Highway Superstar’s Endgame, released today, could have easily been named Game Changer (or something along those lines). The Kung Fury artist’s album will up the ante for himself and other 80s retrosynthers. The old way of doing things isn’t going to work anymore.
On the new album, Israel-based Superstar (AKA Alex Karlinsky) still adheres to the 80s sonic palette that landed him on the soundtrack for the famous Swedish satire — now on Netflix — but this time around many of the songs are bigger, tighter, and more adventurous than the cuts on his 2013 debut album, Take My Time.
Lead single, “Hunters,” fronted with the powerful vocals of collaborator Honey Colonna, showcases this brave new world.
The song’s pensive, minor-chord center, replete with orchestra hits and a skittering freestyle back-beat courtesy of 80s retro producer Sunglasses Kid, is quite obviously an ode to the pop radio of the decade. However, the song also has something that previous Superstar songs and some of the work of his contemporaries lack: the size and complexity of rock/synthpop groups like St. Lucia.
Not only does he bring on Colonna for “Hunters,” he also features her massive vocals on “Dream Diary,” the first Superstar cut on which Karlinsky sings lead. (He also puts his vocals to the fore on “Burn This City,” on which Colonna also offers support.)
“I’m finally singing,” Karlinsky said in a recent interview with Vehlinggo. “For someone who has been on the backing/harmonizing mic, and writing vocal parts for others, this is a huge step.”
“I’ve been working hard on myself to bring my voice to the place where it is now,” he continued. “Of course, I have a long way [to go], but this is the first time I’m 100 percent confident in what I’m doing singing-wise.”
His goal of getting behind the mic as lead vocalist was part of a greater plan to add more vocals in general to Endgame.
“One of the things I really wanted to focus on this time was getting more vocals in the blend, and I’m glad that the album has plenty of vocal tracks on it,” he said.
Karlinsky started working on the album last year, and over time the project attracted some noteworthy collaborators.
In addition to Colonna and Sunglasses Kid, synthwave’s go-to vocalist Dana Jean Phoenix returns for another Superstar record. Tesla Boy guitarist Stan Astakhov offers his noodlings on “Dream Diary.” Producer Sebastian Gampl and singer Miranda Carey show up on the Gampl-Superstar joint-production, “Save You.”
“I love working with other people because it makes music richer and more interesting to the listener — this time was no different and I feel incredibly lucky,” Karlinsky said.
Between albums, Karlinsky has kept busy with releases of one-off singles and writing a song for Kung Fury, that 30-minute satire of 80s tropes, that started out as a Kickstarter project and became an internet phenomenon that ended up at Cannes.
Yes, that means that along with Mitch Murder, David Hasselhoff, Lost Years, Betamaxx, and Christoffer Ling, Karlinsky has been part of something featured at the storied French film festival that once premiered Drive.
In what is perhaps a sign of the times — when fame is relative and fortunes are amassed in discreet corners of the earth — all of that didn’t translate to some kind of massive career breakthrough for Karlinsky.
“I don’t think anything changed drastically,” he said. “I did enjoy an influx of listeners when Kung Fury and the soundtrack were released [earlier this year] — mostly due to amazing credit from [Kung Fury director] David Sandberg — which is something I don’t take for granted.”
And unlike some artists, swallowed up by one-trick career incentives, Karlinsky didn’t drastically modify his sound after the film. In other words, the game-changing approach on his latest record is for Karlinsky, at least, evolutionary and not revolutionary.
“I definitely didn’t change anything in terms of how I write, since the margin between my usual style and what I did for Fury is small to nonexistent,” he said “Saxophone-love all the way, haha.”
In addition to the soundtrack work, he did some production for synthwave star Kristine’s debut album, released last spring. He’s also been playing keys at live shows for Israeli retro-pop duo Reo.
“This is great in particular, because there are a lot of shows, and I get to dust off my keyboard chops, as well as bring out some analog gear,” he said.
For his own work, Karlinsky has been promoting Endgame as much as he can, including the use of a steady social media campaign, the delectable “Dream Diary” music video, and an album sampler. But although he’s promoting the hell out of this Rosso Corsa-released album, Karlinsky has a long game. He said he wants to take this Superstar thing as far as he can.
“I want to do more albums, write songs for myself and for others,” he said. He also wants to “write for movies, video games — everything the world can offer me, really.”
And most importantly, he said, he wants to be honest with himself through his music and thereby be honest with his listeners.
As with any artist, Karlinsky has some dream collaborations he’d like to participate in if they ever came up. He named Mark Ronson, Chromeo, and Electric Youth as mainstream artists he’d like to work with, but he also has a somewhat unsurprising film team-up in mind.
“I’d also love to work on a movie soundtrack for someone like Nicolas Winding Refn,” he said, “or score an epic video game — if we’re talking about dreams.”
Sure they are dreams now, but I imagine that for Karlinsky, just a few years ago, having a song released on vinyl by a major label for a popular film soundtrack might have only been an entry in his dream diary, too.
Endgame is available from Rosso Corsa on all the usual digital suspects, including Bandcamp.
Feature photo by Ofir Abe.