Synthwave With Substance: Von Kaiser’s “Ghosts of Miami”

Sophomore albums are tricky. In general, bands have a lot of time to write their first album. However, once they’ve acquired a fan base and maybe even a label after that initial release, the deadline on that next album isn’t so generous. The sophomore slump is real, as any fan of The Stone Roses can tell you.

There are plenty of bands that have managed to buck this trend. The first band that comes to my mind would have to be Tears for Fears, whose sophomore release, Songs from the Big Chair, was a stunning critical and financial success that endures to this day. A band’s second album doesn’t have to suck, and there are plenty of examples of bands that have managed to beat the curse of the second album.

Which brings me to the album that I’m going to talk about today, Von Kaiser’s second full-length release, Ghosts of Miami. The band, whose members include Dave Mouatt (vocals, synth, guitar), Kaylin Heydenburg (vocals, keys), and Jake Van Ravenswaay (keys, backup vocals), is coming off of the heels of their EP, Glossy, and a few singles. This is the full length follow-up to their first album, Landline, which absolutely floored me. My review for Landline can basically be boiled down to “This album reminded me of why I listen to synthwave.” Can they do it again? The answer is yes, they can and they did, because the following is a track-by-track breakdown of what I heard on Ghosts of Miami:

I hit play and right away I get two speedy synth arpeggios accompanied by bass, both hidden behind an audio filter of some sort. The rhythm of the bass is one I am immediately familiar with—the 16th note rest followed by three 16th notes bassline that is such a heavily used staple of synthwave. Notes ring out from a metallic (FM?) sounding synth chime as the intro builds. Around 30 seconds in the percussion enters, and the bass here has some brilliant accents that really liven the feel of the bassline up as toms hit around 42 seconds in.

Toms are typically the synthwave queue for something dramatic to happen, and indeed this tom roll signals the entry of a chill, laid back synthesized flute solo. As with all Von Kaiser solos the notes are well chosen, well placed, and carry with them copious amounts of expression. This relaxed flute solo winds its melody over the frantic synth arpeggios that are still playing, and the dynamic of a calm, emotion filled synth solo over these busy arpeggios is just plain brilliant. I’m already pumped about this album and the vocals haven’t even hit yet. Wait, is this an instrumental track?

Nope, Kaylin’s vocals hit around a minute and ten seconds in. She has a fantastic voice that is just as passionate and expressive on this track as it has ever been. Von Kaiser is back, and this is only the beginning.

The vocals reach a crescendo as the line “so I tried to run, run, run awaaaaaayyy… From the running man” hits. Intense! Also, wait… The running man? Are we talking about 1987’s The Running Man? OK, yes we are, because the song’s called Amber. Brilliant! Also, sorry Amber, but in that film you 100% do not end up run, run, running awaaaaaayyy from the Running Man. Instead you run, run, run awaaaaaayyy *with* the Running Man.

Did I just post a spoiler to a 33 year old film? You’ve had all the time in the world to watch it and no excuses, so no. No I didn’t. If I did then the problem isn’t me. You need to reexamine how you’ve been spending your all too brief time on planet earth.

Back to the song. After this line hits the synthesized flute comes back for a brief solo before Kaylin’s vocals return. Then Dave’s vocals hit and that’s when this whole song gets jettisoned into legendary, S tier synthwave status. There’s this whole Amber Mendez/Ben Richards dynamic between the two Von Kaiser vocalists that is just plain brilliant, as they’re singing their point of view from the two characters in The Running Man.

Who does this? Who writes an entire song from the point of view of two characters from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man, complete with a fantastically retro sound that is period specific to the time in which that film was made? Von Kaiser does, and that’s why I love them so damn much.

At 3:37 we get a signature Von Kaiser guitar solo. Again, it’s everything I’ve come to expect from their solos. It’s a twin lead so you get two explosively expressive guitars playing the right notes at the right time. It’s the Von Kaiser way. Patented Von Kaiser. The chill synthesized flute comes back at the end to play the track out and, as it fades, I’m excited for what the rest of this album has in store in store for me.

