Synthwave Space Opera: Xennon’s “Reflections”
Well, it’s happened again and I could not be more elated. More and more music has been showing up on my doorstep lately, and I’m excited to talk about it all. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank every synthwave artist that has taken time out of their busy schedule to send me their music. Keep ’em coming!
While my last review concerned an artist that was completely unknown to me, this review concerns someone whose music is very near and dear to my heart. Today I will be talking about Xennon, and his albums are already a beloved staple of my Bandcamp synthwave collection.
While I am familiar with his music, Xennon’s background is something of a mystery. From what I can gather Xennon is originally from the UK but he now lives and works in Tokyo, Japan. I can only presume that he does synthwave full time, as I imagine being a synthwave producer is a very lucrative profession/a completely viable way to afford living in one of the most expensive cities on the planet.
Full disclosure: That last statement is probably false. In all likelihood Xennon probably does synthwave on the side, which is interesting because he is an absolute pro at crafting tunes that fall into the genre.
If I had to describe Xennon’s music I would say that it definitely possesses all of the elements that have come to define synthwave—retro sounding synths and drums, a general 80’s vibe and aesthetic, etc., but his music also contains a healthy dose of modern synthpop and EDM thrown in for good measure. In that way Xennon kind of reminds of Polemic Heart in that his music is influenced by the synthwave genre, but it’s not necessarily defined by it. However, unlike Polemic Heart, Xennon is just one person. He does it all, and he does it well: Singing, songwriting, and music production.
So why was this tune sent to me, a tiny synthwave blog with a readership of me, myself, and I? As it turns out Xennon is gearing up to release a concept album titled Dark of a Distant World. The single I will talking about today, “Reflections,” is the second single that he has released from this upcoming album.
Xennon describes Dark of a Distant World as “an adventure that transcends time and space” that “will take the listener on a journey to other worlds as we follow Kurt, a boy who holds the key to saving the planet Eternicron.” That’s a lot to take in, but I will be bearing all of this in mind as I listen to this track. So, without any further ado, here is “Reflections” by Xennon:
I hit play and a thumping, syncopated kick hits, accompanied by a reverb heavy snap on beats two and four. A bubbly synth pluck hits and I get the impression that this track will be very upbeat and uptempo. This impression quickly fades when the vocals enter mere seconds later.
A synth pad with a slow attack swells in volume, Xennon’s vocals hit, and I immediately notice that there is some sort of audio filter on his voice. This filter kind of makes Xennon sound as if he was singing through an intercom. There’s an “attention students and faculty” feeling to this intro that I find compelling, like Xennon is making an important announcement that he wants everyone to hear.
Thirty seconds in the audio filter on Xennon’s vocals lifts, revealing the full frequency spectrum of his voice. Xennon’s vocal delivery here is as impassioned as it is pitch perfect:
“Looking back over the years
A past we leave behind, but never forget,
The moments that make us smile and cry.
They form and shape to an extent,
But never will define,
The future we make,
Those choices are yours and mine.”
Clearly my initial impressions of this intro were false. In stark contrast to me originally thinking that this track was upbeat, there’s a wistfulness here that I should have seen coming given the title of the song.
Upon the delivery of the final word of these lyrics a buzzy, sawtooth synth sounds out a mid range melody and the percussion drops out. This rest in the percussion is so very brief, but when the drums return they hit like a ton of bricks. A distorted bass hits, in lockstep with the drums, and the effect this has is particularly dramatic. The intro was so mellow and laid back for almost a full minute after I pressed play. At first you have a solemn synth pad and a protagonist waxing philosophical about their past, and then… BAM! BAM! BAM! A little over a minute in and I can already tell you that this track has some very intense dynamics.
“The odyssey doesn’t end out there!” Xennon recites this line over a lively drum fill, providing an introduction for the hook of the song. “In time, in time, we grow oh oh!” is a simple yet effective line that forms the bulk of the lyrics of the chorus. In the background a lovely synth lead provides counter melodies to Xennon’s vocals, in addition to a cheerful, clicky, retro-sounding synth arpeggio.
After this first verse and chorus I think I’m starting to understand where this track lies in terms of the concept for Dark of a Distant World. Clearly this is the main protagonist, Kurt, looking back at his life and pondering what lies ahead. This makes me even more excited for the album that this track is a part of. I imagine it is going to be epic as it will contain a full story and a character arc in its lyrics. To say that this is ambitious for a synthwave album would be an understatement. Seriously, how many synthwave albums have done this before?
