Karl is a longtime freelancer who's passionate about music, art, and writing.
Virtual Intelligence’s PAINSYNC album lays bare emotions in way that is honest and powerful. It embraces an undeniable cyberpunk aesthetic with charging guitar solos, shadows lurking everywhere and melancholy rife in the music. Virtual Intelligence’s haunting voice is simultaneously uncompromising and gentle as she sings the strong lyrics and explores complex and challenging themes.
The vocals are an integral part of why PAINSYNC has such power. Virtual Intelligence’s voice has whispering shadows in it, and somehow her voice manages to be both solid and delicate with a range that can go from husky depths to rising heights. Each note is full of expression, and that makes the powerful lyrics stand out more.
Those lyrics are uncompromising and full of darkly beautiful imagery. They cut to the bone and are unflinching in their examination of change, loss and pain. There are also small bright flashes of love and hope that touch the music, leavening the sense of hopelessness that sometimes enters the words. The listening experience is good, but it is also quite intense. I feel a little drained after listening, but I don’t view that as a negative.
Two musical instruments/sounds that I especially enjoy on PAINSYNC are the pipe organ sound and the electric guitar. The sound of the pipe organ has a power and depth to it that I find compelling. I especially enjoy the fugue part that comes into “Slaves of Her” to lend a unique flavour to the song. As for the electric guitar, it has a powerful howling energy to it and a grit that adds to the intense nature of the album’s sound.
I also enjoy how Virtual Intelligence has interwoven a lush tapestry of different synths together on this album. There are ghostly flows, bright sparks and the gritty edge of sound that deepens the cyberpunk quality of the music, contributing to a feeling of shadowy fog that creeps all around the album.
My Favourite Tracks Analyzed
Here is a look at my favourite tracks.
“Night Angel” opens on dark pulses of bass throbbing out in an uneven stuttering pattern as ethereal drifts of synth move through. A high synth begins to repeat a pattern of notes and the continuing uneven pulse is now joined by whirling arpeggios that spin out above it. Virtual Intelligence’s voice has a husky float to it on this track, full of foreboding as the drums move through the track and again that shifting arpeggios dance and flicker. The churn of a pipe organ adds its own unique aural signature to the track, wheeling around as the synth chords rise and fall, bursting across the weight and depth of the beats and bass.
Deep shadows bathe this song and it creates images that amplify that darkness. The sense of falling to darkness echoes through the words, “Plunge off the edge. Dive off into the deepest end To see…yourself.”
A message of rebirth is starkly stated in the lines, “Meet with your Truth and grow beyond your foolish youth. Leave the dead behind—to die.”
The chorus speaks of a destructive angel in the lines, “Her black dress has bite. Her heart is dark as death in the daylight” and while “dead dreams still thrive” she will help to see them through, to “purify what aches inside you.”
Out of this destruction comes the needed rebirth and now, “she’s getting pretty for herself tonight. She’s dressed to kill in the neon light.” The verse ends, “Let’s celebrate new life at the end of days.”
Warmly melancholy synths spin in rising clusters of notes as “Holographic Operative” opens. The notes arpeggiate as they glow over the pulsing bass under them and the distinctive sound of pipe organ moves into the music. The drums have a throb and drive as the sharp edged bass moves over top. There’s a strong electric guitar voice that cuts into the music, calling out and scaling the heights over Virtual Intelligence’s broad vocal range. The organ spins out rapid notes under the wall of grit that the guitar creates as the dark bass and skipping beat moves the song along.
The idea of how we hide shadows inside ourselves is elucidated in the lines, “She claims to know about my dark side, she claims to know about my pain, but darling she don’t know.” This dark side is revealed in the words, “She don’t know that I’m hiding from the world in plain sight, that I’ll never stop until I’m nothing.”
There’s a sense of something self-destructive in the lines, “Fear or disaster, hit the gas and go faster” that is reinforced by the lyric, “Get that highway wind in your hair, you got it going on like you don’t care.”
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As the song moves on it poses the question, “Do you really wanna know the real me?” There’s a sense of challenge in the lines as the song asks, “Are you scared to dive into the darkness of the unknown?”
There’s an aching feeling that cuts into the lyrics as they say, “Long ago, in childhood, I lost my will to breathe. For my future worlds would surely be nothing but pain and suffering” and the song concludes, "In my search for me, there I will bleed…"
“Love Is Worth Saving”
“Love Is Worth Saving” starts gently with softly swelling synths that are joined by a drumbeat which begins a steady throb through the music. The guitar thunders into the track playing chords that extend into the song as synths flicker brightly. There’s both strength and a caress in the vocals here. I enjoy how the guitar doubles the vocal melody, adding an element of roughness underneath it.
