Album Review: Neon Droid – Sunset Trilogy

Synthwave is changing rapidly, and Neon Droid stands at the forefront of a shift toward darker, more elaborate, and more energetic songwriting. The artist’s vision for a trilogy of related EPs is now complete with the release of No More Sunset, and Neon Droid’s intricate songwriting and effective use of diverse instrumentation represents an exciting evolution of the original darksynth sound. This willingness to experiment is bolstered by high overall sound production and songwriting, both of which frequently stand well above those of his predecessors and contemporaries. The three EPs that comprise Sunset Trilogy provide numerous memorable and compelling moments, and together they define Neon Droid as a force to reckon within the modern synthwave scene.

Just as darksynth grew out of the original outrun sound around 2012, a new form of the genre has been quickly developing since 2015. Neon Droid joins some the most talented modern synthwave artists, including Astral Tales, Isidor, and 3Force, with a complex sound that incorporates the bright melodies of synthwave, the coarse and aggressive rhythms of classic darksynth, and the energetic songwriting approach of modern EDM, frequently adding metal-style electric guitar to the mix for an invigorating and refreshing sound. This style of cybersynth music is stylistically distinct from outrun artists like Lazerhawk and Kalax, and equally different from the non-melodic, rhythmic-oriented sounds of modern darksynth being produced by artists like Lazerpunk, Dan Terminus, and Perturbator.

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This new evolution of synthwave is on display with the first EP in the trilogy, Deadly Sunset, which opens with the excellent and captivating “Gangwars.” The track comes out swinging with a classic darksynth sound, though the many inspired touches and details outstrip the one-dimensional songwriting approach of artists like Perturbator and Carpenter Brut for a more gratifying listening experience. “Gangwars” is packed with nuance and detail, with enough shifts in its various elements to keep the music compelling across repeated listens. Neon Droid’s thick tapestry of music flows effortlessly through its four-minute running time, at times dropping into a deep, shuffling rhythm, at other times cutting loose with driving percussion and soaring melodies, and occasionally breaking down into brilliantly funky interludes. Across Neon Droid’s remarkable Sunset Trilogy, “Gangwars” stands as one of the most complex and engaging tracks.

The excellence of “Gangwars” immediately leads into one of Neon Droid’s most popular and arguably most attractive creations, “Sonny’s Justice.” The song opens with crystalline synth tones bouncing over a casually groovy bassline, and the piece flows easily through its downtempo first half with variations of the melody taking turns leading the composition. At its midpoint, the song suddenly drops into darker territory with brooding ambient tones punctuated by echoes of the song’s signature melody. The break hinges on a dramatic voice clip and adeptly escalates into a racing darksynth rhythm that proceeds to drive the song to its conclusion. This new section is eventually joined by the return of the primary melody, connecting the song’s two halves for an absorbing composition that remains attractive for its entirety.

Deadly Sunset continues with slightly more playful songs like “Hello, Synthboy!” and “Dead of the Class,” the second of which is a particular standout with its deep, funky rhythm and heavily robotic vocal track. In addition to the strong electro vibe of “Dead of the Class,” there’s an element of vintage horror in the mix, making it one of Neon Droid’s most unique creations. In contrast with the aggressive pace and style of “Gangwars,” the track reveals Neon Droid’s commendable songwriting versatility and healthy sense of humor.

“Suburban Motel Nights” wraps up the Deadly Sunset EP with the most classic outrun-style track of the trilogy. The straightforward beat and gentle, rolling melodies are at once peaceful and slightly unnerving, retaining the sinister tone and ambient horror of Neon Droid’s music despite the focus on a traditional synthwave songwriting approach. The soothing, casually melancholic tone is an excellent complement to the other entries on the EP, wrapping up Deadly Sunset as a varied and valuable creation in its own right.

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Revenge of Sunset is the second release in the Sunset Trilogy, and its four songs further represent Neon Droid’s willingness to experiment. However, despite the EPs strengths, the opener is one of Neon Droid’s rare missteps. The upbeat and slightly ominous title track features an electric guitar contribution with a generally likable sound, though the production is flat and the song never delivers remarkable melodies or enough variety within its structure to capture a listener’s attention.

Fortunately, “In Synth We Wave” follows on the heels of the opening track with an engaging and memorable creation. The multifaceted piece pounds out its midtempo pace with a thunderous bass beat while spacey synth notes glimmer overhead. Meanwhile, a cybernetic whistling tone generates the impression of a futuristic industrial facility. In a welcome contrast, Neon Droid adds a heavily distorted robotic voice to the mix, lending the song a surprising club vibe that is further accented by the pacing bass notes. A musically relevant and somewhat comical voice clip interrupts the middle of the song to describe the process of building up synthesizer tones for a massive sound, at which point the music resumes its impressive aural attack.

A pair of additional tracks maintain the artistic creativity and success of “In Synth We Wave.” On “The Order” and “Neon-Dioxide,” dexterous percussive elements zip in and out of the music with a variety of synth tones shimmering, crunching, and sliding their way through the lead portions in an exciting array of textures and effects. “The Order” is a more uptempo piece recalling Carpenter Brut creations while “Neon-Dioxide” grinds its way through a paradoxically sinister and groove-worthy rhythm that rewards high volume, once again making the EP worthwhile as a standalone effort.

Neon Droid no mas

No More Sunset concludes the Sunset Trilogy with a powerful collection of six songs. The title track kicks things off with an industrial-infused rhythm and ambient synth tone laced with electric guitar. The sound production is solid for most of the Sunset Trilogy, though it’s at its best on the No More Sunset EP, frequently compelling the listener to crank up the volume.

Following the intro-style opening track, Neon Droid dips into pure science fiction with “Apex One.” Everything about the song conjures up images of neo-noir cities and space colonies, a feeling cemented by a voice clip from the 1998 film Dark City. In fact, despite the album’s cover art and title, the No More Sunset EP has a distinct cyberpunk flair to it, often recalling EBM and industrial music with prominent sci-fi overtones, and in the case of “Apex One,” delivering it all with a healthy dose of electric guitar.

A rare mediocre track arrives on “Goodbye Paradise Bay,” whose straightforward composition offers too little  variety to stand out despite its likable overall sound. The disappointment doesn’t last long however, as the album bounces back with three excellent songs to wrap up the recording. First comes the uptempo pulse of “Planet Neon” followed by the midtempo, beautifully melodic pieces “Love” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive.” As with everything from Neon Droid, these songs vary significantly in their approach, featuring elements of drum and bass, dark electro, tropical house, and darksynth, among others. “Planet Neon” is a particular standout, expertly weaving attractive melodies into powerful rhythmic elements and club-worthy buildups for an explosive and energetic piece that is one of the brightest highlights in the trilogy.

Like all the best music in the synthwave genre, No More Sunset‘s appeal takes time to appreciate. A single spin of the EP may be satisfying, but repeat listens are needed to reveal the subtlety and power in Neon Droid’s musical approach. In fact, those who give Neon Droid’s trilogy a cursory listen are doing themselves a disservice. Putting the music on and simply allowing it to play through is the best way to appreciate the impressive grit and stature of Neon Droid’s opus.

With his Sunset Trilogy, Neon Droid has established himself as a prominent voice in the generation of Synthwave 2.0 artists. The elaborate songwriting and high energy of the music frequently exceeds the best darksynth creations of the past, and his musical direction is in alignment with other cybersynth artists as they push toward an exciting new future for the synthwave genre. The few disappointing tracks among the trilogy are quickly overlooked thanks to the strength of their surrounding songs and Neon Droid’s commitment to sculpting unique and diverse compositions. Funky, brooding, menacing, and playful, the Sunset Trilogy never resigns itself to a single identity, and the music is all the better for it. Individually, the EPs are impressive, and collectively their best moments are a brightly lit beacon signaling the changing tide of the genre.

Rating: 90 / 100


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