Hayley Stewart was never going to make dogmatic synthwave. This was clear when she was one-half of Dead Astronauts and it was potently comprehensible when she released Mad But Soft, her first album under her Mecha Maiko moniker.
That record was like Johnny Jewel filtered through an electro-pop-infused ’80s-retro/neo-Tokyo splash of neon pink on black. She followed that up with the brilliant Okiya EP, an experimental synth-pop record that took left turns into other dimensions and toyed with your sense of expectation. (You’ll get more of that from her on Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years soon.)
This time around, on Let’s (ORO Records), the Toronto-based Stewart has unleashed a subversive dance record that advocates for societal reform, such as addressing climate change and vast income inequality, while compelling your body to move to grooves that invoke house-infused electro-pop from the very early ’90s. (We got a preview of this on the Technique-recalling “Phones,” released earlier this year but also on Let’s.) Stewart continues to stand with one foot in synthwave and another in the greater electronic music world and we’re all better off for it.
On “End of Your Life,” one of the best tracks on the record, Stewart injects a potent dose of wealth-shaming into an absolute banger of a track. Stewart’s tempered but potent vocals implore the captains of the New Guilded Age to ask themselves if they’ll truly be happy with how they’re conducting themselves — if on their death beds they’ll be pleased with how they’ve lived. That message rides along on a powerfully rhythmic and engaging instrumental vessel.
The carnivalesque “Alive,” an album highlight and a bit of a companion to “Phones,” is musically the pink-and-orange dawn that comes along as you ignore the passage of time on an Ibizan beach before the invention of the World Wide Web. Time is irrelevant when the music is this good — when the beat is this energized and the hypnotic chanteuse-ry this blissful. Do we feel alive, Mecha Maiko? Yes, we do. The message about economic inequality and exploitation is just icing on the cake. Bernie needs to hire Hayley Stewart stat.
There are some great mid-tempos numbers on the album, too. “Change Alot” has a 909 saunter laced with slowed-down piano house riffs and synth-pop-infused colors. It’s just a beautiful song. Album closer “Be the Reaper” finds Mecha Maiko in a delectably spectral place, awash in a haunt of cold synths made corporeal in the face of the great stakes of modern life.
“Meet Me at the Arcade,” featuring vocals from Vandal Moon’s Blake Voss, has a post-punk-inflected acid strut to it. The layered synths are warped and crushed with phasers, and a flirty apprehension reigns supreme until the denouement gives way to a kinetic cascade of passionate synth sounds and hi-hat mayhem.
Let’s represents an exciting development in the story of an artist who varies her style from album-to-album while retaining a foundational sense of self with each shift and experimentation. Her quest to bring her project and the messages it carries to the club is pure genius: If we’re gonna survive the preeminent slow-burn apocalypse, we need to internalize some key maxims. Perhaps the best way we’ll swallow them is when we’re happy, dancing, and singing along.
You can buy the digital album right now via Bandcamp or stream it via the usual suspects.