To the haters, “new wave” is a loathsome marketing term representing little more than spirit-of-’77 punk neutered, declawed and sold to a pleasantly dysfunctional family of four in San Marino. Revisiting Harald Grosskopf’s 1979 creation, Synthesist, may not make ’80s Night any more bearable for aging purists or do much to redeem that “Major Tom” song, but it’s a relevant reminder of how punk values were applied to early modulations, prog-rock experimentation and synthetic “new age” ooze to create something remarkably weird, before there was much at stake.
Grosskopf, a Berlin-based session drummer, created Synthesist, his first solo joint, with a Minimoog. His liner notes recall the technical snafus that came with such analog equipment, and should fascinate anyone, in or out of Bob Moog’s growing cult, who appreciates some good gadget talk. But they hardly suggest the enveloping worlds he could create with the thing: cheeseball retro-sci-fi outings that can suddenly turn irresistibly catchy or cold, frightening and lonesome.
Aside from being filled with crass exploitation and pink-on-teal lulz, the ’80s also reintroduced the general public to a mid-century dread of technology, whether apocalyptic or simply dystopian, a pronounced distrust of the things that are making our lives easier whether we like it or not. Grosskopf’s moody creations, particularly those on side two of Synthesist, anticipate that brilliantly, however rinky-dink his own tech sounds compared to that of his descendents.
Speaking of: Many of those influenced by Synthesist, including James Ferraro, Optimo’s JD Twitch and Arp, check in on disc 2 -- Re-Synthesist -- gently reconfiguring Grosskopf’s free-floating melodies on their up-to-date rig. Although it can’t sound as alien as the original, and the electronic beats actually make it sound a bit stiffer at times (with all these new innovations lying around, no one thought to ape Grosskopf’s trademark live drum sound) Re-Synthesist is ultimately more than a cool add-on. It’s a mandatory listen for all those who are modernizing or simply jacking what they understand as “new wave” without really digging its crates or its history. While it’s impossible to precisely recreate this stuff, it’s interesting to hear people try, whether it’s Blondes remixing his woozy title cut or Oneohtrix Point Never reinventing “Trauma” as a wave of glistening glass shards with a few e-gull calls in the distance. There’s no obsolescence planned for the eerie moods Synthesist evoked.