A mellow, relaxing synth strikes some chords right before synth bass and a fast, whooshing electronic sound effects hits. These instruments add movement to the music, and yet they don’t break up the overall laid back nature of the intro. A kick drum pounds the downbeat, getting louder as Dave Mouatt’s vocals enter.

Dave’s vocals are as passionate, emotionally charged, and as intense as ever. I especially love the chorus to this song:

“We are who we are

Can’t travel back to figure it out

But how great would it be

If we could go back to change anything”

I feel like this is a chorus that doubles as the mission statement of synthwave. No, we can’t go back, but we can take the good parts that we’ve experienced and carry them with us into the present. And why wouldn’t we want to try to revive the past right now? Present day 2020 is a mess.

This was the first single from Ghosts of Miami that got released to the public, and in re-listening to it for this review I got emotional. It’s so well written and executed, but it means just that much more to me right now that I’m in a tough situation, much like everyone else at the moment. The vocals are just gut wrenching, both in their lyrical content and their delivery. There’s also a killer synthesized guitar solo at 4:22. It’s a Von Kaiser solo, so of course it’s amazing, of course it fits the music perfectly, and of course it brings the entire track to the next level. That’s just what Von Kaiser does.

An infectious drumbeat kicks off “JOI.” I could be wrong but the snare on this kit sounds a lot like a Simmons SDS-V. It’s a sound that I’ve always loved, and it fits the music here perfectly. An absolutely badass retro sounding synth bass joins the fray before an interesting, distorted melody enters shortly afterwards, its notes delivered with a steady glissando before Kaylin’s vocals hit.

Kaylin is, again, a character from a movie. This time she’s Joi from Bladerunner 2049, Officer K’s holographic love interest:

“You chose my every move

What I say and what I do

My body is a slave

Suited to your every mood”

Yep, that’s how Wallace Corp designed her! Whereas Von Kaiser’s first album was heavily influenced by the Shadowrun RPG, Ghosts of Miami is taking you to the movies. And not just the films of yesteryear, but also films like Blade Runner 2049, which was released in 2017 but is the sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner. And what could be more synthwave than taking something from the 80’s and adding to it in the present day? There are layers here, people. Layers.

Back to the music. This track relates the story of Joi , delivered with maximum emotional impact via Kaylin’s incredible vocals. On top of having a great vocal performance this track also features an array of great synth arpeggios, funky palm muted guitar (I think it’s guitar? Sound design in 2020 is tricky), intense 16th note basslines, and dramatic synth melodies (or is that a guitar? Sound design in 2020 is tricky). The drums cut out at the end (save for an electronic clave-like effect that I can’t quite put my finger on, because sound design in 2020 is tricky). This absence of percussion lets the absolutely badass synth bass shine as Kaylin’s vocals echo off into the distance, drawing the track to a close.

A soft synth pad plays serene chords just before a high resonance synth arpeggio hits. This peaceful atmosphere does not last for long when a 16th note bassline joins in and then the percussion enters. I’m bobbing my head to the infectious beat as a synth pan flute solo enters. Pan flute solo! When does anyone get excited for a pan flute solo? When Von Kaiser does one, that’s when.

Mouatt’s vocals enter, as meticulously polished, pitch perfect, and emotionally charged as ever. The imagery Mouatt paints with his words is hands down some of the best songwriting that I have ever heard from him:

“The scent of night blossoms on the open air

all the memories that it conjures there

So sweet and unfair

The best and worst of all my time there.”

Wait, does this track contain another movie reference? Damn it, I haven’t seen 1998’s Sliding Doors, so I don’t know. When I hear the name “Gwyneth Paltrow” coupled with the genre “rom-com” my first instinct is to head for the hills, so please excuse my ignorance in advance. For all I know it’s a fantastic film, I just haven’t seen it.

Mouatt also sings the line “streets of rage” repeatedly in the chorus, so then I started thinking that this song might be about the 16 bit classic “Streets of Rage,” a game that I used to love to play on the Sega Genesis back in the 90’s. Again, I think I’m missing the mark here.

