Synth Album Review: "Persona" by Specimen 73
Specimen 73’s album Persona is a recreation “in his own image.” of the soundtrack to Atlus’ Persona 5 roleplaying game. He explains that he approached it “as if Atlus had asked me to make the songs before they were made.” I’ve not personally played Persona 5 nor do I have much experience with the music of the series. From what I’ve read, Persona 5 is a game which explores themes of social alienation, the masks we’re made to wear by society and how we can rebel against those forces that seek to enslave us and force those masks on us. The hard-edged sounds, moments of melancholy and sense of dark tension that flows through Specimen 73’s remixes seem to be well up to the task of capturing the themes that Persona 5 explores.
One of the ways in which Specimen 73 manages to create the dark sound palette that he uses on this album is to work with harsh, buzzing, growling synths. The way that aggressively hard sound cuts into the tracks adds a sharpness and a sense of distortion to the music and helps hammer home the unsettling, imbalanced feelings that the themes of this album require in order to create the appropriate atmosphere.
Contrasting sensations and sounds are another interesting aspect of Specimen 73’s approach. There are warm, rising synths that are suddenly cut short by pulses or bursts of harder edged sound and moments where flowing passages are underpinned by stuttering drums underneath that floating sensation. Nothing feels settled or calm, but there’s a sense that heavier forces are at work under the seemingly serene, mask-like exterior. The constant sense of something lurking that can burst out at any moment pervades this Persona album.
There are also passages of deep sadness and melancholy on Persona. There’s a feeling of mourning for some essential part of ourselves that we are forced to conceal or hide under those masks that are imposed on us by the world. There’s an ache that speaks of a desire for the freedom to express the parts of ourselves that must remain hidden in the gentle, weeping passages of music that move in between harsher, darker sounds.
Drums are an important part of how Specimen 73 has created the sense of being off-kilter and unsettled on Persona. The beats are often slightly broken or stuttering and this creates the sense of nothing being quite as it should. Whether the drums are working in concert with the harsher bass sounds or moving counter to the gentler parts of the music, the effect is still to create a feeling of being unable to settle or relax entirely.
Now I will run through the tracks on Persona that made a strong impression on me and talk about the factors that made them work for me.
“Beneath The Mask (Feat. Kaia Kalise)” is a strong track because of the way in which Specimen 73 combines ghostly feeling synths with a pulsating drumbeat and the ethereal, ephemeral atmosphere of the song complements the message in the lyrics. Kaia Kalise’s voice has a haunted and wandering feeling. This is a song about the masks we are and the way those masks shape us and the track has a sense of mystery that fits with those words.
A pattern of repeating, intense note clusters open “Layer Cake” along with a pounding bass and metallic feeling synths. The main melody drifts through the track and there’s a synth with an edgy feeling moving darkly behind it. The overall sensation of this track is one of nervousness and tension. Everything here is tightly wound and on edge. The choices of different synths that Specimen 73 uses contribute to that sensation and heighten it. I like the way this album manages to evoke moods through the instrument choices that have been made.
“Confession” is a track with a broken gentleness to it. The synth melody here is sad and yearning, given form and shape by the slow tempo of the beat that throbs underneath it. There’s a shuddering feeling to the drums and as the dark, tragic piano melody floats into the track the sense of melancholy grows. There was indeed the feeling of a painful confession about the track and Specimen 73 did a good job of expressing that emotion in the track.
There’s a definite heartbeat to the rhythm of “Planetarium” along with the various synths that intertwine and rise through the track. There is a contrast between long, extended sweeps of floating synth and a technological feel to the synth line that moves through along with a delicate melody played on a more keyboard-like synth. Despite the gentleness of this track, there’s a vague hint of threat hovering in the background.
“Jaldabaoth” is defined by a surging electric guitar, pulsing drums and a rising synth line that climbs and twists between the pulses of bass and electric guitar. The gruff guitar melody contrasts with the smoothly rising synths on this track and everything flows together to produce the feeling of aggression and tension that permeates this track.
Even without having heard the Persona 5 soundtrack or interacted with the game, Specimen 73 gave me a sense of the darkness, sadness and tension inherent in the story. His passion for that story is clear in how he crafted this music and I’d like to think I grasped a small sliver of what it is that compelled him to create Persona.