The Promise of Synthwave: Von Kaiser’s “Landline”

The first time I heard Von Kaiser I was doing menial chores around the apartment. Since that shit is tedious but necessary I often listen to podcasts in an effort to multitask. Of all the podcasts I listen to Beyond Synth is my go-to podcast for all drudgery. The host, Andy Last, never ceases to entertain, and in the process of listening to him I get to keep up with what’s new in the world of synthwave. There is literally no better way to add joy to a joyless task.

Around two minutes and forty seconds into episode 193 of Beyond Synth Andy Last introduced a song by a synthwave group called Von Kaiser titled “Jetpacks.” This track had not been officially released yet. Andy knew he was beating Neon Fawkes (the host of another synthwave podcast called Nightride FM) to the punch with a debut of this track on his show. To be fair Julian (aka Neon Fawkes) was raving about the band on Twitter long before most people were, but Andy had gotten the podcast drop on him. Beyond Synth would become the first of all the synthwave podcasts (that I know of?) to play “Jetpacks.” Andy reveled in that fact, laughing and shouting “FUCK YOU JULIAN!” before playing the track.

So there I was, cleaning up, making an attempt to organize my life when I heard chimes, a woman singing “oohhh ooohhh ohhh oooohh,” a ripping, melodic guitar solo, and then the first verse hit. I stopped what I was doing.

For the next five minutes or so that the track played I was unable to do anything. The music had hit me and the full weight of the lyrics made it impossible to get anything done. I had forgotten about tidying up. I had forgotten about everything, really. All that existed in that moment was me and that track.

I rewound the podcast on my phone to listen to the track again. Was it as good as I thought it was or did I just get caught up in the moment? It’s good, that much I knew, but was it more than that? I listened to it again and yes, it was as good as I thought it was. In fact, it wasn’t just good, it was something else. Something next level. An instant classic that can be placed in the upper echelon of synthwave with vocals, right up there with artists such as The Bad Dreamers, N I N A, The Midnight, Mecha Maiko, Dana Jean Phoenix, Megan McDuffee… All of my musical heroes in the world of synthwave pop.

I took to twitter to express how I was feeling in that moment:

I am an eloquent yet subtle tweeter.

Julian took to twitter to mention that I was late to the party:

I responded:

All I had to go on at that time was that one track, but the full length album was coming out soon and I could not wait. The second it dropped on Bandcamp I was on it. It was past midnight but that did not stop me from listening to it in its entirety the second I got it. Did I have to work the following morning at 9 AM? Yes, but that wasn’t going to stop me. It was worth losing sleep over because this is what I heard after downloading Von Kaiser’s Landline:

Right out of the gate Landline opens up with some classic synthwave tropes: Pitched toms and a burning guitar solo. There is some serious guitar shredding on this album. It’s not just mindless, self indulgent “look how fast I can play!” shredding, either. Every one of the guitar solos on this album has a melody and a purpose. The guitar parts are well written and fit their respective songs perfectly. The retro synth sounds and claps in the drums of this track heightened my anticipation. This album was off to a great start.

At first I had a hard time figuring out what “Armitage” was about until the following lines were sung:

“Malicious virus meant to wipe us out, we don’t even know about.
Simulations run on hard drives have prepared us to save lives.
Future generations will thank us, or we’ll die trying. ”

That’s when I figured it out: This track is the first of several tracks on Landline that reference the Shadowrun RPG. Armitage is the last name of Jake Armitage, the infamous Shadowrunner (the Shadowrun equivalent of an adventurer in Dungeons and Dragons). I got into the Shadowrun RPG in the early 90’s as it hit on a number of nerdy interests that I had then (and now, really. Nothing has changed). The RPG (and series of video games dating as far back as the Sega Genesis and as recently as Steam) effortlessly blends science fiction and fantasy into a single universe, with magic users and computer hackers (called “deckers”) all thrown into the mix. The virus being referred to here is (I think?) the Crash Virus of 2029, a virus that wipes out The Matrix (aka The Internet, for all intents and purposes. And yes, Shadowrun predates both the Internet and the movie The Matrix. Pretty ahead of its time if you ask me). Right off the bat this album appeals to my interests, and it only gets better from here on out.

