucker for lyrics that can be interpreted in a number of ways. It’s a clever way to really personalize a song, as its meaning will be different to every person that listens to it.
The breakdowns in this track bring things to a halt, with only the sub bass and vocals ringing out in the void as drum fills enter and bring the full kit back in. Sure, there are breakdowns, but that is the only thing that links this track to the previous three tracks I have heard thus far. With that exception, this track charts territory that I had not heard previously on this EP. “Cross My Heart” is dark, heavy on infectious dance grooves, and it’s a nice change of pace from what I previously thought this album was: A nice synthwave pop record. I’m wrong, as “Cross My Heart” could easily be played in one of those underground vampire raves featured in the movie “Blade.”
A bubbly, xylophone-esque synth arpeggio and a bright, scintillating, swirling, swishing synth pad greet me in the intro to this track. Bass and drums kick in. The excitement builds until the drums go apeshit around 38 seconds in with the mother of all snare rolls. The vocals enter with cavernous reverb, making this track sound massive.
The cheeriness of the intro is deceptive because, when the vocals come onto the scene, I am hit with the lyrical content of this song. I’m pretty sure that “Full of Stars” is a song about a bad breakup. That intro was so happy, though! And now here we are, at the intersection of lonely and depressed, hearing the line “Please don’t leave me out here alone in the dark.”
A minute and forty one seconds in a breakdown hits. It hits so hard that it almost seems as if this breakdown is the end of the song. Layers are removed, leaving only a synthesized bell and a percussive, metallic sounding synth to play off of each other. An audio filter comes in around 1:56 and fades both instruments slightly. Is this the end? Oh well, short and sweet. Odd place to end this, really, since…
BAM! The audio filter is removed and the drums hit for an epic return to the massive, spacious sound heard earlier in the track. The singer croons, “Please don’t leave meeeeeeeeeeeee!!!” Eat shit, Taylor Swift! This is how you write a breakup song!
Everything is firing on all cylinders here at maximum intensity. All of the volume knobs are cranked to 11 until 3:23 when the track comes to an abrupt conclusion. The bottomless well reverb used on all of the instruments causes them to echo into the empty space at the end of this track. Much like the protagonist of this song’s significant other, “Full of Stars” just up and leaves us all alone.
So… My final thoughts on this record: Is Whispers of Light a deep record, full of lyrical complexity? Is it breaking new ground, taking synthwave to places it has never been before? Is it showing off any kind of virtuosity, either instrumentally or with the vocals?
At times, yes, but for the most part, no, and you’d be missing the point of this record if you focus on those aspects of Honey Beard’s music. Whispers of Light is a fun, passionate record made by two fun, passionate guys. You won’t hear remote modulations, synth shredding, or a four octave vocal range on this EP. That’s not what Honey Beard is all about. Honey Beard is here to party, have a good time, and sing their heart out. I want to hear this band live so badly. I’m bummed that I couldn’t see them on the stage with all of the other artists at Outland. I imagine that the same passion that Honey Beard put into this record also goes into their live show.
So, if you’re looking for vocal synthwave that hits hard, with maximum emotional intensity, has epic breakdowns, solid sound design, and is fun to dance to, then look no further. Honey Beard’s Whispers of Light delivers all of that and then some.
You can listen to Whispers of Light, along with Honey Beard’s other recordings, via their Bandcamp page: https://honeybeardband.bandcamp.com/