10 essential Synthwave albums

(Image credit: Press)

Inspired by ‘80s movie and videogame soundtracks and pioneering electronic musicians like Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre and director John Carpenter, synthwave has become a major force over the last decade. Powered by old school synthesizers and thunderous, sequenced beats, laptop-wielding ultra-nerds like Pertubator and Carpenter Brut have been conjuring new ways to be heavy and subversive, while simultaneously dragging metalheads onto the dancefloor. Just in case you’ve missed the rise and rise of bleepy ‘n’ bolshy retro-futurism, here are ten of the best synthwave albums released to date. Your electric dreams start here, kids.

Cliff Martinez - Drive OST (2011)

The most pivotal moment in the emergence of synthwave as an recognisable sound, the Drive soundtrack arguably had more cultural impact than the Nicolas Winding Refn-directed movie itself. Steeped in the skittering beats, pulsing electronics and keening melodies of John Carpenter, Jean-Michel Jarre, Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream, former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez’s evocative musical vignettes kick-started a giant wave of nostalgia for the golden age of synthesizer soundtracks. The film was pretty cool, too.

Perturbator – Terror 404 (2012)

Metal’s favourite synthwave artist was harder, darker and more deranged than his contemporaries from the very start. It would be 2016’s opulent The Uncanny Valley that would confirm his rise to prominence, but the Frenchman’s debut was every bit as monstrous. Sinister and brutal in equal measure, tracks like Savage Street and the brilliantly named John Holmes VHS Nightclub re-imagined early synthwave’s misty-eyed retro ethos into something louder, harder and proudly dark as fuck.

Kavinsky – OutRun (2013)

Synthwave was thriving long before the rock and metal scenes started paying attention, and Kavinsky was one of the genre’s early breakout stars. It’s not hard to hear why: OutRun feels like a holistic manifesto for the retrowave era. With countless great tunes and diverse array of styles and sonic tricks, from Suburbia’s futuristic hip-hop to the psychedelic synth-pop of Nightcall (also featured on Drive’s OST), it still stands out at as a seminal, movement-defining piece of work.

Carpenter Brut – Trilogy (2015)

Synthwave’s resident rock’n’roll showman could hardly fail. Even without the eye-melting weirdness of his videos for early smashers like Turbo Killer and Roller Mobster, Carpenter Brut was clearly hell-bent on entertaining people as hard as possible. Throw in that synapse-warping imagery and an endearing and sincere connection to metal’s dark aesthetics, and he’s basically a megastar-in-waiting. Trilogy compiles his first three EPs and it’s a storm of absolute synthwave madness.

Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things Vol. 1 & 2 (2016)

Nothing has done more to nudge synthwave toward the mainstream than Stranger Things. If you haven’t already seen it, you’ve definitely wasted lockdown. You berk. The show’s soundtrack is plainly key to its success: purposefully evocative of movie and TV soundtracks from the ‘80s and yet oddly timeless and unsettling, it showcases a more artful and experimental side to the genre. With bonus demogorgons.

Dance With The Dead – The Shape (2018)

Purveyors of a defiantly goth-friendly strain of thunderous synthwave, Dance With The Dead aimed their music squarely at the rock world from day one. Early albums like Out Of Body and Near Dark had their memorable moments, but it was The Shape that revealed DWTD to be more than just an EDM band with a taste for B-movie kitsch. Gleefully cranking up the guitars, songs like Eyes Of Madness, Riot and Diabolic were crowd-pleasing, gore-to-the-floor bangers; undeniably futuristic and forward-thinking, but demonstrably metal as fuck, too.

Glitch Black – Emergent Behavior (2018)

Fans of heavy music need to take a selective approach when it comes to synthwave, a lot of which is highly formulaic and not remotely dark. But if you prefer synthwave that makes you feel like your head is being slammed through a digital wall and into some Tron-esque dystopian nightmare, Glitch Black have got you covered. From pummelling psychedelic techno (Genesis) to turbocharged car chase electro (BK-1), Emergent Behaviour is a gritty retrowave rollercoaster.

GosT – Possessor (2018)

The most overtly metal-friendly of all synthwave acts, GosT proved their genre credentials with 2016’s Non Paradisi before mutating into something much more extreme and terrifying for the follow-up. Possessor still slams with that irresistible digi-disco thud, but crazed blastbeats and maxed-out electronic scree dominate, just as Satan probably intended. Last year’s Valediction album expanded GosT’s sound to include big tunes and industrial, alt-rock vibes: in contrast, Possessor is just plain nasty. Synthwave for Slayer fans.

Fixions – Sleepwatcher (2019)

At this stage in synthwave’s evolution, you could throw a rubberised Walkman in pretty much any direction and be guaranteed to injure at least one mediocre exponent of the form. Meanwhile, French cyber-scamp Fixions continues to smash all-comers. Sleepwatcher is an explosive riot of jackhammer beats, insidious melodies and monstrous crescendos and a noticeably metallic sense of dynamics. Fixions mastermind Vincent Cassar also has a supremely weird black metal project called Smohalla, which explains a lot.

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Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.