The synthwave genre can feel a bit played out these days. Once you’ve heard one set of Blade Runner-esque synth arpeggios, it’s easy to feel like you’ve heard them all. But every once in awhile, a track comes along that cuts through the dross and feels like something fresh in a genre that, all too often, seems trapped by nostalgia and repetition.
Case in point, the title track from the soundtrack for Katana ZERO, a recently released game for the Switch and PC that’s garnered buzz for its retro graphics, novel game mechanics, and “neo-noir” storyline. Composed by Dutch producer LudoWic, “Katana ZERO” begins with the usual synthwave sonics (e.g., murky synth pulses, clattering industrial-ish noises) that communicate the requisite cyberpunk-y menace, especially as the sounds become more intense and unnerving with each passing second.
And as far as that goes, it’s solid enough stuff, if nothing you haven’t heard before. But then around the 1:30 mark, LudoWic begins introducing serpentine melodic shifts that undulate just below the song’s surface. The way they subtly bend the song in new directions while adding a sense of wistfulness and poignancy to the banging synthesizers — well, it’s a little detail, but you don’t typically hear such subtlety from synthwavers, who often seem intent on simply being as dark and intense as possible, and it’s quite fascinating as a result.
The rest of the Katana ZERO soundtrack will certainly fit any synthwave needs you might have, with numerous compositions by LudoWic as well as Bill Kiley, DJ Electrohead, Tunç Çakır, and Justin Stander. (I’m particularly partial to Bill Kiley’s funky “Sneaky Driver” and ethereal “Kill Your TV” and I assume that DJ Electrohead’s “Hit the Floor” soundtracks the game’s samurai protagonist cutting a bloody swathe through a grimy, neon-soaked discothèque.) But it’s the title track that I keep returning to, and which sets a new bar for the synthwave genre.