Manchester-based nicotine, Pepsi Max, and JRPG enthusiast, and musician/producer Ed Hawx began releasing albums under the moniker DEADLIFE with 2018’s Bionic Chrysalis and has since been one of the most prolific artists working in darksynth. He has produced eight excellent albums (two to three a year, for those keeping count) before producing his latest, God in the Machine (Released August 6th on Fixt Neon).
There have always been a lot of vital contradictions within the music of DEADLIFE from the very beginning, Themes of cybernetics, grinding machines, but melodies full of humanity and heart. Dark themes of a violent future but also with expressions of hope and joy mixed in as well. Nostalgia of the past (especially for 90’s pop culture) and Hawx’s real-life memories and experiences of the past weaved into the DNA of songs with an eye to the future. Many songs without lyrics that still have the ability to create vivid stories within the mind of the listener.
It is this sort of cohesive contradiction upon which DEADLIFE has forged his sound, varying to suit his moods and artistic needs as he saw fit. When it was announced that, for his latest album, DEADLIFE had joined the roster of Fixt Neon, many wondered, would the sound of DEADLIFE change? Ultimately, the answer is, yes and no. For those who loved DL’s previous albums, the core of what gives DEADLIFE’s music its identity is still very much intact. But it’s not the same, either. God in the Machine feels like the work of an artist who decided to push himself, and to turn all his strengths up to 11. The symphonic storm of Kid From Nowhere. The stalking rhythms of Obsolete. The digital grind of North Inertia.
Even though many of these songs lack lyrics and the ones that do speak to their own themes instead of adhering to an overarching narrative, telling stories feels like a key aspect to the creation and production of this music. Hawx has been very vocal about his love of film and game soundtracks in the past, and it’s easy to see the influence in the production of his music. Any writer having difficulty with writer's block might do well to turn on some DEADLIFE and see what images begin forming.
While DEADLIFE is known for the strength of his instrumentals, and his vocal tracks were less common, a lot of expectations about his move to Fixt Neon centered around the idea that it would be expected that the vocal tracks on God in the Machine would be attempts to produce “hit singles.” The reality of what happened is far more complex and pleasing than just shoehorning some hits into a DEADLIFE album. The vocal tracks still retain much of the DEADLIFE texture and soul. When Scandroid (vocalist and Fixt founder Klayton) provided vocals on Obsolete, it didn’t become another Scandroid song. This is definitely DEADLIFE, using Klayton’s strengths to build on the flesh-trapped-in-the-machine furor and ache of the track.
Tessa Hedrick, a vocalist who previously collaborated on the DL song “Her Broken Smile” on the album Dark Nation, provides the vocals on Dysphoric Depths. Hedrick’s gorgeous voice shifts from ethereal whisper to soaring cry depending upon the shifting tempo and intensity of the track, filling an already emotional ride with layers of ache and longing..
The biggest disappointment of this whole album is that the vocalist on What It Means To Ache and Anger Calling is uncredited, but I hear it’s the same vocalist on both, which shows an amazing range and skill. The whys of her anonymity are unknown and are, of course, between her and DL, but with her soulful, almost bluesy croon on What It Means To Ache, it’s hard not to want a name so you can find more music by her. On Anger Calling, she provides a soaring Dance Diva vocal that makes the song into the DEADLIFE version of a Eurodance dance floor filler.
Then there’s No Future, No Illusions, a track with vocals provided by DEADLIFE himself, and it may be my favorite DL track ever. It begins with a cinematic swell of horns and glitching technology before the shadowy melody and Hawx’s whispery vocals begin to create a powerful yet understated story of overwhelming fear and fighting to overcome it. Manipulated vocals and synths form a melody that slowly grow to a bridge where the choral synths sing, the drums thunder, and the protagonist of this song, it is assumed, dives into the fray and battles the unnamed foe. The song ends with Hawx’s voice singing a wordless and unaccompanied melody after the machines fall silent, leaving the listener to decide the outcome of the battle, and its cost.
Ultimately, my recommendation is that no one who loves good synth music should be without this album. It is the best work of an artist whose work has always been exceptional. Before listening, however, I would suggest obtaining all of his earlier albums (at this writing, all priced at Pay-What-You-Want) and starting at the beginning. You’ll hear a journey that begins with some of the best music of the dark synth genre and builds to a place where this artist stands alone in the context of his own unique bionic expression.