Album Review: “Synthesizer Classics,” Various Artists

Synthesizer Classics hearkens back to a time when electronic keyboards were wired together with thick RCA cables shoved into input jacks. Lights blinked on sequencers like computer banks in a black and white science-fiction film. It sounded like music made by robots for robots, assuming robots could dance and consume psychedelic drugs. An album of covers by present-day musicians, Synthesizer Classics gives the listener modern interpretations of important songs from the genre’s golden age. What makes this album worth listening to is how musicianship takes center stage over technology.

Ex-Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Shirinian adds some metal intensity to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (best known, perhaps, as the theme from William Friedkin’s classic film The Exorcist). Already a haunting composition, Shirinian turns the song into an ominous, looming thing-under-the-bed. Shirinian’s arrangement captures the spirit of the original while nodding to the song’s notoriety as a mainstay of the horror genre.

Rick Wakeman, a former member of the pioneering progressive rock group Yes, places a whimsical spin on “Magic Fly,” the 1977 electronic hit by Space. Wakeman undercuts the throbbing futurism of the original by giving the song a carnival-like feel. The tone of the melody resembles that of a calliope. Wakeman goes so far as to throw in some circus music during the song’s fade-out, helping to make “Magic Fly” one of the better and most surprising tracks on the album.

Yes veteran and synth player for the original lineup of Asia, Geoff Downes, brings the cosmic classic by Vangelis, “Pulstar,” down to earth. By incorporating subtle differences in musical tone from the original, Downes lessens the galactic feel of the song. It’s a fascinating take, warmer and more comforting than the original. Think less satellites, more cell towers.

Giorgio Moroder’s classic “Chase” theme from the 1979 Alan Parker film Midnight Express gets a wild makeover in the hands of Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess. A driving composition, which has served as the inspiration for the entrance themes of at least two professional wrestling tag teams, “Chase” lives up to its name. Rudess’s version is exciting and exhilarating, jazzing up the bass line and giving the song a modern feel. Rudess uses “Chase” as a springboard for flawlessly incorporating a variety of musical styles, showcasing his ability and inventiveness.

Patrick Moraz of the Moody Blues covers Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene (Part 4)” with a dose of much-needed humanity. Far more stringent and serious in its original form, Moraz has some fun with the song. Small creative riffs are sprinkled throughout Moraz’s version, making the tune almost playful. While the song remains the same, the approach is light-hearted and the result is fun to listen to.

John Carpenter’s main theme from his 1981 action/satire Escape from New York is the most recent song covered on Synthesizer Classics. Thijs Van Leer of the Dutch prog rock band Focus eschews Carpenter’s recent rock-oriented re-recording of the song, to embrace the dirty aesthetic of the movie. With the notable exception of omitting one howling high note, Van Leer doesn’t vary from the original. While it may be the least creative of the covers on Synthesizer Classics, “Escape from New York” is still a touchstone for electronic music in cinema and worthy of inclusion on the album.

Nyte Jewel updates Kraftwerk’s 1983 aural travelogue, “Tour de France” with drums forward in the mix and the sparse lyrics easy to distinguish. Rushing by the listener like the titular bicycle race, “Tour de France” is a bouncy, breezy ride. Nyte Jewel’s modern touches (forceful drums, sampled breathing, etc.) never overshadow the overall mood of the tune.

Electronic music trailblazer Larry Fast closes the album out with a deep cut, covering the song “Visitors” by the Italian synth pop group Koto. Fast levels up the percussion while chords phase and swirl through the background, giving the song a present feel. He gives urgency to “Visitors,” turning it from a toe-tapper to something akin to a headbanger. It’s an excellent cover and a great ending track.

Synthesizer Classics is a dull name for this album. Taking these songs, which were “the future now” decades ago, and updating them with modern musical technology is a wonderful concept. The love the musicians have for the genre is practically audible. Despite the awful title, one hopes there are more albums like this in the offing.

Synthesizer Classics is available now from Purple Pyramid Records on all major streaming platforms or wherever fine music is sold.

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