As mentioned previously this is the first track I ever heard from Von Kaiser. Listening to it for the third time gave me goose bumps all over again. As detailed earlier it has the perfect intro: Retro sounding synth chimes and poppy “oh oh ooohhh oooohhhh’s” preclude another one of Von Kaiser’s signature melodic guitar solos. It’s not just the accompaniment that hits me with this tune, the vocals are pithy and relevant to where I am right now in my life:

“With corded phones and tape machines, you could do anything, if you just believed”

Sometime in the early 90’s I saved up for an entire summer mowing lawns and doing anything I could, including launching clay pigeons for dudes to shoot down with shotguns at a sporting club, to muster up $400 for a Fostex four track so I could record myself. It had no digital effects, no reverb or delay, nothing, and everything I ever recorded with it sounded like it was behind a pillow. I loved that tape machine to death and felt that I could make an album with it that would one day take the world by storm.

“We Grew up with posters on our walls, the Pepsi generation, thought we’d seen it all.
Brightly lit future with flying cars and we’d all be super stars.
Energy is endlessly, entertaining us violently.
Commercials play on TV, and nothing was ever free.”

These days you can get a copy of Garageband on your iPhone for free and it comes with every digital effect you can imagine. The combined total of those digital effects would have cost thousands of dollars in 1992. This song was a punch in the gut for me as it hit close to home. It highlights the great digital divide in my life between my analog childhood, when physical media trickled down to me via record stores and Blockbuster Video, and my digital adulthood, where everything is available at the touch of a button.

In the Shadowrun universe the “Black Rain” is a gang of orks based in Seattle. While the track “Black Rain” does not contain any references to post apocalyptic street gangs comprised of orcs that came into being in 2011 after magic returned to the world (more songs should, really, few artists are dealing with this issue), the track does describe a scene that could easily take place in a campaign set in the Shadowrun universe:

“Killing time at the tech noir,
meeting our contact, we’ve come so far,
data drive, exchange goes fast,
got what we came for, the time won’t last.”

In the Shadowrun universe information is as good, if not better, than money, so if you can get your Decker past Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics in The Matrix before Street Samurais get to him you got something to sell down at the Tech Noir. Seriously, if none of these terms mean anything to you you’ve got to get in on the Shadowrun RPG sourcebook. It’s amazing.

The titular track of Landline plays out much like a scene from a movie. Vocal duties are exchanged between a man and a woman in “Landline” to tell the story of the song—a conversation of sorts that does take place in part over a pay phone. This song is a classic story of love long distance, complete with a sax solo that heightens the sexual tension of the situation. The combined harmony in the second line of the chorus “Speeding to get there on time/The soft feel of your skin on mine” is absolutely brilliant and it really emphasizes the strong emotion of desire felt in this track. If Landline was a movie then this track is the scene that earns the film an R rating from the MPAA.

I feel like I’m tiptoeing around what this song is about, and I’m not doing a good job. These two people want to fuck. There, I said it.

A pounding bass line and classic sounding synth arpeggio with digital delay introduces this track. Much like “Jetpacks,” “Flashbacks” conveys the same sense of nostalgia and longing for one’s youth with the line “Now we’re all grown up and know about everything/the magic’s all gone with the video arcade.” This is another line that hits close to home for me.

Yes, I’m about to launch into yet another personal story.

Fuck you, it’s my blog.

Every year I celebrate my birthday just as I have since I was eleven years old—at an arcade (yes, I know. I am a pitiable man-child). The locale I used to celebrate at was The Dream Machine, a chain of arcades that used to dot the landscape of the northeastern region of the United States when I was a kid. Supposedly there is one left in Hull, Massachussetts, but for the most part they are all gone. I still go to the Funspot for my birthday every year to try and rekindle the good times I had in my youth, popping quarters into machines in an attempt to get the highest score possible.

