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Makeup & Vanity Set’s Wilderness Is a Synthesizer Music Tour de Force (Review)

Wilderness represents a new benchmark for the dreamwave genre, a record that’s as soulful and sleek as it is synthetic and sinister.
Wilderness, Makeup & Vanity Set

Makeup & Vanity Set’s Matthew Pusti describes his music as “electro/electronica/fantasy arpeggios,” which is pretty accurate, technically speaking. His synth-heavy songs feature arpeggios aplenty and there’s a definite fantasy/sci-fi edge to his compositions — almost like he’s doing his darndest to compose an alternate Blade Runner score. His efforts have made him one of the shining lights in the “dreamwave” genre, which itself finds a lot of inspiration in the sci-fi of yesteryear, particularly the sleek, dystopic images associated with ’80s cyberpunk. (Makeup & Vanity Set’s blog is filled with an assortment of images culled from movies, anime, video games, and whatnot that add to that vibe.)

However, “electro/electronica/fantasy arpeggios” implies a certain lightness, even cheesiness about the music. Now, there’s certainly something cheesy about dreamwave in general. It’s a genre built on top of tropes and clichés from ’80s cult pop culture, after all. And to a certain extent, the more fully an artist exhibits the cheesiness, the better the music. (Case in point: Kavinsky, Perturbator, and Mild Peril.) But “light” and “cheesy” aren’t words I’d ever use to describe Wilderness. While Makeup & Vanity Set’s latest certainly has the same sleek, synth-heavy, sci-fi sound generally associated with dreamwave, it goes much deeper and darker than that. With Wilderness, Pusti has created a new benchmark for the genre, a record that’s as sleek and soulful as it is synthetic and sinister.

The inspiration for Wilderness emerged from the experience of watching a loved one die from cancer, which then inspired all manner of thoughts concerning the limits of technology and human understanding in the face of suffering and death. Last March, Pusti wrote, “No matter how hard we seek that, something infinite or eternal is always just beyond our grasp and even if we caught up to it, would we truly want it? Could something artificial replace something real to satisfy our natural need for realism?”

In light of this, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Wilderness is not an easy listen; it may feature synths and programmed beats, but this electronic music is decidedly not dance-friendly. Rather, it’s ominous and disquieting. Blackened synth pulses serve as the album’s core sonic element; the clattering noises of a dying factory ricochet around “Monomorph”; haunting monologues emerge throughout, including one at the end of “Turing: Sequence” that briefly muses on the death of the universe. There’s an undeniable sense of vision and purpose at work here — which shouldn’t be surprising, given Pusti’s tragic experience.

While largely an instrumental affair, a few tracks with vocals (e.g., “Hand in Hand,” “Remember”) inject some human warmth into Pusti’s cold music. “Hand in Hand” is particularly affecting, as the female vocalist sings “Wake me up/Brother, remind me of who I am… Let’s go to where you remember, hand in hand.” It’s a brief moment of human connection in an album that otherwise seems devoid of such sentiment, emphasis on “brief.” As the album winds down with songs like “An Eternal Feeling” and “Rec,” death and disconnection become inevitable, and Wilderness’ true nature is revealed: It’s staring into the face of death and desperately trying to come to terms with the loss and horror found therein.

(For what it’s worth, Mount Eerie’s Wind’s Poem was the point of comparison that first came to mind when I listened to Wilderness. Musically, Wilderness and Wind’s Poem couldn’t be more dissimilar, but thematically and aesthetically, they create a similarly harrowing and affecting experience.)

It’s fitting that Wilderness ends with “Disconnect, Goodbye.” The song begins with a mournful piano buffeted by ghostly noises, only to be abruptly cut off and replaced by a synthesized wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s the single most harrowing and crushing moment in the entire Makeup & Vanity Set discography, a glimpse of the universe in its death throes, and it is not a pretty or comforting image. But the honesty and intensity with which Pusti confronts such ideas and emotions, as well as the fact that such intensity isn’t diminished simply because he’s doing so from behind synthesizers and sequencers, is worth noting and acknowledging.

Wilderness can be purchased directly from Telefuture, and also includes a digital download of Eidolon, a short film by Joey Ciccoline that was inspired by Wilderness.

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