Rhyphte Reviews: ‘Scars’ by Watch Out for Snakes

- Posted November 26th, 2019 by

Y’all. It has not been easy deciding what to write about. The late autumn/early winter releases have been fucking killer. Right now, I’m sitting on like, two half-finished reviews—which is nuts! But I’ve just decided to take the plunge on this ’cause I’ve gotta honor what Matt has accomplished here. Watch Out For Snakes (hereon referred to as WOFS), is a synthwave project from Matt Baum featuring prominent chiptune elements and is a cornerstone of the Atlanta synthwave scene. When I heard ‘Arms Race’ on Volume 7 of the annual compilation, I knew that something truly remarkable was taking shape in the chiptune scene and I couldn’t be happier to see this fucking stellar release at the forefront of Georgia’s chiptune landscape.

Album art for ‘Scars’ by Andrew Tremblay.

I feel like it’s rather common for independent artists to stumble a little bit before really putting together their sound. It’s totally understandable. It can be daunting to build thematic concepts for compositions from ideas formulated in your head. A lot of people just make the music they wanna make and figure out their sound, their style, their strengths and weaknesses as they go along. Great things often come from that, but when you look at an aesthetic that was carefully constructed from the ground up and you see it brimming with drive and the clearest fucking possible image of their vision, you just have to give it credit. WOFS defines itself very efficiently. Everything feels very deliberate—every component of Matt’s work unites to construct exactly the dark, powerful synthwave narrative being presented. This is practically its own subgenre; the resulting sound is so unique you can recognize a WOFS song in mere moments. On top of that, it’s polished twice to hell. Matt’s fluency with every last corner of his musical expression is the backbone of this project in my mind. An album this musically strong that is also so coherent and thematic is truly a remarkable accomplishment.

Scars’, the eponymous and sole lyrical track, opens with a soft, arpeggiated synth phrase which sets a forlorn, demure tone leading into the entry point of the beat and bassline. The vocals come in exactly on cue and fill the space created for them by the accompaniment very nicely. The crispness of the drums punctuate Megan McDuffee’s firm and gentle delivery of each verse. The balancing of the vocals—especially in the harmonies—is particularly excellent. This kind of planned and carefully executed collaboration between such talented artists is something worth coming back to again and again. The pairing of Megan’s harmonies and the titular reference with the fami solo coming in at 2:40 is utter perfection. If you told me a one-man synthwave project could collaborate with a vocalist on the other side of the country and create something of this caliber, I would tell you I needed to hear it to believe it. What’s absolutely bonkers is that I can’t even tell you this is hands-down my favorite track on the record. I always hold title tracks to a certain technical standard for the artist, owing to the role they play in establishing the thematic basis of the whole project. This one knocks that standard out of the park, but for me it also totally sets the stage for the more experimental additions. More on that super shortly.

‘Rip ‘Em Up!’ is the featured track, and it’s really no surprise why. Go to the Bandcamp page right now, look at the comments, and count the “favorite track” distinctions for ‘Rip ‘Em Up!’ Every cylinder in Matt’s engine is firing here. We’ve got the distinctive NES melody WOFS is so well known for, set to a dancey darksynth backbeat. Punchy percussion and musically rock-solid composition are just token at this point. The breakdown at 2:30, which rolls through til the conclusion of the song, is dramatic and powerful. When the Famicom lead reenters the mix, the combination of the voices is sublime. I can’t pinpoint exactly where Matt’s writing ends and Franco’s synth-metal proclivities begin, and I consider that quite a clean feat because of the sheer synergy that it indicates to me. This one specifically has gotta be the best expression of the “Outrun” aesthetic I’ve heard in years. The unique structure of this song only serves as a testament to the pair’s willingness to take risks and experiment—and to do so to great success.

Okay. I know there are probably better candidates for review than one of the two tracks on ‘Scars’ that have already been covered by Chiptunes = WIN, but not only did this absolute banger of a single get me so invested in WOFS to begin with, it’s been sitting very comfortably among my favorite tracks to come out of 2018 fullstop. With it receiving a noticeable facelift for this release (holy mother of drumkits, this is a step up), I feel compelled to revisit what makes ‘Arms Race’ so successful.

1. The graduated expression of power that is accomplished through the song’s dramatic buildup. When you approach a longer, more repetitive track with slower resolutions, take note of the ways it establishes a sense of progression. Is tension in the primary motif being resolved differently upon repetition? Where are the developments coming from? This is a longer track, yes, but this is how you write a longer track. The primary melodies that keep returning see so much development and this occurs in a way that builds upon itself while keeping the song dynamic and fresh. New phrases accompany the repetitive elements to create new combinations, and the sound only gets bigger and stronger as the different voices take turns playing out together.

2. Also worth considering, is whether the track is using length and scale effectively. Does it accomplish something in the process, or is it just long for… the sake of being long? This is directly related to the artist’s sense of control over the progression of the song. Does this feel like one, shorter song that just looped a couple of times? Hell no. Once again, I get this acute, screaming sense of deliberateness. The melodic progression is slower here because the hold on each note is what makes them so powerful, and what gives ‘Arms Race’ its sense of scale. No, this isn’t club music (and it’s not trying to be!), but listen to this while driving and tell me you don’t feel like a fucking badass.

3. Lastly, let’s examine the sense of fullness of each instrument, the overall balance of each sound, and how those sounds fill space. When you compose a longer song, you need the separate elements to work together in a way that feels whole. The synth chords on this track are superb at setting the stage for more complex development, filling the space left by the drum and bass very completely. Balance-wise, they complement each other seamlessly. These are interesting and nuanced sounds that are able to play like a complete ensemble together (even before the real progression begins). Repetitive tracks, at their very core, just need to sound good, in my book.

In conclusion, I can already tell this is going to be a very memorable release as time goes on. If the phrase “chiptune synthwave” means anything to you, I would highly recommend you check out ‘Scars‘ as soon as possible. I’ve had an interest in this act for a while, but now Matt has my full attention. I imagine that whatever’s on the horizon is gonna be mind-blowing.

Watch Out For Snakes
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