Interstellar Overdrive: A Heavy Music Fan’s Guide to Forgotten Synth Icons
Look beyond John Carpenter and Goblin to discover some of the pioneering electronic musicians who influenced all your favorite synth-tinged albums.
Heldon/Richard Pinhas / photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records
Nearly 50 years ago, two men changed the future. Working completely independently of one another, inventors Robert Moog and Don Buchla each released a new instrument called the analog synthesizer. Today, its sleek, modern synthesized sounds are everywhere in popular music, and even as technology progresses, many listeners remain drawn to the anomalous and unique sounds that these seemingly outdated analog synthesizers are capable of creating. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Tame Impala has based hits around them, and the analog synthesizer has even gained a foothold in the heavy music sphere.
Artists as diverse as Zombi, SUNN O))), Pinkish Black, Acid Witch, and The Haxan Cloak use these machines as key components in their sound, and synth-heavy legacy artists like Italian prog rockers Goblin and director-slash-musician John Carpenter have received deserved recognition. In fact, the famed horror director’s 2015 synth album Lost Themes was lauded by high profile media outlets like NPR and Rolling Stone, while Goblin (who themselves are connected to the horror world through their film scores for Dawn of the Dead, and Suspiria), have re-formed and are bringing that heavy synth-driven sound to headlining tours and festivals around the world. Likewise, the rise of dark, retro-themed genres like synthwave (a rapidly growing style that rides the line between gritty 80s action movie bombast and slow, moody atmospherics) has propelled hit modern movie soundtracks such as Drive and compelled even the vocalist from hardcore heavyweights American Nightmare to spearhead a synth breakout band, Cold Cave.
Despite the growing interest in synths among the metal community, and support from long-standing metal labels like Relapse Records (who in 2015 have released at least ten records with synths featured on them), there is an apparent dearth of knowledge of its pioneers. When reading about these new releases, it seems that fans and critics alike often fall back on comparing modern artists to a very small handful of the classics (or simply reference other current artists). There is a whole universe of synth music beyond old horror and sci-fi soundtracks and Tangerine Dream, and it’s a bummer to read reviews of new records from well-regarded publications and find the words “John Carpenter” lurking around the first paragraph again and again. It’s like comparing every rock band to Led Zeppelin. Yeah, we know, they’re awesome, but that doesn’t mean that everyone out there sounds like—or is even directly influenced by—them.
I’m a long time fan and composer of both synth and heavy metal music, and there are so many other synthesized artists I feel every hesher should hear. I’ve built up much of my knowledge of the sound and its hisory by continually seeking out albums that included synths, looking at liner notes on record jackets, and even just taking a risk based on album artwork. Thanks to Youtube and various music streaming services, even the most obscure records are more easily accessible than ever. With that in mind, while far from exhaustive, I hope following collection broadens other imaginations as it has mine.
While Schulze is surely the most well-known name here, I would be remiss to leave him out. Schulze is a sort of the Black Sabbath of 70s electronic music; he is singular, prolific, skewed to the darker end of the spectrum, and created (plus often curated, as a producer) an entire genre full of imitators. While his former band Tangerine Dream is often cited as the genre progenitors (he left after their first album), Schulze was much more stylistically consistent than TD, and displayed a more signatory touch throughout his body of work in the 70s and early 80s. Album after album contains multiple near-30 minute pieces that are nuanced, mysterious, meditative and often transcendent. Most are based around murky, slowly unfolding sequences that conjure images of one swimming through and eventually emerging from the haze of psychedelic drugs that pervaded his heyday. Andm with titles like "Moondawn," "Timewind", and "Mindphaser", you're basically already high.
Richard Pinhas—the mastermind behind Heldon—may be the music world's equivalent to filmmaker-SLASH-prophet Alejandro Jodorowsky. Much like Jodorowsky did with film and print, this French Doctor of Philosophy unleashed a catalog of mind-warping, mystical and generally unnerving sci-fi-centric musical projects beginning in the early 70s—all while self-producing all of his output. While performing as Heldon, Pinhas enlisted many other contemporaries to his cacophony, including members of otherworldly psycho-fusion magisters Magma, who added mutated jazz elements atop Pinhas' searing, atonal guitar leads. It’s all anchored by impenetrable, repetitious and mesmerising synth lines. Sauntering between textured ambience and crushing, mechanized funeral marches with a distinctly French swaggering weirdness, the connections between Heldon and modern mad-scientists like The Melvins or Boris aren't difficult to notice. Releases like Heldon IV: Agneta Nilsson and the penultimate Stand By are evidence of Pinhas' ability to completely control the chaos that permeates his compositions.
SUZANNE CIANI - SEVEN WAVES
Seven Waves is much lighter than most of the music here. It’s also one of the most accomplished and overlooked synthesized compositions out there. Before releasing this record in 1982, Ciani spent years as a sound engineer. Specifically, she was known for being an authority on the complex science behind programming notoriously heady synths, providing sounds for Fortune 500 television commercials, platinum albums, and even early arcade games. Seven Waves finds her executing her superior knowledge and ability in a tranquil and fascinating way, one that bears little resemblance to other electronic greats of the day, all perfectly punctuated by the ebb and flow of an artificial ocean. After this album, Ciani’s career trajectory veered into a saccharine melange of sleepy new age tropes, more fitting for a spa than for space, but Seven Waves stands as a proud testament to an incredible technician and equally skilled musician.
JAN HAMMER - THE FIRST SEVEN DAYS
While mostly known as the man behind the slick and sleazy theme music for Miami Vice (and his stint with revered fusion gurus Mahavishnu Orchestra), Czech keyboard wunderkind Jan Hammer released a terrific solo album in 1975 called The First Seven Days. The album hinges on Hammer's expressive technique honed as a jazz player, and while its loose concept of the biblical creation is arguably hackneyed, the sonic palette used to express each track as a separate "day" is much richer than the pastel and neon shades cast by his 80s soundtrack work. While the whole release is extraordinary, the first cut "Darkness/Earth in Search of a Sun" showcases some of the album's best elements, with clever, human-sounding playing and well-programmed audio that really evoke the feeling of a newborn planet being formed from primordial nothingness.
In their homeland, German group Eloy was considered to be as big as Pink Floyd, Genesis, and other British progressive rock giants of the 70s. While their first few albums feature an electric organ (and are entirely worth checking out), starting with 1975’s Power and the Passion, their sound shifted towards creative synth elements, resulting in a long line of records made for the concerns of your average galactic citizen. Songs focus on futuristic cities, the loneliness of space exploration (there’s literally one called “Through a Somber Galaxy”) or telling your friends about hurtling through time.
Bonus: Eloy was a prime influence on another German band called Ramses, whose 1975 album La Leyla is a cult heavy prog masterpiece, filled with massive proto-metal riffs, mercurial synth leads and atmosphere fit for floating directly towards the trippy, cartoonish space goddess depicted on the cover.