Futurecop! have always toyed with rather cohesive themes on their albums, generally building out entire concepts on albums such as 2012’s The Movie!, 2013’s Hopes, Dreams & Alienation, and 2014’s Fairy Tales: respectively, a score to a lost 1980s fantasy film, an EDM-driven dive into wistfulness, and the latter the waxing and waning tides of childhood innocence and the dreams that arise from that.
Something changed on 2017’s The Return to Alvograth. The previous focus and energy on primarily earthly things — childhood friends, films, and other cultural artifacts — shifted to, concurrently, matters both deep within and a million miles away into the heavens. As the themes became more spiritual, the sound of Manchester-based Futurecop! greater reflected their earlier sonics, developed a decade ago as synthwave pioneers. They eschewed the more modern dance music of Hopes, Dreams & Alienation and the increasingly organic tendencies of Fairy Tales. (Refer to “Sarah” as an example.)
On Voltrana, out now via NewRetroWave, it seems as if main member Manzur Iqbal has distilled every aspect of the band’s decade-plus existence into one masterful statement.
Musically, Iqbal and collaborators Parallels, NINA, Computer Magic, Ayumi Sasaki, and Siamese Youth tap into a nostalgic quality in the way Futurecop! traditionally always has: a cascade of colorful synths and emotional melodies, drenched in reverb and crescendo, evoking an earlier, likely more innocent era. Only this time the profound uplift makes you less nostalgic for, say, a few moments in the ’80s than for a time when synthwave was less derivative of itself and altogether more earnest.
Lyrically and thematically, the giant representation of The Buddha on the cover of Voltrana hints at Iqbal taking the meditations on Eastern thought even deeper than he did on The Return to Alvograth. That album was imbued with the universal interconnectedness and ideas of writers like Paulo Coelho, whereas Voltrana flows like a contemplation on the syncretic juncture of the essences of the Tripitaka (AKA the “Pali Canon”), the Tao Te Ching, and the practice of Zazen.
The album works in shifts of intergalactic uplift and tranquility. In this way it’s a bit like water, allowing you to float in a warm and relaxing state of calm before building up to a crushing tsunami of transformation that shakes you up comprehensively.
Songs of Faith and Devotion
I’ll start out with the highlights. My favorite song on the album is “Edge of the Universe,” a collaboration with Toronto’s Parallels that I’ve previously described as, “huge, its potential infinite, and your connection with the song assured.” That’s all true, but after listening to it for about six months, I’d also like to add that it’s one of those songs that also causes you to feel a connection with others. Our modern era is a corrupt one and our sense of community and decency is decaying. Songs like “Edge” allow your soul to commune with others’, each massive synth part, the driving drum rhythm, and Holly Dodson’s vocals bringing you one step closer to a global sense of family.
You’ve already been privy to “We Belong,” another early single and another of the four songs on the album to feature Parallels. (I played it on the podcast episode featuring Dodson as a guest, too.) It’s a powerful statement housed in an energetic electro-pop number: We are all bound together by a single divine connection. We are pieces of a collective essence that split from one and will be one again. At least, that’s what it means to me.
Brooklyn-based Computer Magic lends her vocals to the cinematic “Star.” It’s a positively gigantic song, filled with interstellar atmosphere, seemingly about a very personal and small moment. It feels like it’s about gazing at a distant “star” — whether an actual celestial body, a setting sun, or, more metaphorically, a shared dream or goal — and the excitement that arises around thinking about what’s in store and what it all could mean.
UK-based synthwave chanteuse NINA lends her voice to the ethereal “Fade Away.” What begins as a type of lamentation set to fading arps and subdued synth strings explodes into a demonstration of the ferocity of resilience.
Japanese singer Sasaki fronts the acoustic-guitar-driven “Shinjinmei (信心銘),” which features soulful synthscapes to match her majestic vocals. Historically, Shinjinmei is a Zen poem attributed to the third Chinese Chan (Zen) patriarch Jianzhi Sengcan (Japanese Zen practitioners know him as Kanchi Sosan). Generally, the poem deals with the profound nature of the mind. Again, it’s a kind of way to look deep within to understand the without world and the musical adaptation excels tremendously in relaying that vibe.
There are also some instrumental tracks interspersed that stand out, too. “Breeze (Behind Waterfalls)” is a rock number, replete with big and splashy acoustic-sounding drums; plucky and delayed guitars; crystalline synths; and a driving bass. As its title suggests, it has an airy quality to it. “Whispers of Tao” is an evocative New Age number, imbued with Eastern-sounding synth patches and a sentiment that suggest the teachings of Lao Tzu, the purported founder of philosophical Taoism, who is said to have uttered a particularly resonate phrase in his day: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
Ultimately, the 15-cut Voltrana is one of Futurecop!’s best albums and definitely the synthwave pioneer’s grandest statement. By allowing the listener to let go of what to expect from a Futurecop! album, Iqbal has paved the way for the album to become what it might be: a fresh and inspiring meditation on big concepts of the human condition while shining brightly with the upbeat nostalgia that synthwave first engendered and has since been losing in its grizzled old age. Iqbal and his collaborators have created something meaningful and easy to embrace. They’re using the muddy waters of our time to foster a fragrant and beautiful bloom — just like the Gautama Buddha’s powerful lotus flowers. May they reach the star.
Voltrana is available now in digital form via NewRetroWave Records and Kiez Beats. The vinyl sold out almost instantly, but I wouldn’t be shocked if NRW repressed it. That said, it seems like you’re going to need to be pretty zen to navigate the Discogs sales for this.