“When we used to fight

When you used to lie

When the conversation never died on the vine

When we moved away

Started new lives

And all these parallel worlds they collide”

OK, so we have references to fighting and parallel worlds, so… This tune is a Streets of Rage/Sliding Doors mashup? Listen, lyrically this song went over my head, and I think that’s proof enough that Von Kaiser’s songwriting has gotten sophisticated enough that a dummy like me has no chance of deciphering their songs. What I do know is that this song’s rhyme scheme, use of metaphor, imagery, and overall catchy-ness all comes together to form, quite possibly, the best songwriting that I have ever heard in a synthwave track, period. I’ll say it again: The songwriting on this record is just plain off the charts. If there’s one complaint I do have about synthwave with vocals it’s that, often times, the songwriting could stand to be a bit better. This is not the case with this record.

Regardless of what this song may be about, “Sliding Doors” is an absolutely stunning six minutes and fifteen seconds of audio. This track has a fantastically laid back and relaxed vibe, and it features some great dynamics. For example, the breakdown at 1:45, when a metallic, percussive synth arpeggio hits and the atmosphere of the accompaniment is muted, letting Mouatt’s vocals really stand out. Coming out of the breakdown at 2:13, with a signature tom roll signaling its end, the music picks up in intensity. This kind of attention to details like dynamics is what makes Von Kaiser’s music so compelling. And yet “Sliding Doors” never loses its overall laid back vibe, despite so many tension filled moments created by the imagery of the lyrics and the music itself. Ultimately this track was made for cruising off into the sunset. It’s intense and dramatic, but also strangely peaceful at the same time.

Another well crafted breakdown hits around 3:50 with a lush synth pad playing chords, building intensity with synth arpeggios and pounding bass, picking up in volume right before Mouatt’s vocals return to deliver the last chorus:

“Streets of Rage

with no consequence

in the neon light

so beautiful tonight”

A synth pan flute plays out this track in dramatic fashion and, as the track draws to a close, all I can think is “Did I just hear one of the most beautiful pieces of music that has ever been written, and it’s about a 90’s beat-em-up and/or a Gwyneth Paltrow movie?”

Man did Von Kaiser’s songwriting skills get better on this album, because I am dead certain that I am too dumb to figure out what is behind all of the dense imagery contained in this song. Back when they used to put Shadowrun RPG references in their tunes I got what they were laying down, but now that they have evolved into a lyrical force to be reckoned with I am having a decidedly harder time. I suppose that, in the end, it doesn’t matter, because this song still got stuck in my head all the same.

A shimmering synth pad accompanies a haunting, reverb drenched melody before a sawtooth, 16th note bass line hits in the intro to “Hypersleep.” The drums enter and this track immediately starts to sound massive. This big sound is tempered somewhat when Mouatt’s vocals hit, leaving space for his voice on the track. Mouatt trades vocal duties with Heydenburg, delivering yet another patented, intense Von Kaiser dual vocal performance.

There are so many great touches on this track. The breakdown at 1:50 is particularly interesting. A snare hits, riddled with delay, as whooshing white noise enters, builds, and guides the breakdown to the reintroduction of the percussion. A rapid, high pitched synth arpeggio hits as the bass hammers away many octaves underneath it. Mouatt shows off his flair for sustain on this part in the vocals, delivering notes with all the power his lungs can muster.

The kick comes back around 2:10 as the arpeggios pick up in intensity. Toms hit, and a brief piano melody plays. Every second of this track hits hard, with as much emotion as possible, as Mouatt and Heydenburg exchange vocal duties.

Around 4 minutes in another breakdown occurs after the chorus. This breakdown is also a nice touch, with all the instruments masked behind some sort of audio filter before it is lifted around 4:25. Three tom hits ring out and the chorus comes back “Freeeeeeeee! With noooooo caaaaares! We’re all alone…”

The outro to this track is great, too, with the audio filter coming back at 5:22, masking the full frequency range of all of the instruments. Shortly afterwards a single piano note is struck, signaling the end of the track.

