Synthwave Overlord Perturbator Is the Real Neon Icon
Welcome to the retro future.
Synthwave, darksynth, neon metal – no matter what you call it, this retroactive branch of electronic music kicks serious ass, and nobody synthesizes like James Kent. Under the nom de guerre Perturbator, he’s released a series of groundbreaking EP’s and full lengths since 2012 that have not only shaped the nascent genre (a cyber-organic melding of Krautrock, electronic movie scores, and industrial metal) but helped draw in unlikely fans. What’s the last electronic act that really appealed to metalheads? The Prodigy? Even they never got invited to play underground black metal festivals like Kent has.
As rooted in the past as his style may be, Perturbator rose in popularity the new-fashioned way: online, through musician-friendly services like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, where he releases his music under the “name your price” model. Even giving it away, his last album, Dangerous Days, sold out several CD and vinyl pressings (those cost money, of course) and remains in the top-80 best-selling downloads on Bandcamp, nearly two years after its release.
Having since signed with Blood Music, who released remastered versions of his early catalog titles, his fourth full-length seems poised to explode the Paris-based Kent into the vectored stratosphere. It’s already caused controversy with its cover art (oh no, cartoon boobs!), and you can pretty much expect it to top the Bandcamp charts when it releases on May 6.
In the meantime, we spoke with the Night Driving Avenger himself about his descent into The Uncanny Valley and why metalheads love him so much.
Noisey: The thing that interests me about the synthwave thing is how it’s had really significant crossover with the metal scene.
James Kent: I think it’s mostly a handful of synthwave musicians, including myself, and also Gost and Carpenter Brut. There’s a lot of synthwave musicians out there, but only a couple that really stick out for metalheads.
Why do you think your music in particular sticks out to metalheads?
It’s hard to say. I, myself, am a metalhead, and I listen to metal on a daily basis. I mean, I mostly only listen to metal, actually. I do electronic music the same way I would compose a metal track, so maybe it’s that appealing factor in my music for metalheads. It’s pretty weird for me, too – every time I do a show I see a bunch of people wearing battle jackets and Slayer T-shirts and stuff like that. It feels so weird to me, because they’re here to see an electronic music show. I have little ideas, but I can’t really say for sure what’s appealing.
If you mostly listen to metal, what drew you to make electronic music?
I was a guitarist in some local metal bands, but first off, the thing that drew me to electronic music is the fact that you can make electronic music and you can make something sound complete all by yourself. You don’t need a drummer, you don’t need a bassist, you don’t need other band members with insane egos. I just wanted to make music on my own, really, and I thought that the easiest way would be to do it with synthesizers and drum machines. Now that it’s been five years since I’ve been making electronic music, I would say it was a very weird choice, to be honest. I could’ve done a solo project, just me playing the guitar or something like that. Because electronic music has rules, and those rules are very different from the metal music rules in terms of composition. So it was very tough for me to switch, but it was fun. Now I know how to make electronic music as well as I know how to do guitar in a metal band.
When you initially started making this music, did you just come in saying “I like John Carpenter, I like Tangerine Dream” and playing around with that as a basis and then throwing your metal background onto it?
Yeah, exactly, that’s what happened. As I said, when I decided to make electronic music I didn’t know jack shit about electronic music. I don’t listen to electronic music a lot. My only reference was the soundtracks from The Thing, Blade Runner, Tangerine Dream, Goblin – the whole retro synthesizer soundtrack thing. That was my only footing. I was using that reference to build my own sound from it. And after that, of course, I discovered more contemporary electronic musicians that I like, so every time I make a track or an album I will add to it some of the stuff or some of the influences that I got throughout that time.
What were some of the new influences that went into your new album, Uncanny Valley?
After Dangerous Days, I started to listen to a lot of – this is going to sound weird, but I start to listen to a lot of jazz. There’s a track on the album [”Femme Fatale”], I wanted to make a semi-jazz electronic thing. It’s Perturbator trying to be jazz, which is a bit funny, a bit silly, but I think it came out pretty well. I also got way more interested in the 70s, like the Moog-sounding soundtracks from weird obscure horror movies – the old Satanic exploitation movies from the 70s, especially Italian movies. Like I said, Goblin, who are masters at that kind of stuff. Out of all the pioneers – the Tangerine Dreams, the John Carpenters – Goblin sound the most occult. I got really into it. I was aware of it before, but I got really into it after Dangerous Days, so it really influenced the way I made this new album. It’s probably the most occult-sounding one I’ve done yet. There are definitely more vintage sounds from the 70s.
Do you consider The Uncanny Valley a continuation of Dangerous Days? The two seem to share a lot of the same musical and lyrical themes.
Every time I make a new album, I try to make it either really, really different, or just better in terms of production, pacing, and sound. Uncanny Valley is basically what I wanted to do when I made Dangerous Days. When I made Dangerous Days, I didn’t have the knowledge and skills yet to do The Uncanny Valley. It’s cool, because it’s the logical step forward for me. It was either that, or I do something completely different, which is what I did, for example, when I released an EP called Sexualizer, which is pretty much all disco music. I wanted to make my fourth album to be an amalgamation, a melting pot of everything Perturbator is. Some tracks are very fast-paced, aggressive – it’s definitely the most aggressive one I’ve made. The drums are loud, the sound is loud. But there’s also what you would expect from any of my albums – vocal tracks, weird ambient interludes, stuff like that. It’s just a logical step forward for me.
Is there a continuing story between the albums? From an outside perspective, it seems like it’s been building from I Am the Night through this one.
There is. I kind of wish I’d started strong – my first release was The Night Driving Avenger EP. I kind of wish there was a story attached to it, my first album too. At the time I was 18, and I didn’t know people would even listen to it, so I rushed things a bit. Starting from I Am the Night – even before, with Nocturne City – there are a lot of recurring themes going on, and I tried to, every time I make a new release, whether it’s an EP or something like that, I try to tie everything with all of my other releases but still try to make it different. I guess that’s the most complicated part of it. It has to sound familiar – like people will hit play on The Uncanny Valley and be like "Okay, this is classic Perturbator," but still have some surprises. The stories are all tied in. The story of Uncanny Valley is happening 20 years after Dangerous Days, and it talks of the same sort of themes about fanaticism and science fiction, technology, androids looking exactly like humans. It’s got kind of the same thing going on, but I try to make it different all the time.
And you even have a comic book by Ariel ZB that comes with the Deluxe Edition of this one.
The comic book was difficult to make, because it’s a comic book without text bubbles, so the comic book needs to introduce the story, the characters, the album basically, without any words. I think it does it pretty well, but it doesn’t give away the whole story – the comic book isn’t the whole story of the album. The story of the album – basically the ending of the story is hinted to the listener through track titles, samples and stuff like that, and even lyrics to the tracks that have vocals.
Is that something you picked up from your metal background – how bands like Iron Maiden and Immortal have these visual throughlines and stories?
Yeah, but it’s not only metal though. My favorite albums have always been very story driven for some reason. Even in rap music—Tyler the Creator did an album called Goblin, which has a whole story behind it, and I think it’s great. I think every album should be like a journey. There’s a beginning, there is an end. There are scenes and interludes. It makes sense if you listen to the album from start to finish, but yet you can still listen to separate tracks if you want to. It’s the way I like albums in general. When I listen to an album, I listen to the whole of it. I just hope that Perturbator listeners do the same. We’ll see.
Jeff Treppel is peering into the retro future on Twitter.