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Music Blogs 1.png

JJ's Bizarre Blog #3 - Cybernetic Soundscapes

Joan

Hello everyone! Hope you're doing well and hope you're prepared, because the Bizarre Blog is coming right at you with it's third instalment. I felt inspired after the last one, where I mentioned how music can help uplift and enhance the atmosphere of games. For this week, I decided to focus on one such theme and how music can transport us to different worlds. I feel like this will be the first of many such discussions. The topic this time - cyberpunk dystopia!

 

First, let's briefly establish what the cyberpunk genre entails. In short, it's a subgenre of science fiction that focuses on speculative future technologies and how they change everyday life. Tech like cybernetics, artificial intelligence, genetic mutation, 3D printing, robotics, cryptocurrency, etc. usually take centre stage as ubiquitous facts of life. An important aspect of cyberpunk artistry is that it's almost always dystopian in nature and features a juxtaposition between high-tech and low life - despite the omnipresence of advanced technologies that are supposed to bring greater quality of life, the characters live lives of poverty, misery and lack of freedom, brought on by corruption of governments and corporations and overall societal decay. Also, cyberpunk very often touches on the topic of transhumanism - the idea of humanity reaching the next stage of its evolution through artificial, man-made means, usually through cybernetic or genetic augmentation. It also covers the concept of humans immortalising themselves by digitally uploading their consciousness into computers and/or the internet.

 

The genre truly came into its own during the 80s and the spirit of that (in)famous decade permeate almost all aspects of the medium. Sir Ridley Scott's masterpiece Blade Runner from 1982 is the template for the cyberpunk aesthetic - Tokyo and Hong Kong inspired towering skyscrapers, ubiquitous advertising, dense dirty streets with people of all cultures mixed together, flying cars and more. And all of this is drowned out by neon lights and near-perpetual rain. Other notable comics, manga, books and film to define the genre are Akira, Alita: Battle Angel, Ghost in the Shell, Neuromancer, Judge Dredd, etc. The aptly titled 1988 tabletop role-playing game Cyberpunk by R. Talsorian Games (on which the recent Cyberpunk 2077 video game is based) first brought this new aesthetic into the interactive space. Also, despite being very futuristic, most cyberpunk works retain the definitively 80's vibe of the pioneers of the genre. Even in new iterations, old tech like VHS tapes, CRT monitors, 80s style cars, neon clothing and hippie culture still appear often, a trend known as "cassette futurism".

 

So, what is the role of music in this movement? Well, all of those movies had soundtracks of course and popular songs of the 80's were often mixed in with the works of the time. Firstly, the soundtrack composed by Vangelis to the aforementioned Blade Runner is iconic.

 

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From then on, dystopian sci-fi continued to be popular and multiple music styles have been inspired by it. Firstly, let's talk about industrial rock. It came about around the same time as a rock infused derivative of the existing electro-industrial genre, so while not as influenced by cyberpunk culture, because both artistic movements came about during the same time and have a very similar vibe, both are often bundled together. Legendary bands like Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Orgy and White Zombie are among the pioneers of this style of rock, with heavy use of electronics and keyboards, samples and an aggressive and abrasive style. This new distorted and artificial sound along with aggressive socio-political lyrics were very well suited for the tone and messages of cyberpunk.

 

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From industrial rock, industrial metal was born. Basically the same idea but brought into the heavy distorted sound of metal guitars with complex technical drum rhythms and electronic arrangements inspired by techno and film soundtracks. Everything is designed to sound artificial, mechanical, cold, soulless, unnatural, inhuman. Just like in industrial rock, the vocals are also often distorted with various effects to again make them sound almost robotic or alien. The songs are generally a mixture of heavy and melodic, they're very rhythmic and riff driven, solos are rare here. The overall sound is very percussive which gives industrial metal its signature punchy "machine-like" sound. Fear Factory and Ministry are among the first pioneers of the genre, with later bands like Static-X, Rob Zombie, Sybreed, Marilyn Manson, Dope, Rammstein and many more taking up the mantle and expanding the genre further.

