The cheesy new age sounds on this obscure album from 1988, discovered by a YouTube algorithm and recently reissued, have become a touchstone for producers because of their intense irony and nostalgia.
There’s a form of listening and musical discovery that’s familiar to anyone who uses YouTube on a regular basis. Find a song you like, press play, free your hands from the wheel, and let the website’s algorithm lead you from video to video. It’s how George Clanton, and many others like him, discovered Software, a little known German electronic duo from the late 1980s. Clanton, the co-founder of the label 100% Electronica, came upon Software’s song “Island Sunrise” during a YouTube listening session a few years back, and was gobsmacked.
“Island Sunrise” is the overwhelmingly relaxing centerpiece song of Software’s 1988 album Digital-Dance. It starts with the sounds of waves gently breaking along a shoreline, and then seconds later it opens up, and bubbles of synthesizer chords and saccharine MIDI strings color the track in warm pastels. It’s a sensorial feast, but it’s also overly serious to the point of being a little goofy. It is, without a doubt, a song that evokes all the beautiful and tired images we have of the beach, all with sounds that seem stock and generic. It’s easy to hear why Clanton was so taken with it—“Island Sunrise” is immediately strange and old fashioned, a dusty time capsule from a bygone era.
Software was composed of the artist Michael Weisser and the musician Peter Mergener. From 1985-1998, the duo produced over thirty releases for Klaus Schulze (of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream) and Michael Haentjes’ experimental label Innovative Communication, each displaying a consistent aesthetic vision. Their albums bore this specific kind of psychedelic digital art—part collage, part M.S. Paint tomfoolery—that in years since, has become the palette for niche electronic music. Their sound, which changes slightly to fit the world they want to create in their music, is synth-driven new age that also pulled from the campy tropes of late-’80s pop. Apparently, Weisser and Mergener’s musical identity was inspired by a science fiction novel the former wrote where in the future “music [was] created by computer-based laser stimulation of protozoans.” As Weisser has said, each of the albums they created was an attempt at creating “new sound-galaxies,” and to him, what they did wasn’t actually music, but something more aspirational, like fine art.
The music found on Digital-Dance is in line with Weisser and Mergener’s artistic goals, incredibly opulent—almost hifalutin. Made up of seven tracks (plus two bonus songs) that stretch out across an hour, Digital-Dance contains songs that sound like the ill-begotten lovechild of Barry Manilow’s tropical easy listening and John Carpenter’s sci-fi synths. Opening track “Oceans Breath” is supposed to set the scene for the album—seagulls croaking overhead, breeze in the background. Then plinks of vibraphone and windchime come in right before a blaring saxophone solidifies the tone. Like cotton candy, the sensation is sweet but instantly fleeting.
Saxophones are a constant on Digital-Dance, but they hew closer to Kenny G. than Sonny Rollins. Elsewhere, on songs like “Waving Voices” or “Magnificent Shore,” hair metal guitar solos and overblown percussion recall all the pumped-up drama of a Phil Collins track. Even the album’s best song, “Island Sunrise,” can, after several listens, feel like soundtrack music for a beachside action movie watched out of boredom on a pirated feed of Cinemax.
Yet the album seems purposefully contrived and generic: In order to create the world of the “beach,” Weisser and Mergener had to pull from the crudest and most direct musical metaphors for that environment. It’s why this is an album laden with laid-back synths, stock sound effects, and all manner of cheesy instrumentals. As music made specifically for conjuring up a mood—it’s extremely effective. Digital-Dance has become a touchstone for micro-genres like vaporwave (a scene of which George Clanton is part of), and part of that comes from how these songs feel both intensely ironic and nostalgic under a new light.
Why Digital-Dance became the magnum opus of their discography is, of course, pure coincidence. In fact, Digital-Dance’s latter-day prominence is less a story about how timeless Weisser and Mergener’s music is (it isn’t), but how YouTube has helped saved them from the dustbin of history. The video Clanton found was uploaded just a little earlier by the musician Ryan M Todd, who in turn discovered Software’s “Island Sunrise” on a mixtape he received from Dâm-Funk called Chart Toppers. Todd uploaded the video because of the scarcity of Software’s music at the time, and Dâm-Funk, keen to this scarcity before Todd, found Digital-Dance during a vinyl shopping spree in Berlin with his Stones Throw labelmates in 2008.
Through both serendipity and YouTube’s algorithm, Clanton and others found Software, as a result of Todd and Dâm-Funk’s interaction. Even if Software’s music found itself on YouTube through some luck, they’ve become famous because of how attenuated their songs are to a sense of escapism. Like the much maligned new age records of the ’70s, which are now in vogue again, the “tropical” ambient of Software can feel new just by virtue of how old it sounds. They weren’t original or innovative (Harumi Hosono and Midori Takada made “beach” records of their own years earlier), but the songs make you want to make you kick your feet up, and imagine yourself a world away.