(Editor’s Note: Brooklyn-based Andrew B. White wrote this piece. In it he does double duty, reviewing Beckett’s new album and interviewing the artist himself. The interview is toward the end of the piece.)
Manchester, England’s Beckett has been a staple in the synthwave scene since 2013 and given the genre’s brief tenure this could classify him as part of the “old guard.” With contributions to several compilations on the Retro Promenade label and four full-length albums under his belt, Beckett has just dropped his adeptly crafted fifth album, literally tilted FIVE (or Summer Gone).
Beckett’s previous albums have all focused on specific themes. 2016’s Primetime was a collection of faux 1980s-style TV themes, with Retrograde and Search of 34 both inspired by video games. FIVE continues this trend, but instead uses summer as the common thread — all wrapped within an ’80s context, of course.
The album is expertly put together. Sonically, the production is masterful with careful consideration given to instrumentation that is well-chosen and balanced. The choices of synth patches, drum sounds and fills, guitar and vocal lines all work together to bake-in ‘80s authenticity. Song arrangements are sublime, taking cues from Beckett’s influences who are skilled in the art of utilizing pre-choruses, bridges, and breaks to build a song up and create memorable moments.
FIVE features a number of contributors. Rachael Jones, who has appeared on previous Beckett releases, brings her versatile vocals to the Michael Sembello pop of “Spend the Summer” and the R&B funk of “We Can Get Down.” The latter track also spotlights the sublime guitar work of Luca Ricardo, as does opening track “AirGames ’88” – possibly a combo of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and a rousing theme for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
There’s more of Ricardo’s guitars on the upbeat instrumental “PLAY,” alongside the sultry sax of Simon Reynolds. Sax is making itself known in more synthwave tracks of late and it nicely sets the mood here. With the instrumental tracks — “North Avenue” conjures up Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” and Holland’s Time Bandits, and “South Beach” sets the scene for some Miami Vice-style vignettes.
On FIVE the synth/rock tracks remind me very much of the slick, mid-‘80s productions of David Foster, Peter Cetera, Michael McDonald, David Pack, and others. In comparison, the R&B funk tracks take their cues from the likes of Minneapolis maestros Prince, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (and therefore The Time) and Zapp. So while Beckett plays-up to the synth/AOR rock angle very well, he also knows how to bring the funk.
Over the nine tracks here — 12 if you count the instrumental versions of several of the vocal tracks — Beckett adeptly captures the spirit he sets out to convey: the vision of some perennial ‘80s “West Coast” summer. It’s something we can all picture, and considering Beckett is based in the northwest of England, proves that to bring this vision to life doesn’t require that you need to reside there.
A Q&A with Beckett
I threw a few questions out to Beckett for a little more insight on the album.
ABW: What was your plan for this album? Did you have a set idea in mind or did you just put down whatever came out?
Beckett: The album came together in several stages. The initial idea for tracks was to be different memories of fun times, past loves, and the games we play over the course of summer — not just one summer, maybe several put together — and strong feelings that I had for these different life events.
I hope people can feel an attachment to a nostalgic memory that my music might spark for them. Two examples for me are “Play,” [the] second track on the album which is very upbeat carefree, almost promiscuous, in its tone, and “Time Slides.” [This] is a track that I knew from the beginning I had to have as an end to the album. This track reminds me of togetherness, being with family, but also saying goodbye to possibly loved ones and friends from a time when I was a child.
The sound of the album is very authentic ‘80s, right down to the choice of synth patches and production. Did you have specific musical influences your were wanting to emulate? And sonically, what were your specific go-to’s in terms of synths (software or hardware)?
I use a lot of hardware synths, especially in this album. I managed to bring out the Korg Poly 100, Korg Trinity, Yamaha DX 21, Kawai K1r, and an expanded [Roland] JV1080. The patches I use are not default, they are always modified in some way and there are some presets I use on software synths, like the TAL U-No-LX, that are completely custom; like a Beckett starter kit, if you will!
I don’t really find myself trying to emulate the style. I am inspired a lot by certain artists, like Vincent DiCola, David Foster, [and] Level 42, and I feel that because of these heavy influences my style is a mishmash and sounds quite close to how they used to write.
I think that is why my work sounds more authentic, as I’m not trying to recreate a style or sound. I’m bringing forward a sound and feeling that is very close to the original. Well, that is what I hope anyway. I want it to feel genuine and I want the listeners to feel that this is sound from a close-to-the-heart kind of place
In addition to instrumentals, there are a number of vocal tracks on the album. What was the process in finding the vocalists? Do you think synthwave is moving away from purely instrumental music to being more vocal based?
I knew that when putting these tracks together I can’t create the vocal timbres needed to fit a certain sound. I knew the only way to be authentic was to find singers that actually perform and sing this way.
My voice is a very different style to a lot of voices in the synthwave scene, and then there are the epic tracks that require female vocals. It took some time, but I was able to work with the exact voices I needed and got the best performances out of the artists… They are singing from the heart and with the genuine approach.
“I find most of these answers come back to production.”
I don’t believe that synthwave as we know it is purely limited to non-vocal tracks. I see synthwave as more of a production style, not just a genre. There are vocal tracks that are set right in the heart of ’80s synth-pop, but with the right production they still fall into synthwave. I find it odd that some artists and fans have a cut-off on such an ambiguous genre. Like, where is the line? When does a simple eight-beat stop being synthwave and become ’80s rock? I find most of these answers come back to production. That’s how I see it anyway. 😉
White’s previous contribution to Vehlinggo was a review and interview with producer Le Flex.