 

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A special shoutout has to go to Fear Factory in particular (not just because they're one of my favourite bands ever, right behind my actual favourite band of all time, Static-X). FF are the ones that most closely defined the sound of industrial metal and also they are the ones that most lean into the cyberpunk aesthetic with their album art and of course with their lyrics. They often mention Blade Runner as one of their biggest inspirations and in my eyes (or rather, ears), no film, video game, book or comic can ever conjure a dystopian cyberpunk atmosphere as dense, as vivid, as rich and as enveloping as the music of Fear Factory. They are among the first bands labelled by some with the poorly defined but still cool sounding moniker of cyber metal.

 

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Futurepop is an interesting spinoff genre tangentially related to industrial rock, techno and synthpop. It’s essentially modern-ish EDM from the 90s and early 2000s imagining what futuristic sounding popular music would be like. Sadly, this vision did not transpire but the music from this movement is amazing to this day. My favourites are the Norwegian project Icon of Coil. They basically took catchy and bouncy club music, made it darker and gave it soulful and meaningful lyrics. What’s not to love? And this type of sound just fits so perfectly with the vibe of a futuristic bar or nightclub or something.

 

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Aggrotech is another style that came about slightly after that at the turn of the millennium as a more aggressive form of electro-industrial music with influences from the aforementioned industrial rock scene. The name has nothing to do with farming equipment don’t worry, it most likely stems from “aggressive techno”. With its loud glitchy and wobbly sounds, distorted sound, enveloping production and harsh vocals about dark subject matters, aggrotech is what I like to imagine metal would sound like if you had no real instruments and only a computer and some broken synthesizers to make it.

 

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Moving into the modern sphere, we have to mention vaporwave. It’s a bit of a weird genre that was born from internet forums, believe it or not. It started by slowing down mostly 80s music and layering more keyboards and atmosphere on top. The colourful visuals, distinctly 80s aesthetic and artificial sound align it pretty well with the cyberpunk genre, especially with the aforementioned “cassette futurism” movement.

 

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And finally, we cannot talk about cyberpunk music without mentioning the style most influenced by it – synthwave/darksynth. This is music purpose built to fit the cyberpunk aesthetic. It’s mostly EDM style electro with a dark and atmospheric sound, soaring synth melodies with lots of glitches, samples and sometimes distorted vocals to boot. The style is also heavily influenced by 80s new wave and a general 80s aesthetic, which also perfectly aligns with the origin story of the cyberpunk genre. Synthwave and darksynth are just a perfect marriage for this stylistic. It’s impossible not to visualise the vast cityscapes and cyborg vagrants wandering their streets while listening to these tracks and any piece of cyberpunk concept art would feel incomplete without some of this music blasting on top of it.

 

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A very special shoutout goes to my boy The Algorithm, who also dabbles with synthwave, darksynth and vaporwave but mixes all of those and whole lot more electronic stuff with progressive metal and djent elements to create a sound like no other. The best and only electronic computer metal artist out there. Definitely fits the cyberpunk aesthetic too.

 

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To wrap it up, two quick shoutouts. Obviously the soundtrack to any cyberpunk film or video game is designed to fit the aesthetic and transport you to those worlds, so they are always worth checking out too.

 

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And also, a quick mention of all the other “punk” spinoffs of cyberpunk – steampunk (you’ve probably heard of this one), dieselpunk, atompunk, solarpunk, biopunk, hydropunk and more. Honestly, every one of those is its own deep rabbit hole, so I’m just gonna mention them to hopefully peak your interest to go and research them more on your own. It’s worth doing so, trust me. Also almost all the music mentioned is beloved by the cybergoth movement that started in the 90s. Check those out if you haven’t, a truly unique subculture.

 

Anyway, this will do for now. I love science fiction and the cyberpunk movement is among my favourite parts of the greater sci-fi space and some amazing music has come and gone from it. So hope you found this interesting too. As usual, here is a playlist with all mentioned songs along with a lot more to discover. See you out on the streets, chooms!

 

\\\THE FUTURE IS A FUSION BETWEEN MEAT AND MACHINES///
\\\THE SOUL IS SOFTWARE///
\\\THE CITIES MUST BURN///

 

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