“Flashbacks” is just one of many tracks on this album that seems to be custom designed for my specific tastes and interests. It’s uncanny. I don’t remember getting a phone call from Von Kaiser asking me what topics I would really like to have relayed to me in song, but they might as well have.

While the other Shadowrun references in this album are a little more subtle, this track comes right out and mentions the RPG right in the title. The chorus, “I’m gonna get mine in 2029” is a reference to the aforementioned Crash Virus of 2029, so this is the second song that references that incident in the Shadowrun universe. I love the fact that the Crash Virus in Shadowrun has a theme song now. I’m not even halfway through and this album could not get any better. There’s more?

I’ve already said it but I’ll say it again: A lot of the tracks on this album play out like the scene to a movie. Given the title I was expecting to hear a song about getting run through with a machete by Jason Voorhees. Instead I got a wonderful retro synth laden track that opens with a soliloquy about the joy of being under the moon and the stars at night. Sounds like something one of the teens at Camp Crystal Lake would say right after banging in a tent but just before Jason Voorhees uses a seemingly blunt street sign to impale and split them into two or three different pieces. Rather than falling under the genre of horror this song is about finding love when you’re young at summer camp. I’m going to show some restraint and not go on and on about that being an experience that I also had when I was young, but there it is, yet once again. The musical accompaniment matches that subject matter perfectly. “Crystal Lake” is an absolutely gorgeous track, filled with lush synth pads, a pulsating eighth note baseline, and a wonderful soaring synth melody in between the verses.

Carl Sagan introduces this track along with a funky bass line, pounding drums, and a tastefully done synth solo. All of this gives way to the lyrics and the crux of the song: “Night Driver” is an ode to curiosity. At this point I have to wonder if Von Kaiser is actually in my head or if a lot of synthwave producers and fans share a lot of common interests. I love “Cosmos,” both the old series with Carl Sagan and the new, re-booted series with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. “Night Driver” definitely lives up to its name in that I often have deep thoughts about the curious nature of existence when I am alone, driving late at night on a secluded back road that has no streetlights.

Also, I own an Atari 2600 paddle game called Night Driver. COINCIDENCE? Yes. Yes, it is.

While the previous track ponders space and the nature of our existence in the cosmos, this track uses the cosmos as a metaphor for how love can make us feel like we’re lost in space. “Stars & Satellites” has a wonderful spacey feel to it, complete with ambient synth pads and a slow tempo emphasized by a sparse yet dramatic drum beat. The saxophone solo, one of many on this album, emphasizes the romantic nature of this song. Just like the previous track, “Night Driver,” “Stars & Satellites” feels vast and infinite, much like the universe it is in awe of.

Nobody writes odes to nostalgia like Von Kaiser. At this point in the album I already feel emotionally beat up with tracks like “Jetpacks” and “Flashbacks,” two tracks that hit way too close to home in terms of my own personal history. “Mixtape” does the same to me as the aforementioned tracks as it takes me back to a time when media was not available at the touch of a button like it is today. I remember waiting patiently with my boombox to hit record on a blank cassette so I could get a copy of Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” for free. Back in grade school and high school I made mixtapes for friends and for people that I wanted to be more than friends. This is emotionally powerful stuff for me, personally, and Von Kaiser does a masterful job of bringing it all back over a driving sixteenth note synth bassline, toms, and heartfelt vocals.

I absolutely love the introduction to this track: A growling bassline that has a high pitched, delay laden, whistling synth with the resonance knob cranked flying high above it. The goth atmosphere of “Blood Moon” fits the subject matter perfectly as the lyrics describe a sexy sort of femme fatale vampire. Is there sexy sax in this song as well? It’s Von Kaiser. Of course it has sexy sax in it.

On a somewhat unrelated note this track did make me want to play Castlevania: Blood Moon again. It’s easily one of the best NES Castlevania hacks ever put out. Someone needs to re-hack that game and put an 8-bit version of this tune into the soundtrack. I know, I keep relating everything back to video games. The band’s name is Von Kaiser, so it’s appropriate.

