Album Review: Nightstop – Dancing Killer

Nightstop’s career is remarkable not just for its excellence, but also for its evolution. Early releases like 2013’s Fuel EP offered an essential synthwave sound that embraced central elements of the still-young style, namely bright melodies on retro synthesizers that recalled ’80s pop music and sun-soaked images of coastal cities like Los Angeles and Miami. Several songs embodied the outrun attitude that was popular early in the genre with energetic beats and driving themes, i.e. “Drive-by Stalking” and “LA Heat.” Later, on Return to Synth City, and especially Streetwalker, Nightstop delved deeper into the burgeoning dark synth style by delivering songs with coarse textures, brooding melodies, and sinister song titles.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Dancing Killer is no mere continuation of an established sound; like its forebears, it is a breakthrough recording that grasps the fundamental character of Nightstop’s music and propels it into ambitious new territory. For much of the running length, Nightstop has chosen to set aside the well-worn tools of the past and create fresh effects and musical elements that cannot properly be compared to anything that has come before. That willingness to invest time and energy into new ideas pays off throughout the bulk of the recording, and the listener begins reaping the rewards immediately.

The album opens with the rigid, downtempo beat of “Flesh,” on which a moody bassline dances with dreamy background notes before being intercepted by a pair of stunningly lucid melodies. Just when it seems the song has introduced its final layer, a luxurious saxophone solo breaks in to add a new dimension. The track gracefully weaves through multiple sections, generously introducing new ideas and releasing others, never afraid to sacrifice the length of a remarkable musical moment for the song’s greater good. It is a complex piece of music that reveals its range of emotions selectively, and it serves as an enticing invitation to explore the rest of the album.

The next few songs revive some of the bright synth melodies familiar to listeners of early Nightstop and other pillars of the genre such as Lost Years. However, these classic sounds are woven together with delicate and detailed percussion in intelligent pieces of songwriting that outshine the straightforward simplicity of the genre’s past. Although these songs tread the most familiar ground of all the album’s entries, they never fall into the ruts that force many of Nightstop’s contemporaries into predictable patterns.

The finest moments come in the album’s middle section. “The Cage” emerges with a handsomely cinematic spirit, with its secretive rhythm section and bouncy keyboard melody summoning images of clandestine interactions in a busy nighttime metropolis. The album explicitly continues this theme with its next song, “Back Alley Business,” which opens patiently with a low-key bassline and subtle background melodies before turning the mood of the song on its ear with another vibrant saxophone section. The sax dominates the character of the track, and given the understated nature of the other elements, it feels like the song’s charismatic leader stepping onto the scene to conduct the group’s dubious dealings. “The Cage” and “Back Alley Business” work spectacularly in tandem and reveal a deliberate structure to the album’s composition.

The only song that disappoints is “Beast Within,” which incidentally is the one chosen to promote the new album. A quirky effect that sounds like a heavily synthesized human voice saying the word “go” rides along the surface, and though it is briefly remarkable for its uniqueness, the rapid repetition of the sound grows monotonous by the end of the track’s four-minute running length. On a recording that is loaded with exceptional hooks, the commitment to this sound over a traditional melody is a curious choice, and it ultimately pales in comparison to the other songwriting risks.

Fortunately, the album offers plenty to enjoy in the rest of its second half, where Nightstop more strongly applies a mastery of dark themes. The sullen “Ghoul” and aggressive “Touch of Her Knife” provide strikingly different experiences that are equally successful in expressing their sense of danger. It is on these tracks the significance of the album’s title becomes clear; where most synthwave artists opt for bright, nostalgic tones or dive entirely into borderline-industrial noise with rugged textures and horror themes, Nightstop carefully chooses the best of both worlds, swinging between danceable synthwave and haunting dark synth and delivering each track with premeditated precision. The history of Nightstop’s music, and indeed the breadth of the genre, is synthesized into a carefully paradoxical musical journey that is both beautiful and dangerous, club-friendly and introspective. Musically, it is a dancing killer.

The innovation and success of Nightstop’s past endeavors have done little to drain from the artist’s well of inspiration. If anything, Dancing Killer finds a stronger voice in its emergence from the dark synth of Streetwalker, slipping in and out of shadowy musical terrain with unpredictable and often thrilling results. The album is a logical culmination of Nightstop’s past musical ventures, adorned with original sounds and artifacts that help it stand apart in the ever-expanding scene. It is at once familiar and avant-garde, never losing its musical identity despite the broad range of influences on display. The ingenious songwriting is bolstered by top-notch sound production, and the overall excellence ensures Dancing Killer can take its place alongside past Nightstop releases as a genre-defining landmark in the synthwave landscape.

Rating 95 / 100