You might know what synthwave sounds like: bubbling arps, 80s nostalgia, the soundtrack to 2011’s Drive and Stranger Things. But what is wave? In the first of our Corners of SoundCloud series, we’ll explain. Each time, we’ll give you a primer on a scene you don’t yet know, or shed new light on one you already do.
The term “wave” appeared in the early 2010s, and like so many nascent online music scenes, it flourished on SoundCloud. No one track triggered this musically diverse movement. However, London-based producer Klimeks has been posting to SoundCloud using the #wave tag since 2012, and like many artists who were early to the scene, his tracks ranged in BPM wildly. That early sound incorporated elements of grime and hip hop along with trap-style hi-hat rolls, filtered reese basses and melancholic synth arpeggios.
The scene’s ascent into the public consciousness can be largely attributed to Croydon-based DJ/producer Plastician. Via his Rinse FM radio show in the UK and his series of ’The Wave Pool’ mixes on SoundCloud (starting in 2015), he helped shepherd the scene and surface new artists along with the prominent Wavemob collective. The following year, the /r/Wavepool subreddit popped up and became a gathering point for the scene.
Then, in 2017, wave had a moment. It finally blipped onto the radar of the music press, gaining the attention of Thump, Clash and Highsnobiety. Assessments of the scene ranged from a “new genre you need in your life right now” to “a marketing tactic, not a microgenre”. However, the latter hot take was quickly torpedoed by Plastician, pointing out that many of the young wave producers (whom he mentored) had no idea how to manipulate the YouTube algorithm to their advantage, undermining the article’s conspiratorial assertions.
Meanwhile, 15,000km away in Perth, Australian producer Skeler was taking the wave sound in a new direction. Realising wave’s limited audience, he set out to adapt the sound for festival stages and clubs. By drawing on hardstyle and trance influences, he helped spawn the “hardwave” sub-genre.
‘Tel Aviv’ dropped in March 2018, signposting a major fork in the road for wave. Hardwave aligned more with the sound of festival EDM and merged ambient, trap, trance and synthwave elements. Hardwave continued on its existing trajectory, but the laid-back sound of earlier wave music is now sometimes referred to as “chill wave” as hardwave has grown. A rough equivalent might be to compare Skrillex’s brostep to Burial’s dubstep.
But just as wave’s new incarnation seemed poised to break cover and explode into the mainstream, Covid hit, which put the brakes on festival dominance. Happily, that didn’t stop Beatport from recognising wave as a distinct genre in 2021, and hasn’t slowed wave’s popularity, which continues to evolve and find new audiences.
And, while some of the scene’s major contributors have since begun producing in adjacent genres such as phonk and phonkwave, wave remains a popular genre among producers and artists uploading to SoundCloud.
With all those sonic differences in mind, the wave scene might be less about specific sounds or production techniques and more about the emotion it evokes. For some, that’s a sense of melancholy, despite the genre’s signature euphoric synth pads and the occasional laser gun sound effect.
If you like what you’ve heard so far, here are some more wave artists and labels who you should know.
Chris Reed, aka Plastician was at the forefront of dubstep in the early ‘00s via his shows in Croydon, South London. And he could have called it a day there. Instead, as genres evolved, he worked grime and eventually wave into his sets.
Apart from popularising the genre on his Rinse FM show, Reed is also known for heading up the influential Terrorhythm label and for his Wave Pool mixes. On these, he’d feature wave artists he’d found on SoundCloud including Klimeks, Misogi and Noah B.
Reed has taken a step back from wave recently but tracks like ‘Wave Machine’ embody his OG wave (aka chillwave) sound.
Perth-based Skeler has reshaped wave massively. He began posting music in 2016, with track ‘1992’, which he considered “eurobass”, he soon realised that the music he was making was being tagged as “wave” by listeners. Skeler’s push towards a harder, more club-friendly sound was part of a new frontier in the genre, which became known as “hardwave”.