I think this track is one of the few on this album that I could not ascertain the meaning of with absolute certainty. I always enjoy vague lyrics that can have multiple interpretations but I can’t help but get the feeling that there is probably something I am missing here. I think “Wolfhart” is about the crisis we all face in a world with information overload and tragedies unfolding every day, all of which are fed to us via the internet and the never-ending onslaught of the 24 hour news cycle. I’m not exactly sure. What I am certain of is the fact that this song has some great twin lead guitar work and some well executed harmony vocals. Von Kaiser is a master of putting two melodies together seamlessly. The filter sweep in the bass on the breakdown is just plain brilliant, as is the arpeggio and synth pad that play out this track.

There’s a number of ways you can interpret “Transporter” but for me this song is about the excitement and anticipation that I feel when I’m about to travel or go on a journey into unexplored territory. Is there sexy sax soloing on this track? Check! There’s also a killer synth solo on this track as well. It all blends together so effortlessly. Von Kaiser makes it look easy.

I get the feeling that Von Kaiser put some real thought into the track order of this album. I imagine you don’t necessarily have to do that in this day and age, seeing as how you can just grab individual tracks a la carte from music outlets like iTunes and Spotify. Just like “Night Driver,” a song that opens with Carl Sagan, is followed by “Stars & Satellites,” “Transporter” is followed by “ETA,” a track that expands upon travel, but rather than traveling to a destination this track ponders the time travel that we all undergo as a consequence of living:

“Time in slow motion as the years slip by,
Cryogenically trapped in my own mind
Waking up to a world, I don’t recognize,
I can’t function here, please put me back

This wasn’t the future we were supposed to have,
all the best of intentions disastrously planned,
I can’t stay here it’s not my time
Send me back”

The chorus of “ETA” is as brilliant as it is emotionally powerful. I can’t imagine a better track to end Landline on. It’s yet another track that Von Kaiser has written that hits way too close to home for me.

I’m old now. Time has shot me out of a cannon into a world that barely resembles the world I grew up in. I still see the world through a prism that was forged by Saturday morning cartoons, Canon films, WWF wrestling, and tabletop RPGs. I’ve lived through every audio format change with the exception of 78 RPM records and wax cylinders. I often wonder how the fuck I got here and where the hell I’m going. “ETA” puts all of those facts together into one beautifully composed, elegantly arranged, and enormously compelling song.

So there it is. My thoughts on every track of Landline. My final analysis: Von Kaiser is brilliant at composing music and songwriting. Those two skills are related but ultimately, with artists, you either get one or the other since they are both skills that take a lot of time and effort to develop. Von Kaiser excels at doing both, and that is rare. There’s some great musicianship and composition on this album: Blistering guitar solos, tasteful saxophone solos (probably done with samples, but maybe not? The sax solos on this album are well composed regardless), great arrangements, and great sound design. This album also has some fantastic songwriting on it. Von Kaiser is masterful at fitting stories and ideas into the lyrics that they write. This band can do it all.

On a more personal note Landline is, to me at least, the promise of synthwave: The concept that the musical ideas of the past are not old hat and should not necessarily be discarded. Rather, you can take these ideas and reforge them in the 21st century into something new and exciting. Von Kaiser takes the sounds of old analog synthesizers, screaming guitar solos that used to be ubiquitous in hair metal, sensual saxophone solos alla George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” all of these ideas of the past, they use them all to create an epic meditation on where they’ve been, all that they’ve seen, and all of their disparate interests (from vampires to Shadowrun to mixtapes to their memories of Summer camp), all of it is transformed into one cohesive work that sums up the best of what synthwave has to offer. I can’t imagine an album more custom written to my own set of specific tastes and interests. This is one of the greatest fucking albums I have ever heard and it will always evoke the strongest of emotional responses whenever I listen to it.

You can listen to Landline via the following musical outlets:

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/landline/1460766869

Bandcamp: https://vonkaiser.bandcamp.com/album/landline

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/1O1f7DyuwwkONRSlcWwoSI

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