There’s a major sense of enchantment on FM-84’s debut full-length album Atlas, which comes out today. The airy retrosynth style from his debut EP, Los Angeles, is still there, but this time he aims higher. A lot higher.
There are upbeat and intricate instrumentals that recall Tycho, and pop hits that recall the best of mid- to late-1980s synthpop and blue-eyed R&B. For the latter he collaborated with the likes of British retrosynth singer/songwriter Ollie Wride and When In Rome’s Clive Farrington, co-writer of the hit “The Promise.”
The Wride collaboration “Don’t Want to Change Your Mind” is the highlight of Atlas. The massive, slow-burning pop/R&B number is a hook-laden cut largely reminiscent of the 80s work of artists such as Breathe and Lionel Richie, but as it progresses there are shades of M83 amid the transcendent synths of 80s-era Starship.
Wride’s vocals soar up the octave ladder over the synth-drenched arrangement like a pop-metal singer high on hairspray. When Wride’s vocals lock into the sexy synth melody on the chorus, as the rhythm section smoothly carries them along, the result is glorious.
Wride and San Francisco-based FM-84 (AKA Colin Bennett) might not want to change your mind, but they can’t stop “Change” from transforming the retrosynth/synthwave movement to some extent. Going forward, others will have to at least mind this roadmap and step up their game significantly.
Wride’s other co-writes — lead single “Running in the Night” and “Wild Ones” — are also notable songs on Atlas. “Running” has an 80s-era Don Henley vibe paired with some on-point hooks and Bennett’s trademark bright and fast arpeggiated synth meditations. “Wild” pairs an arp-synth bass with big-sky synths and a giant chorus.
The album also contains some more modern instrumentals that fit in well with their more 80s sounding counterparts.
The Tychoesque chillwave track “Tears” gives the listener the feeling of flying low over the Arctic Ocean, with the puffy snare splashes denoting every time there’s some contact with crystalline waves. Acousto-chillwave cut “Chasing Yesterday” offers a glimpse into what might have happened had the careers of John Hughes and Tycho aligned.
“Jupiter” is a droney, galactic cut that offers a glimpse of what Bennett would sound like if he ever takes the FM-84 thing into film and TV score territory. The moody number recalls the morose and pensive colors of composer Cliff Martinez’s Drive work and the interstellar ambitions of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. (Speaking of which, it’s easy to see how successful a collaboration between FM-84 and spacey synth master Syntax would be.) Amid all of this are ecstatic drum fills that occasionally veer into Jimmy Chamberlin territory.
Album closer “Goodbye,” which follows “Jupiter,” returns things back to the 80s. Farrington, who helped write When In Rome’s massive single, “The Promise,” and Bennett have created a song that could have been a great followup to Rome’s biggest hit. Take note of this: These two haven’t created a synthwave track — and the genre approximation that entails — but a song that sounds eerily like it’s from about 1988.
The heartfelt lyrics about the drama of a crumbling relationship resonate gloriously over a bath of slow synths, earnest saxophone parts, and a strong rhythm section.
Overall, Bennett has taken some risks with this project.
He dabbles in more modern electronic genres, even as he delves deeper into 80s nostalgia — dancing with Ghostly International even as he doubles-down on 80s facsimiles akin to the work of Swedish producers Forêt de Vin. He does this by tipping the scale on the album in favor of romantic pop cuts and against the contemplative instrumentals that got him noticed barely a year ago. The thing is it works and it works very well.
Stream and purchase Atlas from FM-84’s Bandcamp page.
(Feature Photo Credit: Signalnoise.)