In May, producer Meryl S. Kavanagh wrote an article for Pastel Wasteland about the Mass Effect gaming franchise, with a particular focus on the second game. It discussed ME2’s cyberpunk credentials and how its story, characters and themes inspired the album she was working on.
That album, Terminus, has now arrived. Under her Eyeshadow 2600 FM banner, Kavanagh has delivered 14 tracks which won’t only appeal to fans of 80s style retrowave, but also those who appreciate genre-bending electronica.
It’s also an album which raises many interesting questions and points. One being: what actually counts as retrowave?
Purity tests and gatekeepers exist within any fan community. Synthwave, and its various sub-genres, seem particularly subject to this. For some, (I stress some), the musical and visual tropes of the 1980s are almost sacrosanct. It’s not enough for an artist to emulate the sights and sounds of the era; but to ground everything in the decade itself.
To put it another way, taking inspiration from a major gaming franchise which began in 2007 may be considered infra dig. Galaxy spanning adventures like Acornsoft’s Elite exist, so why not go back to that?
Personally, Kavanagh’s eagerness to look beyond that cherished decade is one reason why I count her among the genre’s brightest lights. She’s up there with Alpha Chrome Yayo – another artist whose love of retrowave doesn’t frustrate their efforts and inspirations (for example, certain crime dramas from the early 2000s, as detailed here).
For the uninitiated, Mass Effect follows the adventures of Commander Shepard and their diverse crew of humans, aliens, robots and Oz from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
ME2 sees Shepard killed, resurrected, shooting around the galaxy, shooting weapons around the galaxy and then passing through the dreaded “Omega 4 Relay.” It’s an epic quest. A desperate “suicide mission” pitting them against sinister invaders who serve even more sinister ones.
It’s a journey fraught with danger, excitement, danger, moral quandaries and danger. And as Kavanagh’s article described it’s a journey which recontextualises elements of 80s sci-fi:
What makes Mass Effect 2 a cyberpunk masterpiece is also its atmosphere, its soundtrack, its urgency. The realization that any and all of these people could die on your mission to save the human race. The places it takes you, from the growling underbelly of a mob-controlled city to the neon lights of Illium and the gritty undertones reaching up to you from just beneath the surface.
With all this in mind, how does Terminus pan out? The answer is very, very well.
Following the short intro “Spectre,” the album ramps up dramatically with “Omega.” The track has exciting, glittering runs and pounding beats which suggest an intense journey ahead. But what’s truly interesting here is its thematic implications.
The title refers to both the relay and the mob-controlled station orbiting it. Omega represents a sinister presence which hangs over the entire story, and by extension Terminus. Also, as the final letter of the Greek alphabet, Omega also denotes endings. In this case the possibility of a brutal one.
“Omega” samples the iconic remarks of the station’s “Pirate Queen” Aria T’Loak: ‘Omega has no titled ruler and only one rule. Don’t fuck with Aria.’ It’s a powerful stamp of authority. While listening to “Omega” I sensed that Kavanagh took Aria’s words to heart. This is her album, defined by her rules. It’s retro, it’s cyberpunk, it’s on her terms.
“More Human Than Human” was the album’s lead single. It was a great track in isolation (it made its way onto our first PW Playlist), but its place between “Omega” and “Never Say Die” makes it feel meatier. It’s now part of a grand design.
This track quotes character Miranda Lawson’s polite request for Shepard to ‘Get your arse out of bed now.’ At this point they’re under one of many attacks, and “MHTH” captures the intensity of such a scenario. And again, I get the sense that this sample reflects the resolute stance Kavanagh has adopted. Complacency and apathy won’t fly around here.
While Terminus does demonstrate Kavanagh’s mastery of retrowave production, it also showcases steps towards other electronic genres. On my first listen I was knocked off guard by “The Black Veil.” It turns us towards brooding, dark electro-industrial. Like the Omega 4 Relay, “The Black Veil” is a point of stellar travel. One which leads us “Beyond The Veil.”
The beats and synths rise again but, “Beyond The Veil” pulls harder on some of the darkest threads Kavanagh has already worked into the album’s fabric. Chopped, breaking beats help create a fascinating soundscape. While retrowave is a passion of Kavanagh’s, this track teases possible sidelines I’d be interested in seeing her explore further.
“Her Blue Girlfriend” provides a little relief following “Beyond The Veil.” Said blue girlfriend would be Liara T’Soni, a significant, recurring companion throughout the series.
Liara can handle herself in a fight and is renowned for her research into lost artifacts and cultures. She’s also known for her kind, sympathetic nature and slight romantic naivety. “Her Blue Girlfriend” has a dreamy, tender quality to it. The melody generates the sense of a perfect moment. One where you’re blissful in the arms of another. It just happens that other is a hundred year old blue person with tentacle-like crests on her head.
The song samples an intimate exchange where Liara and Shepard discuss music. The playing of it, the beauty of it, the effects and importance of it. It’s a nice little encapsulation of the romantic possibilities of Shepard’s world, and of Kavanagh’s own love of her art.
Generally speaking, Terminus is an album that captures the overall tone of a franchise which mixes narrative depth with intense action and epic set pieces. But “Silversun Arcade Hero” showcases Kavanagh’s playful side.
The title nods toward the entertainment district aboard one of the game’s main locations, The Citadel. The Castle Arcade provides mini-games for players. “Silversun Arcade Hero” feels like a brief love letter to retro-gaming. It honours the spirit of something cherished by retrowave fans, while reasserting how well Mass Effect meshes with it.
I was a fan of Eyeshadow 2600 FM before Terminus. But this is the album I was always hoping Kavanagh would make. One where her personality and unique instincts are truly seen to blossom.
On the surface, one might expect that basing your art on a preexisting (and well known) body of work could prove restrictive. Yet like Vylet Pony, Kavanagh has shown how you can transcend what’s familiar and expected. How the established roots of your inspiration can feed into something intense, entertaining and most of all unique. Something like Terminus.
You can find Eyeshadow 2600 FM here: