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Survive - RR7349 (Relapse Records, 2016)As I wrote in my recent review of Foretaste, nostalgia’s a powerful force in art. In the right hands, it can be explored and mined as a way to connect you to a work of art on its own terms by using your memories to its advantage. But in the wrong hands, your memories are exploited in hopes of wrangling a cheap reaction. And in both cases, you should keep your emotional guard up so you can tell the good from the bad with relative ease.

Thus, it took me a few spins through S U R V I V E’s sophomore record before I finally welcomed its music into my ears.

In the aftermath of the Stranger Things hype (which is warranted and worthy), I came to RR7349 with trepidation and worry, hoping this Texas quartet wasn’t simply looking to cash in on its newfound fame. I felt it was an understandable concern and bias on my part, as we’ve all bought into the hype of a fresh, new thing before it all crashes down around us after repeated listens (or an awful follow-up album).

 

Well, I’m here to tell you that this project on Relapse Records stands on its own and without its more heralded soundtrack sibling’s aid. Sure, the ideas, concepts, and execution are similar, but that’s to be expected: the same outfit made both collections of songs. But whereas the tunes created for eight episodes of Netflix programming were expertly arranged accompaniment, RR7349 contains nine fully realized instrumental electro-pop tunes.

RR7349 is retro-futuristic synth-pop of the highest order.

Yes, the most obvious point of reference is Blade Runner and the entire corpus of Vangelis, but Nine Inch Nails, Aphex Twin, and the TRON soundtracks (both original and reboot) make regular appearances. Moreover, while heaps of adjectives readily come to mind – bleak, stark, insular, brooding – the one I want to avoid is dystopian. Just because music’s moody, creepy, or could frame some generic anti-hero in a dark alley doesn’t mean that’s the actual sonic touchpoint at play.

Actually, I’m reminded more of Asimov with the music of S U R V I V E.

RR7349 reviewThey’re both set in not-quite perfect futures dominated by technology, but when you peel back the glossy metal and plastic, you find a beating human heart looking to make sense of the world around it. The film producer who decides to reboot I, Robot and make an actual trilogy will find great inspiration here.

In terms of the actual music, we’re treated to pop tunes with strong melodic cores set in familiar time signatures. For all of the bubbling and gauzy layers of synth pads slithering across each other in intricate patterns, this is still pop music – neither experimental electronica nor pulsing EDM. The foursome possesses a stellar feel for arrangement and dynamic shifts without ever going over-the-top or pointing in obvious directions. Though, if you close your eyes, you can imagine an elegant chanteuse belting out keening lyrics over ballad-esque tracks like “High Rise,” “Sorceror,” and “Cutthroat.”

 

Admittedly, there were times I wanted more from RR7349 .

RR7349 SurviveI kept hoping the guys would push their aesthetic into more experimental directions, say in the vein of Nicolas Jaar or Pantha du Prince. I’m convinced their future projects could seek out such sounds and ideas while retaining their pop core. And honestly, while selections like “Other” and “Low Fog” appear creepy on the surface, the whole record could have stood for a bit more goth edge and glower.

RR7349 is a well-paced collection of tracks marked by smooth progressions and transitions, especially on “A.H.B.,” “Dirt,” “Wardenclyffe” (Tesla reference FTW!), and “Copter.” Evincing an almost mystical and magical twist on vintage electro-pop ideas that wouldn’t be out of place on a record by Joy Electric or M83, I almost want to call this record “electro-prog,” but I can’t decide whether or not people would place negative connotations upon such a descriptor.

So, if you’re in the mood for expertly crafted ‘80s-inflected synth-pop that manages to sound like it was made in this decade, then put aside your fears of misplaced nostalgia and bask in the glow of S U R V I V E.

Born and raised in Southeast Texas, Adam P. Newton never acquired the charming accent that most life-long Texans possess in spades, but he’s OK with that. Adam currently creates web content for a Texas university, and he writes a series about music and parenthood called “Explaining Grownup Music to Kids” in his limited spare time.