Pittsburgh-based Betamaxx was a relatively early adopter of synthwave, and certainly could be considered a pioneer of American synthwave, releasing his first songs in early 2012. Although he announced his retirement in 2015, I’m glad he decided to come back. Lost in a Dreamworld, released last month on FM Attack’s Starfield Music, is the second album in this new phase of the artist also known as Nick Morey. It’s also his best album and feels like the one he was meant to make all along.
Synthwave has always been a modern interpretation of the 1980s — a musical distillation of certain people’s sense of nostalgia. There have been some acts that try to accurately replicate the pop of the ’80s in their work — “Hey, this sounds exactly like something we used to hear back in ’87!” — but generally the best outcomes have been when pairing the spiritual traits of ’80s music with a modern foundation. Or, at least, when trying to pair the modern lived experience with ’80s elements.
Betamaxx has always been great at pulling that off. Both 2012’s Lost Formats and 2015’s Plug & Play were laced with ’80s cheese buoyed in various degrees by modern indie synth-pop and French house. “Take Me Back” from Plug & Play is like Cut Copy or Brothertiger infused with Fred Ventura or Harold Faltermeyer and most of Lost Formats features dance beats ‘neath ’80s synths. (“Redlining 6th” — from both the 2015 Kung Fury soundtrack and 2013 album Sophisticated Technology — is in similar territory.)
Beginning on 2017’s Archaic Science — the putative comeback album released on Rosso Corsa — Morey began experimenting more with his sound, while still keeping his feet planted in ’80s-inspired music. The compositions were more audacious and nuanced. Consider the pronounced beauty of the exquisite “Something Else,” a collaboration with Hayley Stewart before she adopted the Mecha Maiko moniker. Or “Party Favors,” a collab featuring the Michael Rother-like intricacies of guitarist Mike McG.
On Lost in a Dreamworld, all of the elements of Morey’s musical past as Betamaxx are focused, streamlined, and magnified with the shepherding of FM Attack’s Shawn Ward and his Starfield Music label. Not that Ward lorded over Morey with a svengali presence or anything. It’s just that Morey seems to have gained a wealth of confidence since joining the label.
The record kicks off with “Crimson Silhouette,” which invokes the feeling of Disintegration in space. Following that is another song that invokes The Cure, not the least because of the presence of Betamaxx’s label mate Vandal Moon. The upbeat rhythm, gorgeous synth pads, and kinetic guitars recall Robert Smith’s late ’80s tendencies.
A major highlight on the record is “Skyhigh,” the collaboration with LA-based Glitbiter. It’s a richly layered dark synth-pop track that nevertheless has a supremely catchy bounce to it — her vocals are as haunting and hypnotic as ever. In a way, it offers a glimpse of what would have happened if Vince Clarke stayed with Depeche Mode but the band still went dark.
“Vacation,” a collaboration with Swedish synthwave powerhouse Robert Parker, pairs Parker’s elaborately composed dancefloor outrun with Betamaxx’s melodic tendencies. “No Fun” brings Mecha Maiko from Ibiza into a dimly lit club in Manhattan in the 1980s for a contemplative come-down.
The killer “Disco Dreamgirl” has a fat-bottomed groove and a transcendent melody section, like a more developed version of “Hi-NRG,” Morey’s awesome Vehlinggo Presents: 5 Years contribution that didn’t make the cut on this album. It’s one of the tracks I’ve played the most — there’s such a transcendent quality about this instrumental number.
The delightful vulnerability of album closer “I’ll Walk You Home” is something to behold. It’s one of my favorite cuts on the record. It’s a deeply moving and soulful slow-burner, and Morey somehow manages to make singing through a vocoder sound anything but mechanical and robotic. Then after barely more than 3 minutes the song fades out and everything is over. The album’s done, leaving you feeling like you want 11 more songs.
“… Morey has gone and made the best Betamaxx record to-date. He’s found himself comprehensively.”
By getting himself lost in the endless possibilities and endless vulnerabilities of a richly textured and colorful dream world, Morey has gone and made the best Betamaxx record to-date. He’s found himself comprehensively.
Morey never loses sight of the sound that he helped pioneer, but he also never gets too stuck in his own musical past. Nostalgic sounds can work wonders when executed right, but getting stuck in a nostalgia loop centered on one’s own musical back-catalogue can lead to hopelessly redundant art and listener fatigue. Not only did Morey pull his Betamaxx project out of retirement with a clarified purpose, he made sure to never fall prey to that misguided approach to musical composition. Betamaxx drives nostalgia; nostalgia doesn’t drive Betamaxx.
You can buy physical and digital versions of Lost in a Dreamworld via Bandcamp, or stream it via the usual suspects. Catch Betamaxx at the Neon Rose festival in Portland on Nov. 22.