Let me just start this review off by saying that I have been a huge fan of Von Kaiser ever since their full length debut, Landline. The review I wrote for it had to have about 3,000 words trimmed off of it so that I wouldn’t look like a lunatic that was obsessed with their music (I am a lunatic that is obsessed with their music, but that is beside the point). I think the reason that I love this band so much is the fact that they kind of represent everything I enjoy about the synthwave genre. They’re brilliant songwriters, brilliant composers, brilliant arrangers, and brilliant instrumentalists. They combine all of these skills on their recordings, which are full of classic 80’s retro sounds re-imagined for the 21st century. Von Kaiser’s newest effort, a four song EP titled Glossy, goes in a slightly different direction than their previous releases. Glossy sounds fresh and exciting, but this new EP also comes with some signature Von Kaiser moves that were prominently featured on previous releases.
The titular first track of Glossy opens with chimes from a synth that would sound very much at home in a John Carpenter soundtrack. Reverb ladden vocals enter, singing longingly of the past. It’s a great build that eventually leads to the entrance of the bass and the drums, which sound distant and somewhat hidden underneath a low pass filter that is slowly lifted. A woman’s voice enters, her “oh’s oh’s” are sampled and pitch bent in a way that sounds very modern, even though the accompaniment has a distinctly retro feel to it. Von Kaiser is turning over a new leaf with this track, combining sounds that are both retro and modern, in order to create a tune that can fall comfortably within two genres simultaneously: Vocal synthwave and modern synthpop. Lush, shimmering synth pads appear and disappear while the chime-like arpeggio remains constant, along with the drums, which enter and exit from the low pass filter that initially introduced them. It’s a gorgeous ebb and flow that enhances the overall pulsating feel of the track. The lyrics tell the story of someone who is driving around, late at night, with lost memories and lost love, all of which have faded. The impressions of those lost memories and that lost love remain, much like an old faded photograph that was taken during the analog era of chemical photography.
The accompaniment reaches a climax in the chorus. The drums are not masked by a filter now, and their driving beat combined with pitched tom rolls give weight to the impassioned story that they accompany:
“When it’s all darkness and the streetlights When it’s all foggy in this moonlight, this moonlight, When I think about her almost every night I can’t stop, I can’t look away, from the Glossy.”
The metaphor of film as memories is used to great effect in “Glossy.” Of all the faded memories and faded photographs that the protaganist is pondering on his lonely drive there is one that sticks out the most. Or is there a double entendre here? Is glossy an adjective for what the main character sees after consuming the “6 pack of courage” that is mentioned in the song? Are his eyes glossed over? I suppose that that is open to the intrepretation of the listener. Eventually those photographs fade as well (the booze probably helps): “As time drags by/I can’t seem to remember why/I stopped seeing her in my mind.” This is brilliant songwriting that links the fleeting nature of love to the decay of physical media.
As previously stated in my review for Landline, what pushes Von Kaiser’s music to the next level isn’t just the fact that they are great songwriters. The members of Von Kaiser are also great instrumentalists. The synthesized xylophone and melodic guitar solo that enter (around 4:08 and 4:23 respectively) are very emblematic of Von Kaiser’s music. Their solos are well composed and they compliment the accompaniment perfectly. As I’ve said before, Von Kaiser doesn’t use solos just to show off their chops. They never shred for shred’s sake. Von Kaiser opts instead to create solos that compliment the music in terms of feel and style.
The solos lead to a crescendo that brings out the full emotional weight of the final chorus, which is so intense that it is repeated twice for added effect. Von Kaiser then drops some of the accompaniment to draw the track to a close with pitched toms, xylophone, and the chime-like synth arpeggio that introduced the track. It’s epic, like a gymnast flying through the air after the exemplary performance of a routine. They even stick the landing for a perfect score. “Glossy” is executed flawlessly from the first move to the dismount. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, long past the cutoff time for radio play, Von Kaiser is letting you know that they don’t stop with a composition until its underlying idea has been fully explored and brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
An instrumental track? What is going on here? Von Kaiser’s first release, Landline, had singing on every track (well, except for the instrumental version of that album, which they released later). The previous track on Glossy still had the classic sound of Von Kaiser, albeit with some modern elements of current, 21st century music production added to it, but by track two it’s abundantly clear that this band is not intent on putting out the same material with every release. They’re changing it up with this EP, and I’m not just talking about the lack of Shadowrun references.
Much like the previous track, “Billy” is introduced with an intense arpeggio that also feels very cinematic. A chorus heavy synth pad sounds out a chord twice before the bass enters. The arpeggio that introduced the track rises in volume, builds in intensity, and then the drums and main melody kick in. The bass gets buzzier, with more of a sawtooth feel to it, before introducing another melody, played on a synth that sounds like an electronic recreation of a pan flute. That is the recipe for this song: It builds and then reaches a breakdown with pitched toms and bass which, in turn, eventually lead to the introduction of another melody.
The overall feel of the track is laid back. It would make a great addition to a video game that has a chill-out level. The pan flute, of course, reminds me a bit of the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack. This is music specifically designed for riding a swordfish underwater while you collect bananas, if that makes sense, which it doesn’t. Hey, Game Developers, if you’re looking for cool music for your chill underwater level then look no further. Von Kaiser has the perfect soundtrack for collecting KONG letters.