As for the lyrical content of this song, come on. We’ve all seen the Alien(s) franchise (if you haven’t then there’s no way that you’re reading this right now). We all know what hypersleep is. That’s when your body gets put into stasis because it takes a long ass time to get anywhere in space. You don’t want to die of old age before you get to wherever it is you’re going. This song does a perfect job of capturing the expanse of space with its massive sound and heartfelt vocals. I imagine that, when you are in hypersleep on the way to investigate a mishap on an exoplanet colony, you’re FREEEEEEEEE! With NOOOOO caaaaaaaares!

At least you feel that way until you get out of the spaceship and run into a pod that opens up and launches a facehugger at you.

Shimmering ambiance and a flute-like synth arpeggio opens up “When We Were Young,” followed shortly afterward by rushing white noise, bass, and a rapid, high pitched synth arpeggio. Mouatt’s vocals enter, with no percussion accompanying him yet. There are choir vocals in the background, adding even more gravity to Mouatt’s powerful singing style.

This is another one of Von Kaiser’s signature nostalgic tracks—an ode to the innocence of youth that expresses a longing for simpler times. When the drums enter they sound distant, perhaps masked by an audio filter of some sort (listen, I’m not an expert on audio filters, I just know when they’re there, maybe), giving Mouatt’s voice ample room to shine through the accompaniment:

“If it only lasts for today

It lives on in my mind in every way

If it only lasts for tonight

I’ll make sure to hold on tight”

This is the refrain that Mouatt repeats amongst the waves of emotion in the accompaniment, all of which wash underneath his vocals like waves on a beach. In many ways this song marks something of a departure for Von Kaiser in that it is not particularly ornate and complex. This song does not feature any blistering saxophone, guitar solos, or searing dual vocal harmonies that boggle the mind. This is as minimalistic as Von Kaiser has ever gotten (at least to my ears), and the emotional effect of it is really breathtaking. The emphasis in this stripped down track is on the vocals and the idea of feeling like a kid again, and this concept comes through perfectly via Mouatt’s impassioned singing.

A little more than halfway through the album and we have arrived at the titular track of Ghosts of Miami. An eerie sounding synth strikes chords before a high resonance synth hits. The sound design on this high resonance synth is curious. It blinks in and out of existence, sounding as if it was pronouncing all of the vowels in the English alphabet. Shortly afterwards a fiery tom rolls signals the entrance of the bass and full drum kit.

The chord progression and simple melody that plays after this introduction is brilliant and instantly gets me pumped for what this song might have in store. A moment later Mouatt’s vocals enter:

“The mall has closed its doors

So long for good

‘For Sale’ sign on your childhood

The highschool looks different and so do I,

A rusted out Midwest lullaby as the years fly by.”

At this point in the album I think it’s safe to say that this record features the best songwriting that Von Kaiser has ever put out, and that’s saying something, because that bar was already set unusually high. Lyrically this song pretty much details why I listen to synthwave, namely the fact that, if you did grow up in the 80’s and 90’s, many of the beloved pastimes of our youth are (mostly) gone. The arcade? Gone. The record store? Gone. The VHS rental store? Dunzo. The mall? Dead or dying.

This song is essentially a lament for what used to be, and the protagonist of this tune is searching for the good times that were once had. “Ghosts of Miami” might as well be synthwave’s Mission Statement—its raison d’etre.

This track is ended by a return to the beginning, with the same chime-like synth chords and the blinking vowel synth (that’s a technical term that I just made up just now) that were featured in the intro. The line “Chasing the ghosts of Miami nights” echoes off into the distance, drawing the track to a close.

Yep, this song deserves an entire album to be named after it.

A percussive 8th note bassline and warm, lush synth tones open up “Parkway Tropics,” both shrouded in the fog of an audio filter. Shortly after the percussion enters the mix and a decidedly happy, major key chord melody plays.

This tune touches on some themes that hit pretty close to home for me. Seriously, whatever became of the first person I dated? Oof, she probably has 3 kids and a mortgage. Damn, I got old. I did meet her in the 80’s and we did bond over our shared love of Metallica. Shortly after we started dating she dumped me for Billy, her next door neighbor. Billy was a dude who impressed the local kids by his ability to smoke a cigarette and blow the smoke out of his ear. Yes, we were all underage, but the local Pizza Barn had a vending machine and, if you had the quarters and no one was looking (they often weren’t), you got a pack of whatever brand you wanted.