Skeler told Highsnobiety in 2017 that, “Hardstyle melodies and trance arps I feel work really well with Wave.” Nowhere is this more apparent than 2018’s ‘Tel Aviv’ and 2019’s ‘Arcadia’ (a rework of Hardwell and Joey Dale’s track), both of which dial up the tempo – to 135 and 144 BPM respectively. These two tracks have been widely attributed with shining a spotlight on the genre, with ‘Tel Aviv’ amassing 1.71M plays and 2,349 reposts on SoundCloud alone.
Skeler is still prominent in the wave scene, pushing the genre’s boundaries. His latest track CONTRACTS is tagged as “cyberphonk”. Fans also eagerly await a follow up to his 90-minute NightDrive Part II remix set with 10M plays on YouTube, with one commenter noting the producer’s influence: “Skeler has singlehandedly changed the car scene and the hardwave/phonk genre at once”. Another puts their finger on what makes the wave so distinctive, “In hip hop, you hear 80% of the lyric and 20% of the beat. In this genre you hear 80% of the beat and 20% of the lyrics, love it.”
Hxlfghoul might not have the notoriety of acts such Deadcrow, but she’s gaining influence on SoundCloud. A key part of the Norwegian artist’s strategy is her strong repost game. Hxlfghoul never goes more than a week without reposting another artist, which cements her as a trusted tastemaker within the wave scene.
She began publishing music on SoundCloud just three years ago. Across her 37-track discography, we hear dreamy soundscapes with an ambient, melancholic sound through to edit-heavy trap. She’s amassed over 4,000 followers. She’s also part of a global collective named Royalty, and the Swedish wave collective Himmel.
Hxlfghoul has teamed up with Royalty Collective stablemate Willix on numerous tracks, including “⛧Pristine Sorcery⸸” and “Ｐｏｌｔｅｒｇｅｉｓｔ 愛 ス”, with the former trap-beat-laden track racking up over 30,000 plays to date and nearly 200 reposts.
Apart from their collaborations with hxlfghoul, this prolific French producer is also known for deftly melding multiple brands of wave, including retrowave and wavephonk. Over the last four years, Willix has published 97 tracks to their SoundCloud, and is part of international electronic music collective Never Ending Dream, and Royalty collective.
Like many wave artists, Willix keeps a relatively low profile outside SoundCloud, with visuals that rarely show the artist. They also keep the sound alive by selling their FL Studio projects for other producers to reverse-engineer and learn from.
‘【Ｍｉａｍｉ １９８４ さじヷ】”, which dropped recently, is a prime example of wave’s association with retrofuturistic video games: heavy on the synths and the reese bass. Looking deeper into Willix's catalogue, “ｗａｖｙ ｎｉｇｈｔ 🌑” from 2019, on the other hand, features a dark, gloomy melody punctuated with trap beats and an almost discordant vocal sample.
The Imminent Cybercorporation label makes the list because it features numerous wave artists that are growing in prominence on SoundCloud.
First up, we have CHVRN (pronounced Charn) who, with over 15,000 followers on SoundCloud and 4.6M Spotify streams in 2022, is among the biggest names on our list. Based in St Petersberg, CHVRN posted his first track tagged #wave in 2017 titled ‘Still Yours’, and has also dabbled in witchtrap, dreamwave and hardwave. A good jumping-off point into the producer’s diverse catalogue is ‘Hope’ released in June 2022, which features an interesting blend of melodies with some skillful transitions peppered throughout.
Finally, Sergey Dee, better known as The Obsidian, is also worth shouting out. The Georgia native teamed up with Belarusian suigetsu recently on ‘Breathe’, a track that SoundCloud users are calling a “banger”. The track delivers melancholic, reverb-drenched vocals and euphoric atmospheres, along with ratcheting trap-like drums. With 27k plays, it’s not The Obsidian’s biggest track (that would be 2022’s ‘Believe’), but it demonstrates the direction the genre is developing in.
To learn more about other Corners of SoundCloud check back on our blog next month, or to learn more about our Music Intelligence Reports, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.