Let’s talk about authenticity in music. Music in of itself is one of the most genuine expressions of art, especially when you put your voice to it, but even without it, this comes to be very true. On the one hand, this authenticity has always been the clutch of shape shifting artists like David Bowie whose personalities and ever evolving sound has always been best reflected with Bowie himself at the core. On the other hand, you have an act like The 1975 whose authenticity results in a lot of overblown, messy projects that scream of the vanity and ego of lead singer Matty Healy.
But it doesn’t always have to be one way or the other, sometimes the authentic charm of a sound can be a factor that can affect its enjoyability. This is where we go to talk about Tokyo-based Synthwave producer XENNON.
Now I will be the first to say that XENNON has never been an artist that has outright blown me out of the water. Has he had great moments? Absolutely, but it’s not always the most consistent. But in revisiting especially his albums, for every track that wears out the length, that perhaps does not reach the bombast it wants to ascend to, or perhaps has a vocal that doesn’t always click with me, there is always a passionate, authentic charm that has carried his music forward. It’s the passion and love that Styx defenders always claimed Styx was about, and often equally as ambitious and sometimes ridiculous. It’s why I will always prefer him to many of the listless indie Synthwave names I will try to sit through.
So when I heard about his next album, “Dream Utopia”, I pre-ordered and I already enjoyed “Rise Again”, but some of the details made me nervous. For one, this was going to be a fully instrumental album, and I wasn’t alone in raising an eyebrow to this. For another, the singles between this release were really scattershot. One release connected to the album, another side release, and even right before the album, we got “Haddonfield”, which was great but wasn’t on the record. So what did we actually get with “Dream Utopia”?
So there are of two ways to think of this album, and depending on which you take, you will acquire different results. If you take this album at literal face value, as XENNON attempting to tell a story with his production and taking these titles to try and put something together, you will be left disappointed. But if you take away all of that and focus on the fun production, some of XENNON’s most polished work to date, and even some of his tightest melodies, this is possibly his best album to date. I chose the latter, and I think it’s more than easy to do so.
Sonically speaking, this doesn’t take a whole lot of departures from what you could expect from a XENNON album. What makes this an improvement is the careful execution and some of his finest mixing and mastering to date. I don’t know if starting a mixing and mastering “studio” encouraged him to improve on these things, but it also helps that there are a lot of cherry-picked synths that have more synergy than the low points of previous records. “The Infiltration” really puts the tasteful lead to work, but “Rise Again” builds on this and reaches a few nice crescendos through a tight set of layerings that build throughout the track. I wish we got a lot more of this throughout the entire album, but it easily makes it a massive highlight here.
The melodies themselves and the moods they create are also another thing to point to with this record. XENNON’s albums often seem to find inspiration from Sci-Fi and various elements I always attributed to retro gaming, and in this case, it seems he bought a Nintendo 64. “The Calm” calls to the more subtle parts of Star Fox 64, while the aforementioned “Rise Again” rings of Goeman’s Great Adventure, and “The Others” gives the joys one would remember from Super Mario 64. These melodies give a feel of adventure throughout that fits the title, even in light of the tension and mystery in a track like “The Dark” or “The Infiltration”. This alongside the samples that most likely come from old school films, really brings out the classic XENNON charm that makes his work not just enjoyable, but memorable and distinct.
If I had to really give a big thumbs down to something though, it would be the feel at times that there could be a little more. As said earlier, “Rise Again” is absolutely colorful, and evolves throughout, and so the lack of the same development in other tracks or tracks getting there only at certain parts like “The Others” really was a letdown. This also goes into some of the sequencing, where the weakest track, the opener “The Beginning”, just builds up and eventually just crashes into “The Gift” after it evaporates. The way the keys shift and morph from one track to the next feel jarring, “The War” to “Rise Again” is another one where this is apparent. These aren’t the biggest distractions in the world, but I felt the need to briefly address them.
Overall, is this album some kind of mind blowing, game changing album altogether? Not really, but that’s never what I come to XENNON for. I come to smile, I come to have fun, and I come to occasionally catch some musical magic in the middle of it all. I got just that, and I rather enjoyed this. Feeling a Strong 7 to a Light 8 out of 10, give this a shot, you couldn’t possibly get mad at this.
Favorites: “Rise Again”, “The Escape”, “The Infiltration”
Worst: “The Beginning”
Make sure to support the artist on Bandcamp and on social media.