The chill vibe continues, flowing into the introduction of “Mechanism.” Von Kaiser is, again, changing up their sound with a lot of pitched percussion on this EP. Sure, Landline employed a great deal of pitched toms. I mean, it was a synthwave record, so yeah. There were pitched toms. But xylophones? Glockenspiels? Von Kaiser is busting out a lot of pitched percussion synth sound design here. A stuttering synth pad accompanies a metallic glockenspiel-esque (FM?) synth. The track does not stay mellow for long when the bass enters. A tom roll hits and… Bam! Get down!
“Mechanism” is a great dance track. The buzziness of the bass comes together nicely with the drums, glockenspiel-esque synth, and that stuttering synth pad. It’s all so fantastically 80’s retro—a true synthwave track that is tapping into the source. The vocals enter and it’s now a woman’s voice singing the lead. This is followed up by a breakdown where male vocals kick in.
Does this next part explain the cover art? That astronaut encased in one of those classic synthwave neon triangles that we all know and love?
“What’s it like to fly? Just a tiny pill and I’m in the sky. I’m just a passenger in this life.”
Or is this song about mescaline? I have no idea. What I can say for certain is “Mechanism” has the greatest breakdown of the entire EP. The intro is recapitulated towards the end and the chill-out vibe happens all over again after the very energetic, dance-able portion of the song wraps up. That’s when we get one of Von Kaiser’s signature sexy sax solos (which were featured very prominently in Landline). I thought that maybe they had hung up using their patented Von Kaiser Sexy Sax Solo(TM) with this EP but no, they’re back with a vengeance! The Sexy Sax heightens the mellow-ness of the breakdown, but then the buzzy bass and kick drum come back in to keep things moving. I can already tell that this track is going to end in a fit of 80’s dance party fury. The glockenspiel comes back and the track fades with the climax of a long, sustained, sexy sax note. Wait, was I wrong? Is this the end of the tune?
Nope! TOM ROLL! *shouted in Officer Doakes’ voice* SURPRISE, MOTHERFUCKER! This party is BACK ON! AHHHHH YEAH! Best breakdown! This is such a cool track. I would love to see “Mechanism” performed live. It would be awesome to see a crowd of people dancing to this then stop dancing at that last breakdown, just waiting for that epic tom roll. Wait for it! Are they going to do it? Oh man, they’re not, this is the end of the song. Oh well… *clap clap clap*
TOM ROLL! SURPRISE, MOTHERFUCKER! The crowd goes crazy and resumes dancing. Take that, Harlem Shake! Von Kaiser makes your drop look like shit!
The 80’s dance party continues with “Pink Leotard.” The percussion in the beginning has some great retro drum machine sounds, complete with reverb heavy clave accents. The bass kicks in and I already know I’m in for a ride. A lightning fast synth arpeggio enters, muffled by an audio filter that slowly lifts. TOM ROLL! SURPRISE, MOTHERFUCKER! A woman’s lo-fi voice shouts “Let’s go girl!” I instantly lose it. It sounds like Von Kaiser sampled an 80’s workout VHS for this track. It’s as hilarious as it is brilliant.
The workout is going fast now, and my fat ass is having a hard time keeping up. A melody enters, played by a very cool, retro sounding synth. “Alright! Let’s coooooool down!” This is the best intro to a breakdown ever. It’s genius. Where were these samples taken from? 8 Minute Abs? Or did Von Kaiser make them? It doesn’t matter, it’s perfect. The melody enters again along with a sparkly synth pad. “Time to pick it up!” TOM ROLL! SURPRISE, MOTHERFUCKER! This workout is getting intense now! The previous arpeggio enters at warp speed along with the main melody of the track. I imagine Jane Fonda in a pink leotard kicking her workout into high gear.
“Pink Leotard” ends with the mother of all tom rolls and one final chord after that. If I ever get back into working out this is definitely going on my “destroy the gym” playlist. I’m going to get this onto a cassette tape so I can bring my walkman to the gym after squeezing my corpulent frame into the most Richard Simmons-esque outfit that I can find. Deal with it, gym. I’m enjoying my high energy synthwave workout, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
So there it is, all four tracks of Glossy, the new EP by Von Kaiser. These new tracks had some real surprises on them. For starters, two out of the four tracks were instrumental. As I mentioned in my previous review of Von Kaiser’s Landline, I think that the members of Von Kaiser are brilliant songwriters and brilliant musicians, so it comes as no surprise to me that both the instrumental tracks and the vocal tracks on this EP are bangers. Glossy only has four songs but there is a lot of variety on this EP in terms of the tempo and overall feel of the tracks. The arrangement, composition, singing, instrumental chops, everything on this EP is as flawless as their previous full length album. In short, it’s nothing less than I what I’ve come to expect from Von Kaiser at this point. I’m hoping that, with this new effort, some of the synthwave fans that typically eschew vocal synthwave will give Von Kaiser a listen. Sure, those weirdos can skip the vocal tracks. I think they’re missing out (seriously guys, give vocal synthwave a chance), but I also think that this Glossy has something for all fans of the synthwave genre.
You can listen to Glossy via the following online music services: