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Synthpop Album Review: "Nights In North Sentinel" by Cult With No Name

Karl is a longtime freelancer who's passionate about music, art, and writing.

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Overall Album Impressions

Cult With No Name’s Nights In North Sentinel is a brooding, beautiful and emotive musical exploration of the complexities and contradictions of our current moment. It combines luscious musical textures, strong vocal performances and intriguing lyrical content to create deep, nuanced synth-based pop.

The way in which Erik Stein and Kelli Ali’s voices combine with the well-written lyrics results in an expressive exploration of human emotion, society at large and the struggles we face with one another. The vocalists have the ability to imbue the words with feeling and their voices work well together. There’s a depth of meaning and feeling in the lyrical content which draws me toward interpreting it.

The musical background for the album has been well crafted to suit the nuance and richness of the lyrics. The various instrumental tones and timbres combine to weave melodies that are strong and clear. The piano takes the lead to carry the melodic content, but strings add orchestral complexity and the synth elements function to create extra aural interest. I especially enjoy how Cult With No Name ensures that the musical backing serves the lyrics and the vocal performances, while not allowing it to fade into blandness.

“All Those Things I Admire”

“All Those Things I Admire” comes to life as an angular synth reverberates out into open space in echoing lines as a warmer piano melody flows in, full of uplifting feeling. The steady, thin synth moves through and Erik Stein’s soothing, expressive voice carries the melody.

The melody’s delicacy contrasts with the sharper edge in the lyrics as the piano sails out over the gently guiding drums and flowing bass. Kelli Ali’s sound pairs well with Erik Stein’s and deepens the emotional content of the lyrics. Now rising, intertwining synths glide to support the main piano melody.

I enjoy the smoothness and gentle sensations in the piano here. Both singer’s voices are clear, full of feeling and energy as the piano unfurls into the music and the drums and bass pulse on. The music reaches a crescendo along with the voices now fading along with everything else.

The narrator finds himself embroiled in a complex relationship with the song's subject. He opens by saying that he knows he’s dishonest as the song’s subject claims not to be and that he’s greedy because “you’ve taken the lot.” Our narrator realizes that they would just argue as “it's just the way that you are” and with a wry twist says he’s thankful he isn’t like the other person “at least not from afar.”

In the chorus he talks about how he can’t be around “desires, all those things I admire.” The storyteller says that he “knows” he’s disloyal because the other person walked away and knows that he’s “spiteful from all the things that you say.” He knows there’s conflict as “it’s just the way that you are” and adds “Thank God I don’t need it, at least not any more.”

The narrator is thankful he’s “running far away from it all” because he points out that he can do without and “can’t be around lies.” He adds that he can also do without “you crying” along with the desires and things he admires.

"Noa's Arc"

A twanging instrument vibrates out into open space in short bursts as undulating bass launches a steadily pulsing beat to open “Noa’s Arc” as a piano moves in quick flashes to add depth. The twanging adds a fascinating texture and Erik Stein’s resonant voice carries the strong lyrics.

The piano flickers in an encouraging sounding pattern, in contrast to the shadowed words. Throbbing drums and bass shape the music and sliding synth adds more sonic layers. The piano is delicate and a little mournful. There’s an airy quality to the vocals as well as aching feeling as the string sounds swell.

Energizing bass oscillates as the piano flows distantly, the melody both hurting and yearning as once again the rich strings deepen its expression. The piano guides the song out into silence as it comes to an end, tinged with a jazzy feel.

This is the tale of a survivor named Noa. The narrator opens by talking about a day that marks every other for her along with a truth that won’t be recovered and a “pain that just cannot be expressed.” He adds that “the reflex” to go on takes time and then asks “What made you think she’s giving up today?”

Our narrator talks about how “Noa’s arc” always curves down. She’s “one girl with a thousand and one stories” and she’s “still loved, though she just can’t recall it.” The narrator adds that her past can’t let her go so she’s going to return home. He adds that “she won’t ever seek your empathy” and concludes that “all your tears won’t cure this disease."

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“The Automatic Day”

“The Automatic Day” starts off as a soothing, enfolding synth flows along with a distant vocal sample as the rich bass adds weight. Swelling synths lift up over the throbbing drums as the song expands. Erik Stein’s voice is clear and emotive as it carries a fragile melody.

The brass in the background creates depth as the steady oscillation underneath moves the track on. The piano forms a touching melody that is buoyed up by the drums and bass before the pained vocals deliver the lyrics. A washing, swirling background sound rises and glides over the pulse of drums and bass. Now the piano carries the melody, full of loss and melancholy, out over the growing music and then back into quiet.

Our lives are more mired in routine every day as we are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle. This song is an exploration of that issue. Our narrator begins by saying that he knows things aren’t right, but “it’s partly why the voices tell me to carry on.” He talks about how our lives have come to be ruled by “devices we rely upon…or so they say.”

The narrator says he feels “a need…as it burns a hole right into me.” He wonders if people who fail to learn are in danger of being doomed to “long repeat the automatic day.” Our narrator adds that people will come to understand when “we wake every day too late.” He continues by saying that “when we miss the chances to progress, then come take my hand” because “it’s that time again.”

Our storyteller wonders who will lead the charge to “shake off this arcane system of compromise.” He adds that there’s a Circadian rhythm “that beats a line to the automatic day” which makes it hard to escape.

In contrast to the idea of waking up too late, the chorus talks about “waking every day around 8” now as the narrator adds that “they’ll soon understand" again. In conclusion he repeats the call to “come take my hand, it’s that time again.”

"Fight Or Flight"

An echoing voice spirals into the music along with a hip-swinging groove as an oud echoes out to start “Fight Or Flight.” There’s a Middle Eastern modal feeling and the groove gets me moving effectively. Erik Stein’s voice carries a wandering, slipping melody out over the bouncing, swaying groove of drums and bass. The piano glides through sliding arpeggios as Kelli Ali adds her own emotional feeling to the lyrics and the oud’s sound vibrates out.

Under it all, the addictive rhythm guides the music and piano flares add depth while Erik Stein captures the feeling in the words. The energy and snaky feeling in the music imbues it with a strong surge as synth throbs higher and the piano unfurls in swirling notes over the endless oscillation of drums and bass.

This is a song about the temptation to violence and trying to resist it. Our narrator begins by facing his fear of doing violence if he stays to “fight some guy with a gun or some gang with a knife.” He admits that his “reflex is on” and he wonders if he’ll be coming home that night. The narrator says that he wants to “believe that I’ll make the right choice.” He says that once “adrenalin calls” he hears a different voice in his head. He talks about how he wants to avoid “that impetuous thing” that is his reflex kicking in.

Our storyteller points out that “you think you know” about whether fight or flight will happen, but asks “where’s the living proof?” He says that you might think you’re in control “but your knife it knows the truth.” The narrator adds that the old idea that fortune favours the brave isn’t much use “when you face judgment day.”

The narrator goes on to say that when safety calls, the problem is that “your conscious thought’s spinning away.” Ultimately the song concludes as the narrator says that “You like to think you’re in control but your gun, it knows the truth.”

“You’re All You Ever Needed”

“You’re All You Ever Needed” commences as uneven, medium-low synth bursts into open space and the throbbing flow of the beat propels the music. Erik Stein's smooth vocals glide out as a swelling synth background lusciously unfolds. String-like sounds rise in a gentle line as an organ-like synth adds more depth.

The unstoppable bass and drums skip along while Erik Stein’s voice slips through easily. A chorus of voices rises and the spiralling synth interlocks with it. There’s a cosmic, lost feeling in the music that gives it an ethereal quality as the string-like sounds flicker and deep bass floats along.

This song is a dialogue between skepticism and self-belief. Our narrator says that he knows that the song’s subject never doubted herself and sees that she never needed his help. He asks ”What’s the limit of your new found faith now?”

He goes on to ask if she has considered the costs, “who supplied them first” and if she trusts them. Her reply is to tell him to “believe in something else: believing in yourself” and to remind him that “you’re all you’ll ever need.” She adds that he should believe it for himself because “you’re all you ever needed.”

Our narrator adds that he “never doubted that you healed in real time” because the reality of the situation was clear when she spoke. There’s an an edge to his comment that anyone who feels she’s “purely trading on lies” isn’t awake to reality in her view. The storyteller asks what the limit to her inner powers is and asks what it draws on and who she bought it from. He asks, “Where’s the salesman gone?” Her reply is to repeat the assertions that he ought to try believing in himself and for himself.

"Home Again"

String-like synth repeats a bouncing, energizing pattern as round-sounding arpeggios slip up and down over propulsive drums and bass to kick off “Home Again.” Erik Stein’s voice echoes out into open space over the spinning arpeggios and the lightly touching beat.

