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Surrender or Die!: Exploring Volkor X’s “This Means War”

From the outer reaches of the solar system, a large mass [unknown origin] phases into existence, disturbing the tiny comets of the Oort Cloud. The mass orients itself toward the center of the solar system and begins its journey inwards, within minutes achieving speeds faster than light. What would take years to traverse takes minutes. Light from the sun begins to reveal more and more features of the mass: unknown metals and alloys, unprecedented technology, and an “X” shaped design. The X opens up its communication channels and transmits a signal to Earth, received and decoded by the Deep Space Network. The transmission: “People of Earth, surrender or die!”

Synthwave music has established itself as the premiere genre of eighties homage and nostalgia. From iconography of palm trees, fast cars, martial arts, neon-magenta, old-school anime, and masked serial killers, the genre has found its visual identity. Many of these projects focus on eighties-era cyberpunk/sci-fi elements. However, within this offshoot of sci-fi-oriented synthwave, there is a sect of artists who eschew the sensibilities of the era and instead look toward outer space to draw their inspiration from. These include artists such as Dreamcaster, Waveshaper, Dynatron, and Volkor X.

Volkor X emerged on the synthwave scene in 2015 releasing the Bad Ass Inc. EP and the Masked Death single in anticipation of the This Means War album the following year. This Means War is a seven-track release, dense and epic in scope, straddling both extremes of synthwave: at times chill and icy, other times cinematic and boisterous, and with a story to tell.

From Street Cleaner’s Jack Slade to Perturbator’s Night Riding Avenger, synthwave artists typically revolve their stories around a (anti)hero of sorts, be it motorcycle-riding vigilantes or kung-fu cops. Even with many acts embracing the dark, occult, and horror aspects of the genre, few artists actually take on a villainous role. Volkor X’s titular space-faring conqueror is one of the few standout antagonistic characters within the scene. Per Volkor X:

“As a sci-fi fanatic, I’ve always been fascinated by the villains. I find them so much more interesting, ambiguous, and badass. And they also often have a far better dress code than the good guys!”

However, Volkor X is also quick to point out the multifaceted nature of his character, in that perhaps he, “isn’t the warmongering monster people think he is. Maybe he doesn’t want to make war, maybe he just has to… Maybe future stories will reveal more about who he is, and why he does what he does… Or maybe not…?”

Storytelling is important to the genre, yet one of the hurdles it must overcome is the ability to convey narratives without singing. Some bands, such as Gunship, do fully embrace having songs in a more traditional sense with vocals and lyrics, but the vast majority of synthwave artists use vocalists sparingly and in a guest-appearance-only capacity. Due to the cinematic nature of the genre, narratives are first and foremost grounded in the moods of the music. For Volkor X:

“When I compose, I’m trying to write music that doesn’t need lyrics. I find it easier to set an ambiance, to trigger emotions, with instrumental music. I’m trying to compose songs which evolve, build up, and that make you FEEL something, instead of just taping your foot on the floor.”

In conjunction with lyricless music, narratives unfold with the assistance of paratexts of the album: cover art, music videos, artist statements, and press releases. Open to interpretation, album narratives shoot off into different trajectories: the canonical narrative put forth by the artist and the different imagined stories created by the listeners. Per Volkor X, This Means War does, “tell the story of Volkor X, en route to destroy a planet with which he is at war,” yet that he has his, “own way of interpreting what happens between ‘Prelude to War’ and ‘This Means War’, but I prefer to let the listeners make up their own stories. And I don’t care what story they imagine, as long as it makes them feel different kind of emotions throughout the album.”

The story proper of This Means War begins with the aptly named “Prelude to War.” A quieter piece, a sort of “calm before the storm” track, it is filled “electric tonalities” that are reminiscent of atomic-age sci-fi films. “The Bomb” almost has a Man or Astro-Man (sans the surf elements) feel to it due to the presence of audio samples from the Japanese tokusatsu film Attack from Space. Unlike when most industrial bands use samples to complement their music, the lifted dialog from Attack from Space could almost stand in as vocals for Volkor X himself. For the guitar solo present in the song, Volkor X wanted it, “to have the kind of power Michael Sembello‘s ‘Maniac’ guitar solo has.” “Hypersleep” returns back to the more ambient, ethereal feel, its synth-soundscape replicating a long sleep in a stasis perhaps.

The album concludes with the titular track, a thirteen-minute epic song and crown jewel of the album. A shorter edit of the song that is paired with a music video done in 16-bit video game style by Gyhyom provides the paratext narrative for the instrumental. A bounty hunter awakens from a deep slumber and seeks out to collect the large bounty on Volkor X. He deploys to a city on a foreign planet fully under control of Volkor X. He rides through the city (filled with many pop culture easter eggs: a recreation of a city-scape from Akira, billboards from They Live, a store with the Omni Consumer Products logo (Robocop), the noodle house from Blade Runner, and so on) to infiltrate Volkor X’s compound. He dispatches the ground troops before meeting Volkor X himself. A battle ensues, but the bounty hunter is easily dispatched by Volkor X, who throws him out a window with his telekinetic powers. The song is ambitious, broken into two halves. The first half is catchy and kinetic, with metal-influenced riffs. It could easily be appropriated for use in a video game as it has much in common with bitpop music without actually being bitpop. The last half of the song changes mood and goes for an operatic feel, which no doubt is in part due to the presence of Sylvain Coudret (Soilwork) performing a solo.

This Means War saw a plethora of formats when released: a vinyl limited to 100 copies, a cassette limited to 80 copies (both of these formats have long since sold out), a digipak CD (which remains in print), and of course a digital version from Bandcamp. Some of the songs on This Means War can be found in other incarnations as well: “Masked Death” appeared on both the Masked Death digital single and in a remixed version on the newly released DESYNC (Original Soundtrack, Vol 2.) along with “Beacon.”

When the anonymous artist behind Volkor X set out to create synthwave music, it had initially began as a “therapy project and a sort of experiment.” He had been composing music for more than twenty-five years, but usually for other clients and not himself. Feeling the need to create something new and to fall in love with composing again, Volkor X began to create music anonymously in the style that he wanted to do:

“I needed a fresh start. To start a project from scratch, being a nobody again. I needed to talk to a brand new audience who weren’t expect anything from me, and see if I could lure them into my world. So far, I’m very satisfied with the result of this little experiment. Not only have I sold more albums than I expected, but I’ve also made a lot of new friends and met great people.”

Indeed, the end-results speak for themselves in that This Means War is a stellar release. Not a space-ballad, rock-opera, or concept album, but a simple story of world/universe domination that readers can fill in their own blanks with, set to catchy synth riffs, hooks, and atmospheric tones. A highly recommended release, not only for the quality of music contained on the album, but per Volkor X himself, owners of his album will be spared when he inevitably takes over the world.

Track List:

01) Prelude to War
02) Masked Death
03) Run Away
04) Beacon (feat. Dimi Kate)
05) The Bomb
06) Hypersleep
07) This Means War (feat. Sylvain Coudret)

Written by: Nicholas Diak
Label: Planet Cracker Records (Unknown) / PCR001 / Digipak CD, Digital, 12″ LP, Tape
Retrowave / Synthwave / Darkwave