The chic 2019 documentary film The Rise of the Synths, written and directed by Iván Castell, takes viewers on a deep dive into a sub-genre of electronic music and the artists devoted to it. In it, Castell traverses the world to explore the origins and influences of Synthwave.
Guiding us on this journey is ‘The Synth Rider’ – some sort of mysterious loner figure from the future who navigates time driving a DeLorean in the desert. Charting his mythical quest, we occasionally hear (and see) narration from iconic filmmaker and composer John Carpenter.
Played by journalist and musician Rubén Martínez, ‘The Synth Rider’ is a tattooed tough guy. His mission is to uncover the origins of a worldwide grassroots music scene known as Synthwave, which is described as an irresistible blend of modern electronic compositions infused with ‘80s pop culture nostalgia. The film explores the origins and growth of this electronic music genre, charting its rise in popularity from the underground online music scene to its recent mainstream exposure following use in retro-themed soundtracks, notably the 2011 film Drive (directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn), and more recently the television series Stranger Things. In fact, Drive is frequently named as a catalyst, a defining moment for many of the musicians.
The film skips all over the globe, dropping into Nantes, Paris and Grenoble, as well as New York, Toronto and Antwerp, to conduct numerous interviews with both established and upcoming Synthwave artists. The conversations explore their respective sources of inspiration, which range from early electronic pioneers such as Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream to a collective love of 1980s films and video games. The musicians are described as people that have abandoned the simplicity and limitations of pop music and are going for something more emotional, more atmospheric.
The doc does a good job of explaining how and why these specific sounds and iconic imagery hold such an alluring appeal. One of the most interesting things about this documentary is its nostalgia. The artists speak reverently about the ‘80s as if they’re intimately familiar with the decade, but most acknowledge they were not even born then.
One artist named OGRE Sound even describes having one foot in the past, one foot in the future and opining that what exists in the middle is Synthwave.
“The eighties were a less cynical time, a magical decade for film,” muses a member of the trio Gunship whole roasting marshmallows over an outdoor fire.
Carpenter relates his personal experiences, “as a guy starting out on the periphery of the film industry, making low-budget movies, I learned to do everything myself, including making the music for my films.”
He explains how others working with computers and electronics had come up with a computer that you could play; the first music synthesiser. “That gave someone like me an orchestra and sound effects,” says Carpenter.
Creating a moody atmosphere thanks to some stylish footage of glittering cityscapes and dark warehouses, as well as the pulsing soundtrack, we see interviews with the artists and composers in their homes or in gorgeous natural or urban locales, all over the world.
Some of the artists wistfully recall meeting up on Myspace groups and forming a collective of alternative music makers. Several of the musicians embrace their underground status and do not show their faces during the interviews.
The doco tracks how synth sounds fell out of fashion in the ‘90s with the emergence of the grunge sound. People grew weary of the abundant use of the DX-7 synthesiser sound in songs, in movies and commercials. Acknowledging the influence of metal and rock, one French composer named Perturbator remarks on how Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor “basically made fucking around with sequencers and drum machines cool again” in the ‘90s.
Then comes the Retrowave movement, when people start making music on personal computers on a wider scale and experimenting with sounds, which proved a lot cheaper and therefore more accessible than synthethiser-driven music. “To have synthesisers you needed money, gear, a studio…” Computers permitted the democratisation of music making. “Everything changed. We could make music in our bedroom,” recalls a French duo.
The old soundtrack of a new generation—The Rise of the Synths is both a documentary and a time travel capsule about the Synthwave Scene.
Artists featuring in the film include:
Dance with the Dead
Miami Nights 1984
Valerie Collective (College, Maethelvin)