Dead Astronauts - Arms of Night
Constellations was a remarkable and interesting release in the mixed bag that was late 2014 synthwave. It managed to stand out as an interesting gem and serious Album of the Year contender and snagged the 10 spot in our Top 10 Albums of 2014 list. Arms of Night had a lot to live up to, both as a follow-up to a loved album, but also as a release in a year with perhaps the most interesting and strange synthwave to be released since the genre's inception. How does this album fare in both of those situations?
It's great. Seriously, this album is very good for the entire duration and doesn't let up. Opening track "Roam" is largely a mood-establishing track, but when Hayley Stewart's vocals kick in, drenched in space, it's hard not to get chills, and even harder not to get them when the strange synth melody starts playing behind it. On Arms of Night, Hayley Stewart gives her best vocal performance to date. Her range has increased since Constellations, and the delivery has taken on an ethereal quality that matches the instrumentals even more than on any of the band's previous releases. Jared Kyle's vocals are still unlike anybody else in the scene and channel the 80's underground heavily. Male vocals in synthwave are still somewhat of a novelty, so most male vocalists manage to sound distinct on synthwave tracks. Even if an established cliche male vocal style existed in the genre, I don't think Kyle's vocals would qualify as it. Just listen to the album's titular track. Apart from the compositional, melodic, and lyrical nod to Echo & the Bunnymen, there is a serious channelling of the unsung heroes of the 80's.
There's a lo-fi vibe to much of this album, but it largely adds to the experience and highlights just how strong the melodies are. The chorus of "War We Fight" is prime example of this, and also a prime example of the best weapon in Dead Astronauts' arsenal. When Kyle and Stewart sing in unison, it is always the best part of the song. I'm not sure how this would translate if an entire track was constructed like this, but by using it where they do, it creates clear highlights in the songs where it's used. "No Voice Remains" and "Black Echo" are two standouts in a row as the first half of the album ends. The former is catchy from the ground up, with something pleasing to hear in every layer of its constant use of countermelody. The latter is one of the poppier moments of the album, which is definitely not a bad thing. Pop is not usually associated with darksynth, but when Dead Astronauts tap into their pop sensibilities they are at their most memorable and exciting. There is a real ear for hooks.
"Eject" might be the best song on the album, and more than any other song that the group has released deserves to be listened to on the best headphones you have. The pairing of low synths with chirping synths against a pulsing background groove recalls some of the Crystal Castles best work but with Dead Astronauts clearer sense of melody and retro aesthetic. The strange "Invisible Creatures" follows, which has some of the oddest sounds on the album and uses them to great effect.
This album deserves, at the very least, a listen from anybody casually interested in the genre. It is a solid evolution from one of the most original artists in the scene and manages to be a standout in already standout year.