Aaron Matthews is currently working on his debut album, “Human League Back.”
Graham Van Pelt has an interesting relationship with the past. The Montreal based singer/songwriter’s new album feels like nostalgia for an era that he’s too young to remember. It’s a hazy reminiscence that comes from digging through your parents’ records or your brother’s cassettes.
Was I The Wave? engages the music of the late 70s and early 80s in a similar way to how Miracle Fortress’s debut Five Roses riffed on 60s pop and rock. Where Five Roses drew extensively on the sound of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, WITW pulls from New Order and Talking Heads. This is music that’s instrumentally comparable to chillwave and synth-pop but possesses a unique texture all its own. Evoking the synth-pop of the 1980s with its juxtaposition of chilliness and emotional resonance, it produces a simultaneously clearer and blurrier sound.
This is washed out music: layered keyboards, throbbing bass lines and stiff, echoing drums. The difference from previous eras of synthesized pop comes from frontman Graham Van Pelt’s voice. It’s got a nervy, nasal quality reminiscent of David Byrne but he’s equally capable of sweetness, frequently hitting an eerily soothing falsetto. His voice is deceptively powerful and most potent in small doses.
“Spectre” represents the point where the ice melts a little, the first moment of genuine vulnerability. Assisted by cooing backing vocals like a Greek chorus, Van Pelt’s falsetto turns the song into simultaneously a lament for a lost childhood and a call to action. Brief instrumentals transition between the album’s longer songs, but deserve just as much attention. “Wave” is a self-explanatory, choppy processed guitar breaking against vast swathes of echoed keyboards. The song is over in under two minutes but stays with you much longer, sounding like 1984 compressed into song length.
WITW is the rare album to rediscover and understand the vulnerability in 1980s synth-pop, rather than projecting swagger on it. “ “Miscalculations” comes closest to a pure pop song, spreading dense emotive tissue over blaring synths and firing drum machines. It’s revealing that Van Pelt recorded, engineered, arranged and produced the entire record himself, but WITW couldn’t be further from a singer/songwriter album. There are brief patches of lyrics but Van Pelt relies on smears of programmed sound to communicate for most of the album.
Was I The Wave? feels like listening to a perfectly preserved VHS of a lost John Hughes soundtrack, so it’s appropriate that guitar sketch “Until” sounds like closing credits music. Gentle guitar builds and cascades for a minute plus before fading as gently as it came in. Unadorned by synths or drums, It’s the neon dreams of someone too young to remember the 80s but who heard something real and affecting in old cassettes of New Order and the Human League.