The Unnatural Ambiance of Synthetic Horror

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I firmly believe that, when it comes to horror, less is always more because no matter what you’re presented with it’s nowhere near as terrifying as what your own mind can conjure up in its stead. Now, when it comes to video games, sound design is the true key component when trying to make a top tier horror title.

That said, I’ve been playing a lot of the Resident Evil 2 remake since it came out and, other than being blown away by the game visually, I really have to hand it to the sound design for heightening the tension. There’s nothing more dreadful than entering a room you’ve never been in before, hearing something shuffling around a corner and not knowing what’s there; other than maybe hearing the heavy footsteps of Mr. X somewhere near you and coming ever closer to you.

However, I have to say that there’s really only one aspect of the game which has left me feeling rather underwhelmed if not even entirely disappointed: the music. This might sound weird, but I found the music to be a bit too “modernized” for my tastes in terms of feeling too far polished. The music is not as gritty and/or raw as the original soundtrack, which I think really comes down to something being said about the progression in recording and listening technology actually taking away the organic nature of music, like the pops in vinyl or the hiss in a cassette tape being replaced by nothing but digital silence.


Mono Memory, Resident Evil fan and synthwave producer, recently released a few synthwave covers/remixes of music from both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 in preparation for the remake. I played these tracks on my Twitch channel, as I’ve been streaming the remake, and they’re excellent examples of old made new.

 


Then again, maybe it just comes down to nostalgia and a preferred sense of familiarity. Resident Evil 2 is, after all, a remake of an old game but with a modern spin. Regardless, while there are plenty of new twists, there’s also plenty of nods to the original too. So much so that there is actually downloadable content to utilize the original soundtrack, and sound effects, of the original game in the remake and it’s surprisingly all integrated rather seamlessly. That’s the way I ended up playing most of the game and, honestly, it just felt right.

Which, in a way (and more or less the point of this article), is also the way that I feel about synthwave; it’s a modern spin on an old sound and, despite most of it being done in modern software as opposed to vintage hardware, it still manages to retain that unique grit and rawness. I hesitated just then to call synthwave “unpolished,” because I feel like that has a negative connotation to most but I do believe that, despite being anything but “organic,” electronic music does indeed have an overall harshness to it that most modern music production lacks.

There’s a realness in the falseness, if that makes any sense at all, because often times it takes something which sounds so otherworldly to get us to feel anything at all different from how we normally feel. True horror is the fear of the unknown after all and it’s this feeling of existential dread which I am constantly searching for and yearning to discover. This is why I have an appreciation for the ambient side of darksynth/darkwave that some might consider a bit reserved and therefore might not give it the recognition it so rightfully deserves.


Skeleton Beach is just such an act which I feel really exemplifies that terrifying uneasiness which synthwave can produce and they do so with actual hardware to boot. Some might say that this feeling is “easier” to accomplish thanks to the fact that they rely more on analog than digital, but it’s more so the user than the tools.

 

There are a lot of synthwave producers who have cited John Carpenter as an influence but I feel as though Skeleton Beach is one of the few who actually makes this abundantly clear through their music. You can hear it in the methodical pace, like a surgeon making precise incisions, not afraid to let things linger and fester.

 

Far too often, especially when it comes to darksynth/darkwave, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a subtle sort of competition in terms of who can be the “heaviest.” However, I believe that a reflex hammer can be just as hard-hitting as a jackhammer if you use it correctly. Pressure points are there for a reason after all.


I think this is because all too often, and unfortunately, people tend to synonymously associate “darksynth” or “darkwave” with “heavy” or “fast.” This might be true in most cases, but there’s also those under such a banner which are the opposite and are much “slower” although not necessarily “softer.”

To put it in horror terms, because it’s the article’s theme, it’s the difference between a slasher movie villain giving you a quick and painless death to one which is more slow and painful. Well, perhaps “painful” isn’t the best way to describe anyone’s music but I think, or at least I hope, you understand what I’m trying to say; there’s the kind of fear you feel in the moment, when your adrenaline is at its peak, and then there’s a whole other kind of fear which you feel as you’re leading up to that moment when your adrenaline is slowly rising.

Which is to say that if the heavier and faster darksynth/darkwave is a cousin of metal music, as it’s up and in your face, than the more subdued and ambient variations of darksynth/darkwave is in itself a very distant relative that’s a bit keener to watch you creepily from afar. It’s voyeuristic and paranoia-inducing.


I’ve written about low.poly.exception before, an additional project by the same person behind Neon Shudder and Gyoza King, but I think it’s worth mentioning them again due to the nature of this article and the fact that they just released a new album. Self-described as “codewave,” low.poly.exception is again on the ominous side of darksynth/darkwave but also in many ways it’s the seedier parts of cyberpunk which I feel a lot of people have been ignoring as of late.

 

I honestly attribute this mostly to the hype surrounding Cyberpunk 2077 which, while it looks gorgeous visually and impressive from a technical standpoint, has given on its surface a bit more of an idolized version of the cyberpunk genre. People seem to care more about the neon lights, the cool technology, the stylish clothes, etc. when cyberpunk is really more dystopian, depressing, and soul-crushing.

 

Which, y’know, I get; not everyone wants that in their music as they instead want it to be more happy, upbeat, or fast and aggressive. However, as I’ve been saying, there is still a place for that much more harsher and rougher side which I feel low.poly.exception really brings out in their music. They may do everything “in the box,” without physical hardware, but again they’re really a prime example in my book for someone who can make the digital sound disturbingly real.


I’ve had my issues with what I call the “subgenrefiction of synthwave,” the concept of which I still hold to be quite true, but in this article I think if anything else it’s important for me to stress that no genre or subgenre is really clear cut.

That said, and most importantly of all, I believe it’s always worth your time and attention to seek out the unknown or to at least delve deeper into what you think you know. Far too often we get used to labels and assume things about its contents, or are just left confused about what is what and vice versa, but it’s like I said before: there is fear in the unknown, but embrace it regardless.

For in the end the truest horror, at least in my mind when it comes to an appreciation of art, is the one which does not ever try to broaden its horizons.