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Synthwave Album Review: "Squalor City Part II: The Underbelly" by SoundEngine

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Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!

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Initial Impressions

Squalor City Pt. 2: The Underbelly is the second full album from SoundEngine that tells the tale of the den of iniquity known as Squalor City. This album is full of musical imagery, sonic textures and emotional expressions that stitch together into a narrative that moves through an arc as the music unfolds itself. I like how I feel myself being taken and carried along with the music as the story unfolds while listening to the album.

The first aspect of Squalor City Pt. 2 that I want to mention are the guest performances on this album. Necron86 adds the soaring strains of electric violin to “Rumination” while Ossico’s sax playing on “The End?” gives the track the passionate warmth that only a sax can create and Elevate the Sky’s playing on the same track has an intricate shredding quality to it that puts another layer of sound into the track.

There are a lot of melodic moments on this album. They are sometimes more energetic and uplifting, but are often touched with tension or tragedy. They seem to reflect the emotional landscape of Squalor City in which shadows or danger are always waiting, lurking in the corners. It adds to the overall filmic effect of telling a story and creating strong images in doing so.

As readers of my reviews should know by now I enjoy layered, rich synth music and Squalor City Pt. 2 provides that in abundance. There are lines of synth that interlock and combine smoothness with rougher, more tense elements. Sometimes the tracks layer the drive of electric guitar with drifts of pads and warm analog sounds that sound more ghostly. It all adds up to a series of musical vignettes that evoke different thoughts and sensations.

Another aspect of this album that bears mentioning is the production quality. It has as sharp, clear sound and defines all of the parts well, ensuring that while each individual element of music has its place, they wind up creating a cohesive sonic whole that adds to the overall feeling of the album.

My Favourite Tracks Analyzed

“Into The Snakepit (Bite Back!)” has a main theme with a certain tragic feeling to it along with the swells of synth sound that move through in minor key waves. I like the rapid, hollow sounding arpeggios that move in behind the other elements of this track. I also enjoy the energy of the lead synth solo that leaps into the music over deep throbbing pulses of sound. There’s an interesting second synth line that plays a dense, somewhat rough edged pattern underneath the solo over it.

I dig how the guitar charges into the track, playing a rocking and driving solo that spins and cascades through the music. I enjoy how the main melody drifts on the growling waves of guitar underneath it, feeling brighter and airier. There’s also a nice little half-time segment where everything floats along as the guitar cries out through the waves of bass under it.

The main synth line of “Boss Bitch” has a sinuous quality to it that draws me in. I enjoy how strong the heartbeat of bass is on this track. The lead synth has a deep, complex sound that I struggle to describe. I do like how dramatic and mysterious that synth line feels. The flicker of chiming synths adds some brightness to the track as well. My ears perk up when that intricate, smooth guitar solo hits. It still has an edge to it which fits in with the tension in the main synth line. I also enjoy how the drums increase in intensity as the track moves on. All of these elements give this track a sensation of incipient danger.

“The Volatility of This Place” starts out with smooth, vaguely jazz-inflected synths that glide along through open space. There’s a deep bass beat that moves through the music, adding weight as the drums throb along. The opening synth line wanders and moves through open space, twisting and turning. What I like most is how the track evolves as it continues. The intensity begins to build as the synths rise and descend, but it really takes on a hard edge when the drums begin to pound. This is hard rocking stuff, drums battering, synths climbing and flying and bass thumping and I can really get into the power of this track as it opens fully and roars to a strong conclusion.

There’s an ease and relaxation to “Rumination” that is a nice break in the overall intensity of this album. It has an easy beat that moves underneath ghostly synths that flow upwards and drift along with a touch of distortion in them. I enjoy how smooth the drums feel as they add a gentle shape to the track. The lead synth has a delicate feeling to it, a lost and rootless quality that I find touching. It does indeed add a quality of rumination to the music. The electric violin played by Necron86 adds a soaring beauty to the music while the guitar injects more energy.

“Sentimentality Is a B.S.O.D” has strong contrasts between the beat that moves in waves underneath the piano notes that brush the surface of the track. I like the dense quality of the lead synth as it rises through the even pulse of the bass. Again there are light and airy piano notes that flow in contrast to the drive of the track. I am drawn in by the rising wave of synth sound that lifts the track up and carries it onward. There’s still more ethereal feeling that washes into the track while shining arpeggios spin out behind those ghostly sounds. Once again, there are sounds layering on sounds in a way that I enjoy.

I feel like “The End?” throws everything that makes this album fun into one track and adds a little more besides. We have the layering of sounds, we have the contrasting elements and we have energy and drive. On the one hand, there are chip tune elements that add a computerized feeling. On the other hand, there’s the reedy warmth of the sax played by Ossico. Nothing beats real sax for creating expressive music.

Elevate The Sky’s guitar work has a tightly packed energy to it and all the while the deep bass line flows underneath to support it. Elevate the Sky plays a blistering solo as the track evolves, showing off his intricate chops to good effect and adding depth to the thinner chip tune sounds over the top.

Verdict

Squalor City Pt. 2: The Underbelly is a strong follow up to the first part in the series. It has the same overall feeling of storytelling and the same use of sounds, textures and beats to paint pictures (or perhaps frame shots to continue the film analogy). The addition of talented guest artists and a further refinement of ideas only adds to the strength of this recording by SoundEngine.

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