Back in 2011, the soundtrack to the Ryan Gosling movie Drive updated 1980s synth-pop for the 21st century and became a big hit doing so. Songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” brought a film-noir darkness to the genre’s supremely catchy melodies and on his new album Pax Romana, Vermont-based producer Ebn Ezra aka Ethan Wells does the same.
Though Wells calls the Drive soundtrack “iconic,” he draws from further back in the history of synthesized music. He cites as his album’s biggest influence a Japanese artist named Chinatsu Kuzuu, who recorded medieval folk songs backed by MIDI compositions (similar in a way to a recent album of electronic Gregorian chants). But Kuzuu recorded back in the early 1990s, when MIDI – a primitive form of electronic music – was a new frontier. “It sounds like the most bizarre thing,” Wells says, “English folk by way of a Japanese woman in the ’90s using no more than a computer. So I thought, if she can do it, so can I.”
Wells owns an arsenal of synthesizers and drum machines, but for Pax Romana, he limited himself to just his computer. “I found that when I would sit down to compose a song, having a lot of hardware would actually end up being a distraction,” he says. “Recording would end up being this huge process. Setting the limitation of just using the laptop actually became very freeing.”
Despite ditching electronic music’s typical instruments, the album sounds huge and epic – a computer has a far broader musical range than it did in Kuzuu’s time. Less an EDM album than a headphone journey, Pax Romana builds haunting soundscapes and swirling worlds from very little. It’s pop music as heard from 100 yards away, catchy and at times propulsive (as on standout “Polycrystalline”) but still a step removed from any dance floor.
And unlike so much electronic laptop productions, these are songs in the traditional sense, with lyrics, choruses, and in some cases elaborate plots. For instance, the song “Leander Underwater” tells the story of a gender-switched Little Mermaid, in which a man living underwater attempts to join his love on dry land before returning to the sea.
Listen to and download Pax Romana for free below.