Dusk. Palm trees. Cigarette boats banking and skating across the water. You’ve been here before. Of course. Everyone has. The omnipotent spectre of the 1980s knows no limit to its reaches, covering men, women, cars and coastlines in a weird glossy sheen, transporting them into the eerie carbon-copy of life that oozes out of the opening credits to everything committed to film over the decade.
It’s a slow opening, offering space and time for your thoughts to wander. But the wavering, warping, worn-VHS-tape synthesizers weave their way around your brain, colouring your contemplations (pastel shades, naturally) and transporting you to another world – one where that white suit in the wardrobe don’t look too bad at all. Chuck Taylors? Baby blue t-shirt? Outta sight.
Things get stranger with the crisp synthesizer arpeggios of the darkly kinetic Atom, and it becomes clear that Vaughtex (AKA Lawrence Vaughan) is here making the most of a few select influences. Notably Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Moroder, and the film soundtracks of John Carpenter, Brad Fiedel et al.
There’s nothing wrong with wearing your inspirations on your sleeve, of course, and it’s sometimes cathartic to take a deep dive into the known. Retro Futurism – if the title didn’t give you a clue – is a study in working well-worn sounds into a new cohesive whole. But it is thankfully no box-ticking exercise, and is propelled by Vaughan’s apparent sense of giddy adventure within his chosen sphere.
The press release even nods to a dodgy tongue-in-cheek narrative underpinning things. The storytelling, though, is less noticeable in execution than intent. Kavinsky’s OutRun, perhaps the most striking recent example to which comparisons are conjured here, made use of snatches of noise and dialogue to fully embody its own batshit backstory. A few skits would be mightily cheesy. But isn’t that the point?
Musically, at least, there is consistency and a clear sense of rise-and-fall that moves the record along. Bouncing between the aforementioned influences lends momentum – swerving as far-out as the sinister electro thump of Glass Skull. That track, and Chrome Blood, are the most visceral points, as drums distort and instruments get stretched to breaking point.
This willingness to test the limits of a small set of influences is what elevates Retro Futurism from simply a solid experiment, to a more rewarding listen. There’s little subtlety – Vaughan is eager to exhibit exactly what you should be listening to and when, gesturing towards new sonic ideas with all the nuance of that Stranger Things reference in paragraph three.
Musical motifs and textures are chewed up and spat out almost to the point of tedium early on. But, just when you’re headed into the hundredth reimagining of the synth riff that White Wedding didn’t know it needed, the Duran Duran guitar in Back in ’84 takes you back to the pier, the red sun, the speedboats.
The album’s centre is where Vaughtex lets his musicality shine – Back in ’84 utilising the simple gut-punch power of a rising chord progression, with warm strings playing off against the synthesizers. But those slight flashes of guitar prompt you to think of what’s missing – what could have been, with a touch of something a little more human.
Where OutRun found its voice was, fittingly, when a song lent itself towards being the backdrop for a guest vocal performance. Here, some compositions suffer for being almost too conventionally songlike in structure. I feel that a strong vocal or two would, like a bit of Foley or dialogue, supplement the tracklist’s dynamism, supplying vitality and further adherence to the narrative. As it is, the songs by themselves struggle to communicate a strong story.
That is, unless, like this reviewer you were raised anywhere near a Sega Mega Drive and old tapes of Arnie, Kurt and the like muscling their way around neon cityscapes. I found myself happily splicing in my own scenes as the music called for them, supplying what is only suggested by Vaughtex himself. If you didn’t waste a childhood binging on Streets of Rage, though, you may lose interest. Nostalgia is a powerful and oddly benevolent mistress.
Moonlit excursion Vigilante Love is a high point, bittersweetly melodic with unusual harmonies. The track also proves to be a transition into the album’s heavier portion, as Justice-style drum breaks let fly at the song’s close. Superior Machine reins it back in – at least until the wailing, Bernard Sumner-esque guitar creeps in, growing more unhinged as the track rattles on. It was clearly a stylistic decision to ration this blast of gloomy post-rock, but Vaughan seemingly has an ear for it.
The album could have ended here with little complaint. Closer Epsilon serves to feel like the post-credits scene, lingering on our weary hero as he drags his feet through his hometown’s deserted streets, white suit now a perfectly situation-appropriate shade of grey-brown, to find that something’s… different? -CUT TO BLACK-.
There’s a lot to like here in an album that was clearly fun to make, and you can forgive the occasional hiccup. Vaughtex has crafted a sweetly charming and refreshingly earnest work, but one which does rely on a nostalgic disposition to be truly engaging.
However, with the ever-perpetual revival of 80s fashion, films and TV shows, combined with home music production becoming ever more intuitive and effective, it would be interesting to see whether a new raft of artists clutching synthesizers and copies of Carpenter OSTs will soon come surfing over the horizon, making records like Retro Futurism. If they do, I’d hope to see Vaughtex speeding past over the waves.