Album Review: The Midnight - 'Nocturnal'

16 October 2017 | 2:45 am | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

Absolutely essential synthwave listening.

More The Midnight More The Midnight

Somewhere, a lone train speeds away from the bright lights of a sleepless metropolis, as its passengers slip into quiet reverie as their train takes them deeper into the night. Somewhere, a figure walks the cold, shadowy streets of a noir city that's more concerned with what's happening behind closed doors than with the heartache of an individual strolling alone outside in search of some kind of solace. Somewhere higher up, a man stares out from his apartment's window, closely watching and listening to the scenic city skyline that sprawls out before him, reflecting on far too many thoughts to actually pin any of them down. Somewhere below that, a car speeds through the slowly rainy city streets, the driver's face lit only by the dashboard and the stereo playing music from late night radio stations. Somewhere not too far away, a dark corner of a seedy bar is briefly set alight by the flame of a woman's cigarette lighter as she sits and just... waits; perhaps for no one at all or maybe for someone in particular. Somewhere closer, in a brightly lit subway station or on a street corner, a guitarist and a saxophonist busk together for any and all who pass by; not concerned with what money they make, just enthralled in the pure joy of playing for any willing ears. And elsewhere, pulsating drum beats and retro synths wash over nightclub dancefloors filled with lost souls hypnotically moving their bodies to the music, forgetting their worldly worries and even themselves for just a few minutes.

These are the hazy neon-bathed images, the nostalgic, 80's-reminiscent scenes, and the romanticised stories that 'Nocturnal', The Midnight's stunning new EP, portrays over its 41-minute runtime. In a nutshell, every single one of this EP's seven modern-meets-retro compositions is a story or better yet, a movie in their own right. These songs make for wondrous synth scores that could accompany the most important, most classic pieces of fictional 80's media. (Think less Miami Vice, and more Terminator or Escape From New York).

Now, personally, I wasn't quite sure that this EP would live up to the instilled hype that I myself had placed upon it due to The Midnight's past work, but I'm so, so glad that I was wrong and I feel foolish for ever having doubt!

Bringing those who don't know up to speed, The Midnight is the powerhouse duo of Tim McEwan and Tyler Lyle - who both share the music and lyric writing credits, with the role of vocalist falling to Lyle and production/mixing duties falling to McEwan (with mastering done by the usual suspect, Anders Schumann). As for some wider context, the pair's solid 2016 debut album, 'Endless Summer', was this bright, upbeat, 80's guitar-dotted, screaming saxophone-laden record intended to score scorching Californian summer days and warm L.A. evenings with its incredibly catchy, satisfying refrains. However, the seven tracks found on 'Nocturnal' display quite the opposite sonics. While still percussive and melodic like their older peers, these new songs are longer, darker, lower-key, and are more suited to the above-detailed scenes of moody, solitary nightlife. In fact, this release's gorgeous, neon-glowing artwork (composed by sci-fi loving artist David Legnon) nails the EP's slower, mood-building, time-taking evening setting as well as the deeper, quieter, and more reflective tone 'Nocturnal' so wonderfully embodies musically and lyrically.

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Taking what the paid did last year with the exceptional bangers, 'Vampires' and 'The Equaliser (Not Alone)' respectively, they now expand upon them thoroughly. Here, The Midnight delivers seven amazing synthwave soundscapes full of simple but pumping drum beats, percussive synth stabs, filtered electronics, beautiful pop vocals, 80's rock guitar leads, driving saxophone solos, and more. Now, yes, when it comes to synthwave music such as this, The Midnight don't do anything that new but what they do do is create some of the very best music this evolving but always nostalgic genre has to offer the world. For what first started on 'Days Of Thunder' three years ago has now morphed into a truly magnificent beast.

Stemming from that, there are also a handful of records that have recently become instant faves among fans of this genre, namely that of Gunship's self-titled LP (2015) and FM-84's 'Atlas' (2016), and with good reason - their both solid albums! Yet I feel that The Midnight have established themselves as one of synthwave's best, most prestigious acts with 'Nocturnal'; creating something that's deeply focused more on establishing just the right sounds, just the right neon-aesthetics and just the right melancholic timbres, rather than just dishing out the sweetest of choruses and hooks as quickly as possible.

As such, The Midnight really take their time with some of these tracks, as this EP features some of the pair's longest compositions to date. Yet while lengthier, these songs are no less intelligent and no less well-put-together as past material was. This is best seen on the indeed repetitive but dreamy and engrossing instrumental 'Collateral'; the dynamic and pumping seven-minute title track that's broken up by this rich, bassy, pitch-shifted, vocoder affected voice declaring the song's name; and the soft, slow-burning five-minute instrumental closer of 'Tokyo Night Train', which is fittingly encased in calming electronics evoking traditional Japanese melodies and instruments. Even the non-instrumentals here - 'Shadows', 'Crystalline', 'Light Years' and 'River Of Darkness' - also hit the five or six-minute marks, but whether Lyle's or another's vocals are present or not, The Midnight still pulls this sweet nocturnal vibe off with some of the best synthwave heard this year.

'Nocturnal' is also a release that reflects the talents of the people who helped create it along each step of the way - not just McEwan and Lyle. What with the EP's deliciously sexy saxophone parts once more being recorded by the brilliant Thomas Edinger; how film score composer Mads Storm returns for yet another distorted synth guitar solo on the beautiful scene setter 'Collateral'; how Pelle Hillström delivers these screaming yet serene guitar licks and melodies on the ever-building lead single 'Crystalline' (which features an 'In The Air Tonight'-like drum fill that'd make Phil Collins sweat); and how stellar female vocalist Nikki Flores shares the limelight with Lyle's intimate vocals for the touching pop ballad duet of 'Light Years', a peaceful piece backed up by these swelling, lingering bass lines, bright synths, and an utterly soothing saxophone solo to boot.

Not only that, Dutch musician and producer, Jordy Leenaerts (AKA Mr Timecop1983 himself), has made the very fantasies of retro synthwave fans the world over an actual reality by featuring on the dreamy, comforting yet romantically bittersweet track, 'River Of Darkness'; a collaboration I really hope happens again down the line!

'Nocturnal' is the perfect score to your favourite 80's movies and your favourite modern-retro video games. This EP is a fitting musical backdrop for the gleaming utopian and/or grim dystopian cities of the future, or in less dramatic terms, it could just be the best soundtrack to your nighttime travels. This is the kind of synthwave EP that would make John Carpenter himself very proud of what people like himself have helped define and bring into such popularity over the past four decades. This EP also shows The Midnight at the top of their game and is the very best kind of background music one could ever ask for.

'Nocturnal' is, to put it simply, absolutely essential synthwave listening. Whether you dance along or not, is entirely up to you.

1. Shadows

2. Crystalline

3. Collateral

4. River Of Darkness (feat. Timecop1983)

5. Nocturnal

6. Light Years (feat. Nikki Flores)

7. Tokyo Train Ride

'Nocturnal' is out now. Stream it below or be cool AF and go buy it here. Read our best retro synthwave acts of 2017 feature piece over here