At 1:36 the delightfully catchy kick and snaps from the intro return. It’s time for the second verse, and man is it different from the first one. For starters, the brilliant bass groove that Xennon lays down on the second verse is just plain off the chain. While the first verse has a mellow, volume swelling synth pad accompanying Kurt’s reflections, the bass on the second verse suddenly makes this tune very dance-able. Get down with your bad self, Kurt! I wish my own memories were accompanied by a bass groove that was this infectious. Instead, my memories are usually accompanied by the deepest of cringes as I have a tendency to (randomly and for no reason) remember just about every embarrassing thing that I have ever done.
This incredible bassline continues right through the second pre-chorus at 2:18, when the percussion changes and the melody, rhythm, and rhyme scheme of the vocals shift gears. The second pre-chorus, of course, ends in the same dramatic fashion as the first one: BAM! BAM! BAM! And, just like the first pre-chorus, there is a furious drum fill as Xennon sings the line “The odyssey doesn’t end out there!”
This time around Xennon switches it up by adding a riser at 2:46 that is extremely effective at heightening the musical drama before the second chorus hits. The second chorus features some minor variations in the melody of the vocals when compared to the first chorus. By now I’m starting to realize that Xennon puts a lot of thought into crafting each section of his songs. I’m sure a lot of producers just copy and paste sections that repeat, such as a verse or a chorus. Xennon, on the other hand, really looks at his songwriting structure and puts a lot of effort into adding additional surprises into each section. Could he have just copied and pasted the instrumental section of the first verse and sang different lyrics over it, thereby creating the second verse? Sure. It probably would have worked, too, but that approach is just way too lazy for Xennon, who always goes the extra mile to add depth to his tracks.
This attention to detail is further evidenced by the rest in the drums after the second chorus at 3:28. Was that rest there after the first chorus? No. Was the bass riff that plays out here present after the first chorus? No. Again, Xennon does not want your ears to get bored, so he always goes out of his way to add these small touches to his music.
The other surprise after the second chorus is the fact that I was really expecting a bridge. Up until now “Reflections” was following the classic verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus song structure that we’ve all come to expect from pop music. Instead of a bridge, after the second chorus we get a third verse/pre-chorus that has some added musical variations, particularly the early entry of the bubbly, retro-sounding synth arpeggio that is featured so prominently in every chorus.
The final chorus repeats, as final choruses are wont to do, but there is a most intriguing addition: Xennon sings the melody and lyrics to the pre-chorus over the melody and lyrics of the chorus. The vocals of the pre-chorus have some sort of audio filter applied to them so that the listener can easily differentiate between the two parts. These two melodies work perfectly over each other in a way that is both unexpected and breathtakingly brilliant.
This sort of canon/fugue level melody mastery is what makes Xennon’s music stand out among the hundreds of other synthwave artists currently making music in the scene. As I mentioned earlier, Xennon takes the time to make each section of his song unique in order to keep the musical interest going. I did not see this dual vocal harmony coming, but this is exactly the sort of clever surprise that makes Xennon somewhat unique among his peers in the genre.
The outro to this track appears at 5:34. A synth pad rises in volume as chopped vocal samples stutter and bend in pitch. This is the sort of thing that 1.) Puts a smile on my face 2.) Really pisses off synthwave purists. This section is very much emblematic of Xennon’s sound in that yes, there is a very classic, 80’s sounding retro synth arpeggio that plays out here, but it’s coupled with some more modern techniques of electronic music production. Personally, I am not a purist, and I want to see synthwave grow and evolve as a genre. If you think that synthwave has grown stagnant as a genre then I can not recommend Xennon enough, because he combines the classic synth sounds of the past and merges them with the sound of present day electronic music.
The synth pad and retro arpeggio featured at the beginning of the outro work together to bring this track to a satisfying conclusion, so here is where I will offer my final thoughts: I loved this track and I am very excited for the release of Dark of a Distant World. This album promises to be very ambitious, both in scope and concept. Dark of a Distant World may very well end up being Xennon’s magnum opus, at least if “Reflections” is any indication. This track has everything a fan of vocal synthwave can possibly hope for: Solid songwriting, solid singing, solid music production—everything about this tune is so polished and dialed in to the point of perfection.
If I have one nitpick about “Reflections” it would have to be the absence of a bridge, but I think the amount of musical variation present on this track renders that nitpick somewhat invalid. “Reflections” clocks in at a whopping six minutes, and yet I was not bored at any point in this song. Would a bridge have distracted from the story that Xennon was trying to tell? I can’t say for sure. Ultimately I feel like I can’t fully review this song until I have the entire album in my hands. I’ve been given a very small piece of the story, but it is a very well written piece that makes me want to hear the bigger picture.
Xennon has not formally announced a release date for Dark of a Distant World, but I will definitely be checking my email and his Twitter account in the coming months. Sure, I’ve listened to plenty of synthwave concept albums, but I don’t think that I’ve ever listened to one that doubles as a stand-alone sci-fi epic, complete with its own universe and mythology. A synthwave space opera? Count me in.