Text Jarrod Sio Jyh Lih
Yen For Night Drives
A slew of nu-romantic, Valerie Collective synth pop tropes abound in Kuala Lumpur duo Stellar Dreams’ Beyond Horizons EP. Thermite bursts of the same paradigm Human League and Depeche Mode have hewn into the rock tablets of music posterity are revisited – though it is the rumbling ominosity of the latter that Stellar Dreams have chosen to adopt to devastating effect. The duo makes no bones about the EP’s mood. Starting from the opening tracks – simply titled ‘Intro’ and ‘Horizons’ – these two set the tone for the tunes that follow closely in their wake. Visually, the song titles look like single-worded Easter Island heads that have decamped to their own silos. This economical strain is not reflected in the songs themselves, however. As stately as it is sweeping, ‘Intro’, for instance, features mile-wide expansiveness and with its lush synth notes and Linn drums, summons ineluctable references to a hazily reminisced decade, and more recently, South African band St.Lucia as well as genre stalwarts M83.
Stellar Dreams’ oeuvre has always consisted primarily of soundtracks crafted for the bleak, the dystopian, and the apocalyptic. Think Blade Runner and Tron, think robotic, utilitarian synth bass arpeggiation amidst competing bell sounds and liberal keyboard stabs. That, in a nutshell, is how most of the EP (and the majority of their discography) sound like. This time, however, the inclusion of two tracks – ‘Parallel’ and ‘Dimensions’ – could signal Khairil and Iqwan’s desire to step out of the terra incognita of virtual DAW fiddling and into the glaring sunlight of large scale ambition.
It was ‘Parallel’ that came to embody Stellar Dreams’ desire to transcend beyond the admittedly geeky milieu of protracted synthesiser-heavy soundscapes. Zero gravity arrangements and a pulsating sidechain-compressed bassline draw the listener into ‘Parallel’s’ immersive universe – guided by an inspired vocal turn by Sophie from Ampang (already sounding like the sort of go-to, vocalist du jour for ‘80s retrowave bedroom producers). Sophie’s breathy phrasing – awash in cathedral reverb – lends an organic, human element to the chrome-plated, automaton confines so scrupulously assembled by Stellar Dreams. The towering aspect of Sophie’s outré vocal surges effectively rescues this interweaving morass of the biological and the mechanical from being relegated into yet another derivative retrowave dreck of an instrumental. As any self-respecting retrowave band would tell you, allusions to dreams and dreaming are ubiquitous, and Sophie’s keening lyricism legitimises it: “Within a dream/ Losing my thoughts around you.”
Elsewhere on the EP, end track ‘Dimensions’ features Sophie yet again, this time singing with the crystalline equanimity of (Greek synthpop ingénue) Kristine. Here, Sophie’s comely vocals heave through layers of frizzy synth-pad textures and soar wide-eyed past dry-pulsing beats. Consistent with the much-proliferated night imagery associated with the genre, Sophie’s emotionally direct exhortations for us to “remember the night in the stars, though the night, it’s neverending” feel almost comforting in its familiarity. Meanwhile, ‘Valkyrie’ broods like a petulant teenager amidst a veritable deluge of twinkling arp and synthesised brass leads. Originally intended for Portuguese space electropop artiste Cavalier of Fun, the track is all about emotiveness – specifically, of melancholia. Think College and genre giant Kavinsky being more sombre than usual. Think sad.
Sonic agnosticism is definitely not on the cards, and frankly, it is not expected for one might argue that it is less a fetishistic cri de cœur for Hall and Oates beats and feathered hair than it is for the masculine subtext. On Beyond Horizons EP, Stellar Dreams’ near-religious replication of the ‘80s sound further cements their reputation as faithful synthpop revivalists. Detractors might find the TV Pendidikan-like thematic construct dated and the borrowed nostalgia cloying, but it is this self-same anachronism that attracts a specific subset of listeners – the one that still holds Akira and nocturnal car trips in high regard. Suffice it to say, Beyond Horizons will serve as victuals for that specific demographic that lusts after scorpion-emblazoned jackets, with a yen for peeling down the Federal Highway in the dead of night.