Around this time last year, I was sitting in a room in the Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia. I stared out the window at the street below and tried to come up with support for my concept of the “Grand Unified Theory of Com Truise,” the retrosynth artist who at that time was several months away from releasing his excellent new EP, Silicon Tare.
Com Truise, one of the few true crossover retrosynth experiments, is Seth Haley’s popular project that for years has been right at home alongside Ghostly International’s other innovators, such as Matthew Dear, Shigeto, and Tycho. On its face, his work has paired increasingly more audacious galactic retro feats with just enough modern sensibilities to appeal to music fans both inside and outside of Reddit and specialty Facebook groups.
At the Hotel Palomar I was reading an interview rejection from Haley’s manager that I took as a challenge. I had wanted to interview Haley in advance of a Brooklyn gig, and his manager said there wasn’t really a point to that because there was nothing new to say. I knew he was right; hence my grand designs.
On April 1, when almost exactly a year later Ghostly released Haley’s Silicon Tare EP, I still hadn’t come up with any grand theories or terribly distinctive angles to portray the work of the Princeton, New Jersey resident. Then I delved into the release and his manager’s words inspired me in ways I never could have imagined.
At first take, Haley’s Com Truise work — since 2011’s Galactic Melt LP, anyway — is tied to a story of humanity’s exploration of space and the challenges of such a quest as part of the overall arc of the human condition. Haley’s art — both his music and the cover art he designs for that music — addresses this theme with a distinct eye for 80s sci-fi vibes.
That’s all a great foundation for Com Truise, but it’s no unifying theory. It doesn’t truly tap into what he’s about. You have to dig deeper.
So, after going down the Com Truise rabbit hole, and after thinking that perhaps there’s no grand theme at all beyond the fact that everything he does absolutely kills, I think after a year I’ve finally got it: Haley uses nostalgia to underscore the hollowness of nostalgia. Even further, perhaps, his compositions invoke the very elements they seek to destroy.
Com Truise’s music is often lumped into the synthwave category — Haley himself, Ghostly, fans, and the press have all referred to Truise as a synthwave project of some capacity. However, whereas most synthwave seems to embrace nostalgia as a raison d’être, I’m convinced Haley’s trying to use the tools of the past to bring us forward.
Take the colors, sounds, and other characteristics of his compositions. He uses an array of patches, chord progressions, and moods that recall things like synthpop, progressive rock, and synthy Italo disco, but there’s nothing straightforward about any of it. With those tools, he uses complex polyrhythms and sample manipulations, interesting twists and turns in his arpeggiations, and unconventional melodies that all suggest some kind of breakdown.
Going back to his early work, such as 2010’s Cyanide Sisters EP released originally on AMDISCS, or 2011’s Galactic Melt, Haley in many ways taps into the standard synthwave mood of the time. There are the shiny synths and bouncy gated drums of synthwave contemporaries like Miami Nights 1984, Mitch Murder, or even Kavinsky, but something else is afoot.
Cyanide cuts like “BASF Act” and “5891,” and Melt’s “VHS Sex,” “Glawio,” and “Futureworld” all incorporate an 80s retro pastiche that sounds like the songs are being played on a malfunctioning tape player, an overwhelmed and ancient PC, or perhaps a CD player equipped with a laser that melts instead of reads.
The 2011 EP Fairlight often comes off like KITT on quaaludes or the Back to the Future DeLorean with a Mr. Fusion stuffed with dynamite. There are jitters and freakouts at every turn, peppered with only the most fleeting sense of calm or acceptance.
In Decay, a collection of rarities and outtakes that was released in 2014, more pronouncedly underscores some sense of malady on songs like “84’ Dreamin” and “Klymaxx.” The songs on this collection pair catchy compositions that sound as if they’re recorded on retro instruments removed from their hermetically sealed preservation vessels and thus must be used immediately as they rapidly decay beyond recognition or utility.
That same year, on the Wave 1 EP, the approach persists. Cuts like “Miserere Moi,” “Wave 1,” and the Joel Ford collaboration, “Declination,” all tap into the idea that the past doesn’t want your grasp. The latter song is a bouncy number, coming off as a dance-pop theme for the mall-going set, even as Ford’s vocals melt and twist beyond recognition. But it’s the final moments of “Declination” that drive home the ephemeral nature of time, going so far as to progressively slow down to an abrupt halt, like a tape wheel that just can’t move anymore.
Silicon Tare, the third in the trilogy that began with Melt and Wave, incorporates all of the themes of Haley’s previous Com Truise work. This is true even if the new release has more accessible (and danceable) moments, such as those found on “Diffraction” and “Forgive.” This is also true despite fewer moments of decay.
Ghostly’s press materials peg Silicon Tare as the part of his galactic epic in which the astronaut main character has made contact with the Wave 1 colony and finds that the troubles back home — such as romantic entanglements, war, and change — exist in this new place, too
But taken into the context of my grand unified theory, this new Com Truise release is the fulfillment of the idea that his music uses the decaying ghosts of the past to underscore the importance of looking toward the future.
It’s all in the name of the EP and in its titular cut. A “tare” is another name for Vicia sativa, or the vetch, a plant that is considered a nuisance weed when it grows in grain fields. “Tare” is also the name of a noxious Biblical weed. Silicon, of course, is a crucial element in the microchips of those gadgets that we use primarily to live in the past.
Haley takes the invasive silicon tares — the soft-pink synths of Miami Vice, the neon-soaked arpeggiations of some mid-80s downtown club, and the galactic melodies of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis that make us think of some other time or the way we were — and forces us to look ahead.
Because, you see, the past is dead. Those moments, good and bad, disappeared the moment they happened. This whole time we’ve been trying to grasp onto those moments, but all we could get a grip on were fleeting, even misleading, distortions of what we remembered.
Instead of trying to continue the charade of holding on to the past, let’s use what we remember to help make a better future.
I recall that weekend at the Hotel Palomar, and how fun it was, but I can’t hold on to it, and I can’t try to relive all the exciting moments. What I can do, though, is learn the lesson of that interview pitch: Instead of relying on what was, I can put some stock into what could be.
Silicon Tare, and all of the other Com Truise releases, are available in physical and digital forms in many places, including The Ghostly Store.
Want to see Com Truise live? He might be in your town this spring and summer.