Rekindled love. Synth music and the saxophone

Jul 16, 2018 | Music

I believe it was one of the worlds greatest philosophers, Homer Simpson, who said ‘What I wouldn’t give to hear Lisa play one of her jazzy tunes.. SAXAMAPHONE!’

Even in the early 90’s Homer J was still appreciating the sounds of what has always been one of my favourite sounds. But let me be clear from the start – I know only a little about Jazz and don’t play the sax. This is just an appreciation piece and comment on how happy I am that it’s been sliding into more recent synth-based music.

By the time Homer was wishing for more of those sweet sax tunes, the instrument itself wasn’t featured strongly in popular music anymore. Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar we’re taking the piss out of Kenny G. Popular culture was trying hard to shake off the saxaphone. But the 80s were where the instrument called home. Be it the slow and soft harmonies of Glenn Frey in ‘Let’s go home’ or the up beat pop gems from INXS. The saxaphone defined an era of rich excess. Of smoothness.

Even the movies were on board. We don’t need to mention Tim Cappello’s legendary inclusion in the beach party scene in ‘The Lost Boys’, but fuck, why wouldn’t we?! Fire pits, vampires, beaches and a Cappello baby-oiled up and playing the gig of his life. I can distinctly remember that scene and the first time I saw it – Taking the humble woodwind instrument I had heard in elevators taking it to a whole new epically cool level. Kids playing the pink panther theme tune in music class seemed a world away. This shiny brass beast (and the saxaphone he was holding!) was defining a generation in front of my eyes. It was summer. It was warm nights. It was mood.

As a kid, my mother had a strong 80s music catalogue and the sax was featuring strongly – Bands such as Tears For Fears were amongst those to include it, along with Foreigner in the classic ‘Urgent’. All the while I was discovering more and more and Richard Marx was busy confirming my view that the sax was all about sunshine with his epic ‘Endless Summer Nights’. Everything seemed to fit.

So it was probably right that the sax dropped off in popularity as we hit the 90s.. the new wave acts were adapting their styles, the era of boy and girl bands was sowing its seed. There was little room for it.

Now I discovered what we know as the Synthwave scene quite late on. Around 2014 / 2015. And my initial discoveries were any of the artists that Spotify and Bandcamp considered as linked to Kavinsky, College and other similar such artists. However I was always much more a fan of the lighter side of the genre.. One of the first I discovered was Highway Superstar. As early as 2013 he was throwing some well timed sax jams into ‘Boardwalk Sunset’ on the ‘Take My Time’ album. The sax IS the key to that track with its funky edge that contrasts perfect to the proceeding jam ‘All Around the World’ with The WhoHa. HS was putting a bold statement out there. An inclusion and tribute that seemed to lay some sax foundation and sew a sax seed in the scene. And it was some months later that I went on to discover The Midnight.

Their ‘Days of Thunder’ EP dropped in 2014 so much like Highway Superstar, when synthwave came into my life it was ready and waiting for me. Now there isn’t much sax inclusion on DoT. However so good was their use of the instrument in subsequent albums that when I was thinking back to that set of tracks for this article, I was convinced that there was lots of sax included!

It can be argued that of all the synth music artists, The Midnight have utilised the saxophone the most. Especially since the release of their full length album ‘Endless Summer’ in 2016. The frankly, quite beautiful tones of Thomas Edinger are sensational with tracks such as ‘Jason’ and that opening hook in ‘Vampires’ that dominates the lyric-less chorus section of the song.

His more recent inclusions in the ‘Norctural’ EP are next level shit – That Phil Collin-esque drop in ‘Crystalline’ anyone?!

It was only a few months ago I was chatting with a very prominent artist in the scene who (like many others, I’m sure) was of the opinion that ‘Nocturnal’ was THE release of 2017 and Thomas was a big contributor to that. Footage coming out of the 2017 East Coast live events including The Midnight have touring sax player Jesse Molloy front and centre on stage – Wowing a young and diverse audience with the tones that were energising that fire-lit beach in Santa Carla in 1987. It’s warm nights. It’s mood. It’s summer.

So as of now. It’s 2018. And synth music of the modern era has truly welcomed the saxophone back with open arms. We’ve come full circle with Tim Cappello providing the sax arrangement in Gunship’s new track ‘Dark all Day’. It’s gritty and progressive for the scene whilst pulling on that saxaphone heartstring. And that can only be a good thing. I trust Gunship continue in that vein with their new release. Whilst I enjoy their work, I hope they have something fresh to share with us. Most importantly though – I hope they are happy with it.

Most recently I have even seen tutorials online with artists showing us how to mimic those sax tones in a DAW, so good is some of the software nowadays.

The sax is back. It’s like it never left us.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I have to return some videotapes.