Suffice to say, dating Kelly sucked. Still, I wonder what happened to that girl.

I digress. This song features yet more amazing songwriting from Von Kaiser. There’s mention of the Challenger explosion, a moment that most definitely traumatized many a young child at the time, myself included. It was an event that was probably the most insane part of attending grade school, aside from maybe Darren Aho, a kid who had a penchant for placing thumb tacks on other kids’ seats with the point sticking up. At any rate, grade school was where I experienced my first love and my first love lost. The way this song ties all of this together really hit me like a ton of bricks.

“I can’t understand how much I care about the past.”

Von Kaiser is, once again, reminding me of why I listen to synthwave.

An infectious drum beat, car rattling bass, ambient chords, and a laid back melody open “Aquamarine,” along with a chorus/reverb/delay drenched guitar.

Everything sounds like it’s underwater. Are there vocals in this song? I think I hear Kaylin singing at 1:14 but, again, everything is underwater so I’m not entirely sure. This track is definitely very different from everything else on the album. It’s kind of like shoegaze meets synthwave by way of trance. Psychedelic synthwave? Is this a new genre?

Well, if you’re one of those weirdos that hates vocals in synthwave, then this track is for you. That makes you even more of a weirdo because there is some phenomenal songwriting on this record. Is Von Kaiser getting experimental all of a sudden? I like it, and it makes me wonder if there’s an experimental album or EP coming from them in the future. For now I’m good with them just dedicating one track to this idea on this record since, again, the songwriting on the rest of this record is the best that I’ve ever heard from Von Kaiser (and from most synthwave with vocals in it, to be honest). Still, this track functions as a great palette cleanser in between all of the powerful emotions that the rest of the tracks around it evoke.

I hit play and a truly badass bassline thumps away at a steady 16th note pulse. Sampled, chopped up, pitched vocals hit in the intro. This will most certainly piss off the “This isn’t 80’s enough!” contingent of synthwave “fans” that were most likely not even alive during the 80’s to witness how completely full of shit their concept of the 80’s is.

Hey, these vocals work, and I am pro-things working when it comes to music. Both Kaylin and Dave have proven via live performances that they have amazing voices, so they’re doing this for artistic reasons, not pitch correction, and it just plain works here. Yes, they also probably used a modern computer and not a 4-track cassette recorder to make this album. They also put their music on the internet instead of putting their music in a Columbia House mail order subscription service (12 albums for a penny! What a deal!). They also promote their music online instead of purchasing ads in the back of comic books next to the ad for fart powder, G.R.I.T. paper routes, and pamphlets promising an “unstoppable” martial arts technique. Enough with the “not 80’s enough” nonsense already, it’s really getting old.

Amongst a wash of ambient synths, badass bass, and percussion that features a perpetual 16th note high hat, Mouatt delivers yet another solid vocal performance:

“Abandoned satellites up above us

The search for life and the ones that live among us

Planet Earth and the larger giants that surround us

Constellations and all the lights of the galaxies

Does the shape the size of it all

Make you feel insignificant and small?”

Von Kaiser is going to space for this track, and they brought their massive songwriting talent with them. A breakdown occurs after this first verse. The percussion cuts out just as Heydenburg’s pitch bent vocals return, joined by an atmosphere comprised of a high pitched synth arpeggio, ambient synth pads, and the ever present bassline. This breakdown occurs several times throughout the song, all while Mouatt paints a picture of growing old in a colony on Mars, constantly surrounded by the vast beauty and never-ending expanse of space.

I feel like, at this point in the record, Von Kaiser is really challenging what it means to be a synthwave outfit in 2020. Both this track and the last one kind of say yes, you can have a retro sound and still be experimental, or write about whatever the hell you want to write about, or use modern technology to deliver whatever musical idea or concept you want. Will that piss off the “not 80’s enough!” crowd? Yes, and that can only be a good thing, because elitists always end up killing off whatever scene they decide to be involved with. Pissing them off now means they’ll leave before they have a chance to tear everything down. Good.