The lead synth that comes in has a round, mellow tone to it as it plays a melody that has both warmth and energy to it. A well of deep bass rises and then the guitar solo charges in, shredding and leaping in energetic, rough edged exuberance.
While this is a love song, there’s no romantic fantasy about it. The tone of the song is set in the lines, “It’s the end of days, there is no love, we only suffer in each other’s arms.” This bleak, but touching emotion continues in the words, “The world is crashing down, no words are sung and if I die young know… I love you.” The song asks, "And if we burn to ashes, will you love me too?”
A note of tentative hope sounds in the words, “Let’s make our dreams come true. When it's over, it’s not over. Can we go back to what we were?” That sense of defiance is reinforced in the lines, “The lights go out, darkness arrives and still the fire burns—in our hearts.” There's something touching in the bleakness of the lyrics with lines like, “Panic takes hold. We’re locked outside in the cold and if I die, I wanna die with you.”
The bleakness continues in the lyrics, “It’s the end of days. There is no love. The sky is burning from above, the world is crashing down” and towards the end the lyrics add, “And if we die young, you... me... together...Let’s make our dreams come true.”
“The Slaves of Her”
Quick arpeggios shine through, rising and falling as a pipe organ joins the steady, ghostly synth tone that floats as “The Slaves of Her” starts off. I am so drawn to the Baroque fugue that comes into the track, playing on the pipe organ. Virtual Intelligence’s voice combines shadows and melancholy in this song. The guitar adds its sharper edges to the sound while the arpeggios swirl around behind the darkness of the lyrics.
Now the guitar thunders again, a wild howl that still feels like its touched by triumph as that crying solo makes its shredding way into the track. The track ends with a rush of sound, distorting as the distant organ moves and the guitar’s slicing sound move above the whirling organ again.
The themes of death, rebirth and being stripped to a bare essence come through in this song. It begins on the line, “Now my death has come to pass, don't you dare cry. Though I've gone to see the stars, know this not my last goodbye.”
As the lyrics say, “I've just gone to find myself 'O where can she be? Does she walk the dangerous streets...deep down inside of me?’ ” The theme of change and transition is powerfully delivered in the lines, "My surgeon says I need to settle down as she cuts into my flesh, turning my everything inside out.”
There is stark honesty in the words, “I'll be at peace when there's a war, the future stillborn. No tomorrow to mourn” and as everything ends “we are no one, I'm no one.”
The song concludes with unadorned emptiness in the lines, “With nowhere to go and no one to love, no heaven above in the neon glow.”
“The Hurricanes of Saturn”
“The Hurricanes of Saturn” starts with long sweeps of minor key synth and the sound of rain falling. There’s something tragic and lost about the way the synths drift into the music. There’s a haunted quality to the high drifting synth as a rippling arpeggio quickly climbs, falls and climbs again.The guitar moves in rough walls of sound, adding more darkness to the track. I like the section where piano notes are intermingle with the guitar's impassioned voice as it jumps and dances through the song.
Images of bleak cityscapes and neon reflecting in oil-slicked puddles in the rain combine with the idea of waking from an anesthetized state into reality in this song. There’s a powerful image that opens the song in the lines, “The coast is cold. A dark wind blows in my eyes. I’ve traveled far, city breeze. Is there a life in rainy neon skies?”
Sheer emptiness fills this song and reflects in the repetition of the phrase, “there’s nothing inside.” There’s a sense of deep psychological struggle in the lines, “I walk the streets in search for something more. I fight myself because... I love war.”
The sense of being trapped in an inescapable state pours from the words, “Corporate labor camps comply and slave to stay.” The lyrics call out, "Please let me out I want to, I’ve got to, get away outside.”
Powerful feelings of being numbed find expression in the chorus, “Be silent, the pain will soon pass. Forget not, the nerve gas and wake again from sleep.” The next line contrasts this idea with a sense of fighting back as it says, “Don’t talk about, just carry out and bring them to their knees. Dark power shall we seize.”
There’s poignancy in the message of the lyrics that say, “If I die tonight, please don’t cry. Let me look upon you one last time and kiss you goodbye.” An emptiness and resignation permeates the song as it ends. Starkly the words say that the only thing left to live for “is gone—has gone.”
An inescapable conclusion is reached at the end of the song in the lines, “Can I justify one last sunrise? With what I know, I doubt that I’ll make it through."
Emotionally speaking, PAINSYNC is an album that hit me square in the gut. Virtual Intelligence has pulled no punches on this album and she has created a work that combines musicality, expressive vocals and a soundscape that drives home the emotion of the lyrics in an unforgettable way. PAINSYNC has to go on my list of contenders for best synth-based album of 2020.