Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing.
The Institute 91’s Heave album is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric synth albums I have reviewed in 2021 so far. He takes all of the building blocks of synthwave/retrowave and puts an original and entertaining twist on them with this nautically themed album, full of ominous darkness and the deadly sea.
First of all, I want to comment on the atmospheric nature of Heave. The Institute 91’ creates a shadowy, threatening and powerful atmosphere through the combination of dark synth sounds, the ever-present rush of wind and creak of ship’s rigging and the indistinct, ominous chanting of a ship’s crew. All of these elements transport the listener to the deck of a ship in a deadly storm.
The incorporation of the sound of an accordion to create a more traditional feeling on the first track as well as the reedy voice of a saxophone to add soloistic warmth and an ‘80s touch gives Heave some depth and sonic texture that lifts it up and makes it more interesting to hear.
I also feel a draw to the melodies on Heave because of the lost, wandering and melancholy feelings that many of them create. They add to the sense of a foundering ship in dark, tumultuous waters and perhaps even to the sensation that ancient ghosts haunt the sailors who are wracked by the storm.
My Favourite Tracks Analyzed
“Born of Foam and Brine”
“Born of Foam and Brine” comes to life with the gentle softness of delicately glowing synths and a static hiss along with a melodic drift of sound. There’s a deep well of bass and a ghostly accordion playing a mournful folk-inflected melody, full of ache and loss, as the drums throb into the track.
I enjoy the timeless quality that infuses the accordion melody, giving it a feeling of being born of ancient culture. The accordion sings out over the warm synths and the easy drums, sadness radiating from it. Darkness slides in, something ominous and threatening, as a storm brews and the rigging creaks.
“The Sea in Storm”
A shadowy, wandering piano melody moves through “The Sea in Storm” as it begins. There’s the sound of wind through the rigging, full of the omens of danger. A trumpet-like synth flows into the music over the broken piano chords. I am drawn to the unmoored melody it plays as it floats through the music with a melancholy ache. The keyboard chords turn dark and a little percussive to emphasize the growing peril of the storm.
The synths spin out over the steady beat as it drives on with the big retro drums throbbing. A shining high synth arpeggio whirls into the track, feeling somehow threatening, dancing over the drums as they break and shiver, against a rising cloud of shadowy sound.
“Heave” comes into being in the midst of dark, twisting synth sounds that wind through the music over a shadowy pulse of synth and the shouts of a ghostly crew. The drumbeat throbs and the mad calls of bloodthirsty pirates ring out over the shadowy bass and the continual creak of the ship’s rigging.
The contrast between the harpsichord-like synth as it shines over the dark and threatening chant that seethes underneath it is compelling as the troubled arpeggios whirl and turn. The sax cries out with a warm passion but adds disturbing squeaks and squawks to the track as well.
“Deep Breaths (Don’t Drown)”
Serene floating and drifting synths pulse out into open space with a delicate feeling as “Deep Breaths (Don’t Drown)” starts off. A deep, descending bass line and the steady rattle and tick of the drums create movement in the track. I like the slightly wavering, bright lead synth melody because it mixes gentleness with an underlying darkness.
The bass line oscillates more quickly as The Institute 91’s signature sax cries out into the music over the throbbing oscillations of bass, singing warmly and with passion. The sax exudes a feeling of floating as the lead synth glows in again, feeling full and bright, still a little aching as the track fades into silence.
“To Do and Die”
“To Do and Die” is full of a swirling, shadowy synth that grows into the track along with high sounds that gently float through over the swirl of sound underneath it. Extremely deep bass swells into the music along with the whisper of voices, indistinct and lost, their words full of portent. There’s a feeling of slowly spinning downwards along with a wide open space in the music, everything lost and shadowy.
Round nasal pulses of synth reverberate out into the music as “Vista” kicks off, all of the pulses flowing together as they move through the music. A slow, smooth drumbeat and synths that have a steel pan quality to them touch the music along with extending sweeps of synth, gliding out into the track.
The music has a lovely flow and ease to it, like gliding over water, as that steel drum synth plays a subtle, light melody. Metallic elements dance into the music in fragments as sax sings out a hopeful, climbing melodic line that rises over all of the synth elements interlocking under it.
Heave is one of those synth-based albums that goes outside of the usual conventions of the genre and does so with a certain style. There’s a pleasing darkness and danger to this album and The Institute 91’ explores the nautical themes well. I hope that he’ll keep expanding the edges of the genre with the music that he creates.