A high pass filter slowly lifts in the intro, revealing the low tones of the fantastically 80’s sounding synth bass that plays at the start of this track. After this high pass filter is lifted a truly sublime synth melody plays in the upper register, and it instantly evokes all of the happy nostalgia I feel when I’m listening to a solidly constructed synthwave track.

Mouatt’s vocals enter shortly after this intro, detailing a story of love lost, and the unexpected feeling of freedom that often comes out of the end of a relationship:

“I’m so excited I’m finally free

I’m terrified by the end of you and me

I’m so excited it’s the end of controversy

and love”

These lines are delivered over a backdrop of glorious retro synth sound design, with so many well crafted synth melodies and synth arpeggios coming in and out of the accompaniment. At 3:12 a clean tone guitar, steeped in reverb and delay, enters the mix to deliver a solo. This guitar solo is very emblematic of Von Kaiser’s use of the guitar. Can Von Kaiser be flashy and shred? Sure, but they’re more interested in playing the right note at the right time, and this solo does a good job of heightening the intensity of the music while simultaneously providing a nice interlude during the bridge. Wind swept white noise signals the end of the solo as Mouatt’s impassioned vocals return, making for the kind of intense musical moment that Von Kaiser is just so good at creating.

The outro on this track is also brilliant in that it’s kind of the reverse of the intro. The same melody from the intro comes back but, instead of a high pass filter slowly being lifted, a high pass filter is slowly added until three snare hits ring out and the track ends. It’s a well crafted ending to this emotion filled track.

I haven’t talked about track placement on this album yet but it was great to hear this track, which has an undeniably retro synth sound to it, after two tracks that definitely break the mold in regard to what a synthwave track is expected to sound like. On this record we can hear Von Kaiser simultaneously branching out and returning to their roots.

The intro to this track is pure ambient audio bliss. A distorted synth melody cuts through the thick atmosphere that surrounds it, created by a massive sounding ambient synth pad. Bass kicks in shortly afterwards, masked by an audio filter. Laser blast toms hit, the audio filter lifts, and then a truly joyful melody played by a chime-like synth appears in the upper register. The percussion here is particularly brilliant, as drum fills played by toms and high pitched metallic percussion (cowbells, I think?) occasionally punctuate the end of the measure.

Judging from the title you would think that this is another “Von Kaiser goes to the movies” track like “Amber” or “JOI.” A closer examination of the lyrics, however, suggests a different meaning. There’s mention of Summer Break, spending money that isn’t yours, getting lost in a book somewhere in Hollywood, and paying back loans. So yeah, I’m going to go out on a limb here. Considering that there is no mention of eyepatches, Snake Plissken, or a totalitarian regime that banishes people to L.A., I’m going to say that this song is not about the 1996 film Escape from L.A.

Instead, I’m going to say that this track is probably about being a student and/or trying to make it in L.A.:

“A bitter end to all the dreams I’ve had

But worst of all they weren’t mine

Where all my friends became the industry

We all used to lie”

Again, this is the best songwriting I’ve heard from Von Kaiser, and all of these words are painted on top of brilliantly written and executed accompaniment. There’s a synth sound I particularly like in this tune that clicks away at a steady 16th note pace, its sound design most likely the result of a digital effect such as a phaser. This synth really comes to the forefront in the outro at 4:16, as an ambient synth pad creates a ghostly atmosphere and a low, sawtoothed synth hits bass notes. Mouatt’s vocals play out the track, as the line “Escape from L.A.” echoes off into the distance.

“Escape from L.A.” is a gorgeous track that hits somewhat close to home for me as I once spent a week in L.A. When I was out there at least four or five different people asked me what my zodialogical sign was. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun, and the people I met there were nice, but the fact that I was being asked about astrology as if it was grounded in irrefutable scientific fact kind of let me know that I wouldn’t fit in there if I chose to stay.

