Tommy ’86 Brings Us Closer to the Stars on ‘Disco Machine’

Tommy '86 - Disco Machine
Disco Machine’s cover art. Photo Credit: Tommy ’86.

On his new EP, Disco Machine, French retrosynther Tommy ’86 has created an important and rather brilliant Italo Disco collection worthy of its title.

This gorgeous collection transcends the “neon” connotation often attached to these sort of things, and ends up somewhere flashier, more colorful, and more glamorous. Where is that place? Might as well be the moon, Jupiter, or even the Andromeda Galaxy, because this EP spends as much time bathed in synthy space disco as it does in the discotheques of Rome and Paris in the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s.

This sort of trajectory shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Tommy’s brand of synthwave/nu-disco/nu-Italo Disco. Even in recent history, like last year’s Frequency Modulations, we heard Tommy pull off cosmic, rhythmic quests with the help of expert collaborators such as Sally Shapiro and Dana Jean Phoenix.

As he did then, on Disco Machine Tommy adds equal essences of Vangelis in his Blade Runner era and Giorgio Moroder’s Scarface soundtrack, along with a little Daft Punk, and several pinches of Miami Vice, to his bouillabaisse of delectable disco artistry. Through Tommy ’86, we are astronauts on galactic dance floors that orbit planets and moons with bright and shiny stardust as our only light.

There are also moments on this EP when Tommy sounds like College, whose influence has always been noticeable on Tommy’s output. Like College, Tommy doesn’t simply want you to dance or to feel nostalgic — although those are certainly important — he also wants you to see and feel the notes and the colors, and become entranced in the mood and imagery that erupt from each moment. It’s a holistic experience, and one that can’t be missed.

“Back to the Basics” offers up a Hi-NRG, mechanistic lightning storm with synthesizer leads flying around high up in the clouds as their fuzzy counterparts blow carelessly along on the Earth below. At around the mid-point, a new regime steps in and brings everything back to Terra, pushing everything together into some brief but crucial moments of realism before it all becomes undone and everything spirals out of control. We can only corral these atoms for so long, my friends, before they break apart and rejoin the stars.

On “If Dreams Could Become Reality,” Tommy introduces an onslaught of excited piano runs, as the synthesizer slowly but surely melds its bright blues and reds, and a sad, yearning synth melody and some malfunctioning drums barely follow along in a bid to keep up. Everything is making that slow transition from the mind of a sleeping soul to the tangible world of the awake.

The title track is an intense, brutal, and kinetic Hi-NRG gem that runs rampant with the stimulant excesses inherent to anything centered in the 1980s. The vocoder flirts its way around the mix, bleeding its dark wisdom all over a drum machine that steadily does its job like a coal miner under the thumb of a faceless, corporate overlord.

Whatever “Disco Machine”-like creature Tommy and his engineer henchmen have built is likely to become sentient and flee its creators in a prayer for autonomy. It’ll probably end up somewhere in space, but before it does, this disco cyborg will need to ensure it occupies every dance floor on its way toward meeting its goal.

Overall, Tommy ’86 is yet another example of how the French have mostly come to dominate retro-infused synth music. However, he doesn’t copy College, Kavinsky, Daft Punk, Anoraak, or anyone else. Instead, Tommy brings together the best of his influences and makes sure to rinse them out thoroughly with his own pastels of brilliance.

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