Synthetic Villains is the electronic music project of Richard Turner. After years playing in bands, performing as a solo singer-songwriter and playing with the still together Three Dimensional Tanx, Turner decided to turn to the synths and create some atmospheric electronica and ambient music. The self-titled album released at the start of the pandemic was a success, gaining radio play and playlist slots and new album Obstacle Navigation looks to build on that success.
The album contains ten tracks coming in just under 45 minutes, made with various drum machines, synths and a collection of electronic percussion augmented by electric and acoustic guitars (processed via violin bows, Ebows, effects pedals) as well as electrified zithers, bass guitar, a GDR-era Vermona organ and even an Early Learning Centre keyboard. The result is a creative, lush sounding record which pays homage to a certain style of music associated with 1970s Germany, whilst adding flourishes and texture to make it stand alone on its own merits.
Obstacle Navigation has some excellent moments on it. Valentina is heavily influenced by bands like Harmonia and Cluster, the opening synths and beats combination in particular signalling those influences and their sound. However there’s slightly more depth to the track than that, with Berlin era Bowie-like guitar making an appearance about a minute and a half into the track, amongst subtle nods to 00s indie pop bands like MGMT and Empire of the Sun. The diversity of sounds, instruments and influences on the album isn’t always obvious but an attentive listener is rewarded; there is more than enough going on to hold your interest.
Ghostly Shadows sounds like something from a Ghost Box LP before straying into tonal arcade/computer game soundtrack territory. It works in terms of the album title Obstacle Navigation, which alludes to navigating obstacles on old-skool arcade games, although I suspect the title is more likely a comment on navigating the trials and tribulations of everyday life, creative production and trying to make an album during lockdown. Sunbeam Flyer is potentially the stand out track on the album. The word retro is often misapplied or taken out of context but the core sound of this track is retro, very much in the early German electronic music tradition. The tonal flourishes and motorik beat are overshadowed somewhat by glorious bowed strings floating above the mix, adding a gorgeous texture to the track.
The album ends with Wander Off Wondering which is the most adventurous piece on the album. It has an Eastern drone feel to it that sits slightly apart from most of the record. Think Indian trad meets Euro drone meets West Coast 90s hip hop. Throw in some funky guitar and you’ve got a hell of a way to close the album.
Obstacle Navigation is an enjoyable record, brimming with reference points but also able to represent itself as a great album. It is well produced, finely honed and full of tasteful texture and interesting sound palates. There isn’t anything particularly ground-breaking here but why does there need to be? This is good, thoughtfully created music and will appeal to a solid audience. Obstacle Navigation is an album that works on a Friday night or a Sunday morning. It will be interesting to see where Synthetic Villains go next, as the first two albums are a great platform to build from.
Obstacle Navigation is out 2nd August 2021