Kelli Ali and Erik Stein’s mingled voices create great expression as the piano carries a propulsive melody that's full of rich depth. The drums and bass have a breathy propulsion over the trembling, string-like sound and the expressive vocals intertwine.

The vocal melody is both touching and dynamic. Arpeggios flash and the pulsing beat’s motion fades into a gentler drift. The drums and bass throb and the piano sings out in a warm, caressing melody over the motion below it.

There’s a sense of the struggle people have with a profound desire to escape the numbness of modern life in this song. The narrator starts off by talking about how we may have come to a place in which “fear’s not the thing that we all avoid.” He adds that now people run towards “threat (and) pain” and will “pay or the chance to be hit, to be scared, to be lost, be indifferent.”

Our narrator reminds us that “the privilege of knowing we’re safe” allows people to bask in all of the things we hate. He adds that the memory and “thrill of today” is that we know we’ll return home again. The storyteller asks how we can reach “the extreme” when we haven’t lived without “complete immediacy.”

He goes on to ask if we’ll “battle, buckle, never fail.” He wonders if there’s the will to “try, to test” what it’s like for the other half. As the song ends, he asks, “Are you happy now you know that you knew?”

“Cult With No Name”

“Cult With No Name” comes to life as pizzicato strings flicker in along with a swirling string section. Washing bass laps at the other musical elements before the elegiac melody is carried on piano. Brushing drums and plucked strings dance around the main melody.

Now Erik Stein's resonant vocals come in carrying a pained melody over the pizzicato strings. The smooth vocals are supported by the melancholy piano and the bass swells in again along with the strings. Kelli Ali’s voice adds extra depth to the emotional expression of the words. The piano carries a jazzy, expanded melody that continues in the aching vein of the early segment.

This song explores the pitfalls of fragmentation and division, along with the danger of becoming a follower. The narrator points out that when “groups grow too large, there’s gonna be a fight.” He adds that decision making is tough when everyone “says they’re right.” Elaborating on the old saying about three being a crowd, the narrator adds “then four is a mistake ‘cos someone is bound to be late.”

Our storyteller says “cross lines and enlist” because there’s still a great deal left to do. He adds that “different fish” have to “jump out of the school” as he repeats the phrase “three is a crowd and then four a mistake.” He goes on to say that he’s claiming “this here caliphate” and out of that darkness, “some kind of spark lights a flame.”

The narrator references people building up “caches” and breaking away, like a rebel group. They become “the cult with no name.” He goes on to ask people to join in his gang where “no one's made the rules” but adds that “you'll soon understand how you were taken for a fool.” Our narrator concludes that he’s counting down until “it breaks and out of the dark, some kind of spark lights a flame.”

"Ruins"

Over resonant bass, ethereal sounds sweep and a cello’s luscious tones add warmth to start “Ruins.” Erik Stein's emotional expression is strong as he sings here. The piano comes in to add another layer of touching feeling and an intertwining, flowing synth in the background adds trembling waves. The piano is light and the strings call out while airy synth sounds slip through.

Erik Stein's delivery expands the emotion in the song and the strings are fragile and touch with soft fingertips. Breathy sounds wash through while the solid bass pulsates. The ache in Erik Stein’s voice is matched by the strings as they carry a sweet melody. The string melody is full of uplifting emotion and the piano skips along with ease and tender energy. As the song ends, we fade on the lone piano and a subtle synth sound.

This song explores ideas of violence, history and memory. Our narrator talks about “visiting your ruins today” without specifying whose ruins they are. He adds that he’s trying to “comprehend just what they say.” The narrator points out that society tells us to “rise up, come look at what they’ve done!” He continues by saying that all of us are told to live in fear of others and asks, “And who’s to say?”

Once again, the storyteller says that he’s visited "your ruins" but now points out that “they tell me in time it will be okay.” He goes on to say that what can’t be told now will be told in the future and “time will tell you anyhow, it will find a way.”

Now the narrator talks about the ruins being “a monument to war and its decay” and goes on to call to “come fight the power, or, if not, all who fight.” He goes on say “come live in fear until the time is right” and then “they” are going to be made to pay.

Conclusion

Cult With No Name has created a grown-up synthpop journey on Nights In North Sentinel. It has a depth of musical quality that makes it stand out and I find myself returning to listen to the album over and over again to get the full experience.

© 2022 Karl Magi

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