In the afterword of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Simon Reynolds muses about the musicians that arrived after the post-punk movement who started to look backwards by twenty years to the 1960s in order to draw inspiration and guidance. Fast-forward two decades into the late 2000s and one sees this trend repeating as millennial musicians took to the stage and looked back to their youth of the eighties and early nineties for source material. With increasingly affordable music creation software, cheaper hardware, and a bit of a deconstructionist mindset, these artists sought to tap into various iconic aspects of the eighties, and in the process of doing so created new genres of music such as bit-pop, chiptune, synthwave, outrun, vaporwave, and so on.
Synthwave bands such as Lazerhawk and Street Cleaner, along with David Hasselhoff and his song “True Survivor” for the eighties homage film Kung Fury (2015), have successfully ridden this niche wave of electronic throwback music. Despite these success stories, one cannot help but feel that there is an underlying hint of parody, winks, and nods at the source material that is just under the surface of many of these projects. This is akin to the band Steel Panther, who not only embraces eighties heavy metal culture by making competent music in that vein, but parodies it as well. These synthwave bands may not overtly be leveraging homage as parody, but the feeling is there.
This is what makes the French synthwave project Perturbator unique and successful: its unabashed, arms-wide-open acceptance and reappropriation of eighties aesthetics and tropes without the hint of irony or parody. Perturbator stands out in the synthwave scene not just because of its technical music acumen, but also for the unapologetic embrace of these tropes. In unskilled hands, the results would come off as camp or comedic. Instead, Perturbator successfully mixes the cultural milieu of eighties cyberpunk, anime, dark synth music from the likes of John Carpenter or low-budget films such as Future-kill (1985), occultism, neo-noir, and tech-noir. The end results come off as not only dead serious, but incredibly engaging and surprisingly relevant to today’s societal woes.
The generation conceived in 1984 matured during the prosperous nineties only to emerge in a new millennium that was a far cry from the expected utopia. There is a reason why technocratic-dystopian stories resonate with the thirty-something and younger crowd. Young adult fiction such as The Hunger Games and the Divergent novels, films such as the Robocop (2014) remake and Dredd (2012), and video games such as Deus Ex and Remember Me tap into our modern fears and posit them into the near future. Futuristic visions from the past have been realized, but not in the fashion anticipated. The Metaverse from Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash has been superseded by Facebook and social media. The cowboy hackers from William Gibson‘s Sprawl trilogy are embodied in the likes of Edward Snowden, the mysterious leak of the Panama papers, and even the hackers behind the Sony data breach. Yet, as these predictions panned out differently than expected, other predictions still ring true. As the introduction in the seminal Ghost in the Shell manga states, “It is the near future. The world has become highly information-intensive, with a vast corporate network covering the planet, electrons and light pulsing through it. But the nation-state and ethnic groups still survive.”
This is the world explored in the narratives of Perturbator’s albums, particularly with Dangerous Days and the project’s newest album, The Uncanny Valley. Set twenty-four years after the events of Dangerous Days and displaced from Nocturne City to Tokyo, the press release for the album says that, “the story is your story, you are the motorcycle helmet-clad vigilante known as the Night Driving Avenger,” who is, “fighting for liberty and equality in a cynical world.” This second-person perspective approach definitely anchors the listeners into the story, while appealing to our modern-day anxieties.
Perturbator has perfected the art of opening an album. While Dangerous Days used a slow, ominous build through “Welcome Back” before launching into “Perturbator’s Theme,” Perturbator elected to skip the buildup on The Uncanny Valley’s opening track, “Neo Tokyo,” and instead launched right into it. The “chugging” sounds in the track’s first few seconds before propelling itself into the song proper are an audible simile for a motorcycle revving up, much akin to Kaneda’s iconic red motorcycle in the seminal anime film Akira (1988). As Kaneda, Tetsuo, and gang hop onto their bikes and ride the highways of Neo Tokyo, so too do the listeners of “Neo Tokyo” as the song approximates the pulsing feeling of riding into the big city, further cementing the role of listener as active participant in the narrative of The Uncanny Valley.
At a surface level, the song “Femme Fatale” taps into fifties American noir aesthetics and may seem at odds with the Asian and cyberpunk aspects of the album. Yet its smooth, synthesized jazz melodies deliver imagery of Chow Yun-Fat’s character Tequila visiting his favorite watering hole in John Woo’s bullet ballet film, Hard Boiled (1992)—a movie that would have a profound impact on nineties cyberpunk culture, particular for the film The Matrix (1999).
Prior Perturbator collaborator Greta Link makes an appearance on the seductive song “Venger.” While “Sentinal” may be the album’s most single-worthy track, complete with music video and lyrics that solidify The Uncanny Valley’s themes, “Venger” really steals the show as best song proper. There is a combination of both sorrow and romance in the lyrics of “Venger,” as if delivered by the full red lips and slight overbite of Jennifer Connelly’s character in Dark City (1998).
Occult and religious themes that Perturbator has flirted with in the past appear on this album in the instrumentals as “Diabolus Ex Machina” and “The Cult of 2112.” These types of long-form, cinematic instrumentals have consistently been Perturbator’s forte, and The Uncanny Valley is rife with them.
There are only a few scant “foibles” present in The Uncanny Valley that do not mesh with the rest of the album. The last minute of “Disco Inferno” is actually music-free narrative exposition which unbalances the otherwise steady song. This small outro would have been better partitioned off of “Disco Inferno” and spun into its own interlude track. The ending of the track “Souls at Zero” features a sampling of the “One of us!” chant from Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. While Perturbator is no stranger to using samples, with snippets of Alien 3 (1992) appearing in Dangerous Days and Wicked City (1987) appearing in I am the Night, the sample from Freaks seems jarringly out-of-place in The Uncanny Valley. Perhaps its usage is more in the vein of the Skinny Puppy style of using samples rather than Perturbator’s more methodological style. Other than these minor items, The Uncanny Valley is near perfection.
As is customary with Perturbator albums, The Uncanny Valley is presented in a variety of formats: a single-disc digipak, a double-CD edition, multiple LPs, and even a cassette version. Perturbator’s album art has always had a strong emphasis on showcasing women, and with The Uncanny Valley’s naked woman illustrated on the cover, the album has seen its fair share of social media controversy, inevitably with it being censored on Facebook. The cover art may be sexy, but it is not sexualized. The nude woman with the cyberpunk city backdrop firmly establishes the visual aesthetic to complement the album and its narrative. From the opening to the anime version of Ghost in the Shell (1995) that depicts the creation of Major Kusanagi, to the near naked Zhora attempting to escape from Deckard in Blade Runner (1982), the nude female is an important image to cyberpunk culture. Perturbator uses the image appropriately.
The newest offering from Perturbator continues the project’s ambitious fine-tuning of the synthwave genre, rightly becoming the genre’s seminal band. This in turn has a trickle-down effect in inspiring other synthwave artists, further developing the scene. From carbon copies to unique outfits, the genre is flourishing, and Perturbator is leading the pack. The Uncanny Valley is a milestone not just for Perturbator, but for synthwave as well.
01) Neo Tokyo
02) Weapons for Children
03) Death Squad
04) Femme Fatale
06) Disco Inferno
07) She Moves Like a Knife
09) Diabolus Ex Machina
11) The Cult of 2112
12) Souls at Zero
13) The Uncanny Valley