Album Review: Wes Seneca’s “While Rome Burns”

ALBANY – When the pandemic hit three years ago, much of the music industry scrambled, searching for a way to survive through the chaos. Many people turned away from the arts, being forced into another avenue out of necessity, while some remained creative. The latter is the case for Wes Seneca, who, despite and through an unprecedented global event, turned towards music even more to pass the time. Crafting his latest release, While Rome Burns, Seneca finally released the effort on March 1st in what makes for an incredibly peculiar and, at times, hauntingly quirky electronic record.

Beginning the album is “Interstate.” A quarter-note electronic 808 kick drum serves as the foundation for some nice arpeggiated synth patterns. As the song progresses, Seneca incorporates a synth pad, as well as additional, albeit higher-pitched, arpeggiated synths. One can picture lazily driving down an empty highway late at night when listening to this.

With the title track “When Rome Burns,” listeners are greeted with a much more energetic tune, indicative of something one might hear at a rave of yesteryear. The vocal is peculiar, to say the least, and a lead synth part that comes in later to the song makes a random segue to a jungle-style rhythm before the song abruptly ends. There’re undeniable oddities that permeate this record.

Take, for instance, “Row Your Boat” and “All for Me Grog,” tracks three and eleven, respectively. I never thought I’d hear a nursery rhyme – let alone an Irish traditional tune – sung over electronic music! Whether or not it works is not something I can come to any conclusion about, but one thing’s for sure: it’s daring and inventive. Irish music with a saw-toothed synth. Have I heard everything now? I chuckled when Seneca said, “I do not feel so good!”

Track four, “No Funk,” features a very groovy bass line on top of electronic instrumentation that makes this particular listener envision some kind of metallic junkyard-type dystopia. There’s a spoken-word narrative in this song that is making a PSA to not get up, or dance, which definitely fits within that dystopian feeling. Throughout the song, three separate warnings are delivered to not dance.

Changing things up a bit is “Hippo Puzzles,” track five. The song begins by a prominent electric piano that is supported by gently warbling synths underneath. As the song develops, we hear a lot more of a saw-tooth type of synth flavor, as well as pitch shifts and continuous chord stabs on the electric piano. When the slap bass and subsequent drum groove kicks in, even if it’s just at the end, it really starts to grab my ear.

Leaning even further into the 1980s are songs “Rage” and “Get Yer Mind Straight,” tracks six and seven, respectively. The electric guitar synth in the former tune is undeniable in its sound. It’s a pretty intense and in-your-face track. Near its end, we hear a police siren that gives way to a short piano section before it ends. For the latter tune, consisting primarily of an 808 drum beat, the song is comprised of many aforementioned production choices that lie underneath random phrases, such as “Repeat what you hear” and the chorus “Get yer mind straight/Get with the program.”

For “The Buzz,” track eight, the Nate Smith-esque drum pattern throughout the whole song is a vibe, to say the least. There are several warbling synths that go in and out gently, like neap tides on a cool autumn night. The spoken words that set in later in the song sound reversed and add to the eerie texture of the song.

The songs “Calling Dr. Bow,” and “Theme from Police Patrol,” songs nine and twelve, respectively, are extremely tongue-in-cheek. In the former track, the ostinato synth pattern, along with a simple but consistent bass pattern and the high-pitched off-time synths, make for what is highly reminiscent of a 1990s TV drama. The random laughing and “Calling Dr. Bow” lines are pretty obscure and trippy, for lack of a better word! One need not look any further than the title of the latter track to realize what it is going to sound like. And, does it ever!

Considering the fact this album was recorded during the lockdown, the feeling behind “Every Day,” track thirteen, is endemic to what most of the world felt. Combine that with the words “Every day is just like every day,” and not much more needs to be said. Wandering and aimless, it’s a perfect sonic representation of that time in history. The baby crying in the background near the end of the song was unexpected.

The closing song, “450 Kennedy Road,” begins with an alarm synth, followed by a voicemail message alert. Soon, this breaks away between what sounds like two childhood friends and a fire alarm notifying danger at the address. Also sprinkled into the mix is the opening line to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The laughter against the backdrop of realizing a tragedy occurred is quite a unique way of making something happy be extremely sad. It is somber and sobering as hell. The repeating voicemail prompt at the end of the album indicates that no message will ever return; something very unfortunate has occurred.

With While Rome Burns, Wes Seneca has released an album of retro electronic music that is wobbly, weird, and quirky, and then some! Fans of the genre may get a kick out of different textures on this record as they walk down sonic memory lane. Check it out for yourself here.

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