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EP Review: Various Artists - Modfest 22

30 Nov 2022 // A review by Steve Shyu
As a follow-up to 2020’s ModFest, a demonstration and celebration of modular synthesisers, as well as music made by them, ModFest 2 was postponed once, then rescheduled for October 2022. While the event was held at Red Bar in Auckland Central, this experience of ModFest can be reproduced in the comfort of your own home, via your headphones or through your stereo any time you like. This, of course, is the compilation EP entitled ModFest 22, featuring some of the musicians and modular synthesists that appeared at the event.

Admittedly, I don’t know how a modular synth works, nor do I recognise any of the artists on the listing of this EP. But I do enjoy a good amount of synthwave and electronic music, and know what sounds good and well-polished. With little to no hesitation, and near-zero preconception of what to expect, I dove ears-first into ModFest 22.

Like traversing a dark canyon, with only glow-worms and a starlit night sky to illuminate your way, the deceptively titled Scream Theory by Waker has almost no harsh edges to its soundscape. And boy, what a soundscape.

Distant, shimmering notes echo off the cliff faces, with some delicate notes of high and low pitch plinking away, like dew falling off the surrounding forest leaves. Vast-sounding hums of a sub seems to imitate the passing of wind gusts, as though one had stumbled upon the edge of a deep crevasse. At this point, nearing the end of the aural journey, the faux-string notes swell and intensify for a minute, before all sounds melt away into a slow ebb, like sunrise driving the eeriness into the recesses of the canyon, and the journey comes to a stop.

This is magical stuff. Never before have I ever heard music so ethereal and psychedelic, yet captivating all at the same time.

In more conventional electronica sounds, Idle Idols by Harmonicus and Pluto’s Heart by Trig has a percussive beat to go with the layers of chords and lead lines, compared to the EP’s opener.

The former of the two would fall in the category of trip-hop, if I was to hazard a guess at a genre. While mellow in its 4/4 beat, the primary feature of Idle Idols is the melodic synth lines, humbly sweeping along at a walking pace, not exuberant or overly complex, but more than enough to move the tune along.

Pluto’s Heart makes it clear from the get-go that it’s a much moodier number. The series of minor chords, and the angsty horn-like sound produce a disquieting sense of foreboding. Bearing a rave-music feel throughout, the brisk-paced tempo is hammered out by bass drums and sharp hi-hats, while a selection of different synth sounds take turns fronting the mix. Perhaps an apt comparison would be with Israeli psytrance icons Infected Mushroom, particularly in the front half of Pluto’s Heart, with the last half bearing a slight Nine Inch Nails aesthetic, emphasising a more industrial and “mechanical” sound.

Where Oumuamua by CyberneticOhm feels like an experimental production of incidental music perhaps best paired with a hallucinogenic trip, the fifth and final piece Voarchadumia Contra Alchimiam by Modern Chair brings cohesion back to the table, rounding out the EP. Similar in Oumuamua’s generous utilisation of synths, it’s effects-galore at this closing piece too. Without a doubt the fastest tempo of the five tracks, this work by CyberneticOhm sounds and feels like a hyper-dark, distant gothic cousin of Zombie Nation by Kernkraft 400, or at least the beat resembles it. Like a 90’s rave track covered from neck to ankles in distorted effects phasing in and out, this one is a serious outing, rhythm-driven and devoid of all melodies.

If nothing else, ModFest 22 is a seriously interesting experience. Like myself, if you have no experience with modular synthesisers, there is lots and lots to appreciate. Be it the complexities, aural layers, the dynamic changes, melodies both unassuming as well as overt. Those who have a good ear for electronica, definitely stop by tracks 2 and 3; a must is, without a doubt, the opening wonder that is Scream Theory.

Rating: ( 4 / 5 )

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