This track opens with a delay heavy synth, a kick, and then boom! We are off to uptempo land, as this track is probably the fastest tune on this record. Guitars, claps, and ethereal synth chords ring out in the hectic atmosphere of the intro, all of which subsides a little when the vocals hit for the first verse.

“When kids were dreaming of being stars

and riding around on the handlebars

Hoverboards and these virtual arcades

Misery loves this company”

Are we still ragging on L.A.? Hill Valley? No, wait, it can’t be Hill Valley. Von Kaiser is probably referring to the sad product that calls itself a hoverboard but 1.) Does not hover 2.) Has wheels on it 3.) Has a habit of spontaneously exploding with no warning.

I struggled to ascertain the meaning of “Misery City Skyline.” The song makes allusions to being stuck in a city full of technology, hover trains, and electric cars. I can’t help but think that this might be a reference to a science fiction movie I haven’t seen, but ultimately I need to just give up and say that this song probably went over my head.

What I can say is that this song makes a particularly nice bookend to an overall laid back album. The breakdowns on this song are particularly dramatic. This tune features some some cool retro sounding bass and a synth bell, both of which are used to great effect, and the chorus is catchy regardless of the fact that I didn’t fully understand the lyrics.

At the end of this tune the drums cut out and the delay heavy synth that introduced this track returns to play out both this track and this album.

So here it is, the part where I sum up all of my thoughts on this record. To be honest, this is the toughest review I’ve ever written. Landline, Von Kaiser’s first release, was an album full of fun songs, sexy sax solos, badass guitar work, passionate, pitch-perfect vocal performances, and clever Shadowrun references. I can review that, no problem. All of that is my bread and butter.

Glossy was the follow-up EP that Von Kaiser wrote and it was them basically saying, “Oh, you don’t like vocals in synthwave? We can put out instrumental tracks. That’s not a problem. We make it look easy.” An instrumental EP? I have a degree in music and I write/perform/listen to instrumental music all the time. I can review that, piece of cake.

Ghosts of Miami is a return to Von Kaiser’s roots in vocal synthwave, but with songwriting on a level that is unlike any songwriting that I have ever heard on a synthwave record. Von Kaiser still has a somewhat playful (for lack of a better word) element to their music, only this time they ditched the Shadowrun references for tracks like “Amber” and “JOI,” both of which focus on telling a story from the perspective of a character in a movie. That’s their playful side, but then there are tracks like “When We Were Young” and “Wavelengths”—deep, intense, emotionally heart-wrenching tunes that really had me looking into the lyrics more than the accompaniment. This almost never happens in the reviews I write, given my musical training and how my brain works when I listen to music.

Also, let’s face it, synthwave doesn’t always have the deepest of lyrics. What would happen if it did? This record, that’s what. I would very much like this brand of substantive synthwave to become a trend. Synthwave outfits shouldn’t be limited to only singing about DeLoreans and palm trees, and if vocal synthwave is going to endure as a genre then people are going to have to start thinking outside of the box. If that doesn’t happen soon then every fan of the genre will have to bear witness as synthwave slowly drones itself to death with the same old, tired cliches.

The fact that Von Kaiser is now on this deep of a level songwriting-wise shows how much they have matured as artists. Their songs have never sounded catchier, their choruses have never been more memorable, and their lyrics have never been this well written. I don’t know how they did it, but Von Kaiser managed to top Landline, an album I regard as one of the greatest synthwave albums of all time. On top of the brilliant songwriting Von Kaiser even threw in the top notch accompaniment that every fan of their’s has come to expect from them. Combine the two and you end up with one of the greatest synthwave records ever released, which is a feat that Von Kaiser has accomplished twice now.

Ghosts of Miami marks yet another new direction that the band has decided to go in, and I’m excited for whatever they will be releasing in the future. Whatever they decide to do with their next release I know that it will be meticulously polished, brilliantly planned and executed, passionately delivered, and it will most likely mark a new direction for the band artistically.

Do yourself a favor and go grab a copy of this album: https://vonkaiser.bandcamp.com/album/ghosts-of-miami

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