Karl is a longtime freelancer who's passionate about music, art, and writing.
Synthwave albums have a tradition of telling stories by creating cinematic soundscapes. Soundengine’s Squalor City Pt. 1: The [Cy] Bordello fits into this tradition and paints vivid images using melody, harmony and wide ranging synth sounds. This is an album that has melodic brightness, bass darkness and covers everything from warm and drifting moments to serious crunching aggression. As the tale unfolds, the auditory cues from the music help set the scene and allow the listener to explore the dangerous and sometimes beautiful world that Soundengine has created.
The contrasts in emotion and sound that Soundengine works with on Squalor City are one of the reasons I enjoyed listening to this album. From the dark, writhing synth sounds that permeate “S.C.U.M” to the delicate, light melody that dances through “The Girl”, there are many moods to the album. These contrasts serve to tell the auditory tale of Squalor City and take the listener on a ride through the highs and lows of a dystopian metropolis and its people.
The industrial and technological sound elements that were present on the darker tracks were something else that I found interesting on the album. Whether it was the “computerized” sounding synths on "Enhancement Protocol" or the metallic, industrial sounds that dominated "Socket", these elements contributed to the sensation of a dystopian future city that Soundengine aimed to create on the album.
Squalor City is an album that benefits from the inclusion of electric guitar. It adds a harder edge in some places and in others soars and flies over the synths to drive home the music and intensify the emotions that are conveyed in the music. I was especially taken by the wild, howling guitar solo on Enhancement Protocol which added another layer of intensity to what is already an intense track.
The track order of the album has clearly been considered because it finds a balance between the lighter sounding tracks and those that are far heavier and darker in nature. The journey that this balance took me on was a big part of my enjoyment of Squalor City. I simply shut my eyes and let Soundengine transport me. I was drawn from light to darkness, from high dancing synths to dark bass pulses by the tracks and it made for a engaging listening experience overall.
Now we come to the part of the review where I’ll break down the tracks on Squalor City that most grabbed me and talk about why that was the case.
The contrasting elements of the album were on display on "The [Cy]Bordello." It has a surprisingly delicate and light melody that seems to be in stark contrast with the name of the track. The melody has a gentle, even wistful quality at times. Underneath it, there’s a deep oscillation of bass and dense synths that play winding patterns. As the track continues, the electric guitar slices into it, delivering a more aggressive melody, so we get another contrasting element there.
The way in which "Enhancement Protocol" emphasized the tech-y sound that it established was one thing I really enjoyed about the track. The whole track feels warm but impersonal at the same time. The wandering melody has a computerized sound and everything is supported by that heavy, dark bass. There are moments that drift by through a break and a biting, howling guitar solo that hits like thunder over the driving, dark beat before the track closes out on high, tightly wound synths still underpinned by that bass pulsation.
"Socket" is a track full of industrial, rough sounds from metallic clanking and crunching synths. There’s also a mechanistic sound to some of the synths that only increases the feeling of being in a very hard surfaced and metallic place. The main melody has a certain melancholy to it, even as the intensity of the track increases. The vocal sample of terrified voices is a counter to the track seeming to grow warmer as it continues to unfold. There’s another soaring guitar solo on this track that again shows off Soundengine’s skills on the strings.
I felt myself being carried away on the story of Squalor City. Soundengine created strong sensations and images in my mind as I listened to the album. I could imagine this city that is full of grime and corruption but also touched by faint flashes of hope and warmer emotion in spite of the decay. I’m excited to hear Part II of this tale as Soundengine continues to explore the sonic world that he’s created.