Shaun Smith takes his synthesizers very seriously. While some electronic artists like to keep their tools and techniques cloaked in mystery, Smith lays his whole rig out there in the liner notes of his new album Evaluations: Moog Voyager, Roland Juno-106, Roland SH-101, Roland TR-707, Roland MC-808, Nord Lead 2X, Future Retro Revolution, Casiotone CT-640. Nerd fare, for sure, but whether or not you recognize these letters and numbers, you’ll recognize the sounds. This is not the makings of your little brother’s laptop EDM. Smith’s project TSTI is classic ’80s darkwave, full of melancholic beats and emotive vocal leads that are both mopey and body-moving, a style that now feels weirdly nostalgic while simultaneously shot-through with 20-something ennui.
The album’s content is equally serious. Post-punk and new wave pioneers like the Cure and Depeche Mode have in recent years garnered as much adoration from younger imitators as their now-middle-aged fans, but contemporary acolytes of that dark industrial synth sound have largely scrapped the gothic ethos for something marginally less nocturnal. Not Smith. Evaluations is full of the grave regret (“talking to the memory of you”) and pleasure/pain distortions (“this damage is magic”) that defined the work of eye-lined broken romantics like Morrissey and Robert Smith.
While this sensibility can err on the maudlin side, the album’s construction is undeniable. Smith is a master of his arcane gear, crafting gorgeous beds of squiggly bass and vast chambers of echo-drenched percussion. Save for some analog mastering at Sandcreek Studios, the project is entirely a bedroom job, which makes the sterling production even more remarkable and deserving of a big sound system on which it can be properly enjoyed—ideally after the witching hour.