Luke Cissell Creates Dreamy, Electronic Soundscapes on the Eclectic 'Nightside'

Photo: Eric Wines / Courtesy of the artist

Nightside, the new album from composer and multi-instrumentalist Luke Cissell, is largely synthetic and electronic but contains a great deal of warmth and melody.

Luke Cissell

Silver Squid Music

3 July 2020

Luke Cissell is a musician who seemingly can't sit still. His music bounces back and forth between genres, resulting in a discography that is dizzyingly eclectic and a godsend for adventurous listeners. Last year's String Sextets Nos 1 & 2 was a fairly traditional – yet expertly crafted – pair of 21st century chamber pieces. But previous albums, like Thinking/Feeling and Cosmography, contain elements of classical music infused with futuristic synth passages and a generous helping of bluegrass (the latter being a genre close to Cissell's heart, as he was a child fiddle prodigy in his native Louisville). What's more, in 2015 he released Backwoods, about as traditional an instrumental bluegrass album as you can get.

The lack of predictability is one of the more exciting aspects of Cissell's music. With Nightside, he is veering back toward a more synthesized and electronic style. That shouldn't distress fans of his more organic approach. Infused throughout Nightside is a strong sense of melody as if every electronic moment is deliberately tempered with something more traditional. This makes Nightside – not unlike a few of his other albums, particularly Thinking/Feeling – maddeningly difficult to categorize. Neoclassical instrumental chamber synthpop? Sure, why not?

Nightside opens with the glorious arpeggiated notes of "Oracle", with synth notes dancing around electric guitar leads and 8-bit melodies providing an unusual yet oddly calming retro atmosphere, not unlike a classical composer stuck inside a video game. The mixture of sophistication and playfulness is unique and refreshing. "Defenestration" continues along the same lines, with Cissell's violin making its first appearance, adding light classical elements to the baroque synth framework.

The synthwave approach Cissell takes on Nightside isn't nearly as twitchy and impersonal as one might imagine from vague capsule descriptions. "Queen Ann" is positively languid and relaxed. Keyboards, strings, and electronic percussion float by as if transported on a lazy river. A bass synth bounces all over, creating an additional, somewhat surprising element. The warmth of the mallet percussion used on "The Mall" is another welcome dimension, making way for dramatic string arrangements and a playful sense of atonality reminiscent of Frank Zappa's more lush instrumental compositions. Cissell – who plays all instruments on Nightside – really stacks up the layers on this particular song, as well as on the dreamy "Really Really Real", but it's always in a way that seems more exhilarating than forbidding. It's complex yet friendly.

On the album closer, "Karen Black's Blonde Wig", Cissell creates something of a multifaceted film score segment – with the song's title an apparent tribute to the legendary actress – as dramatic strings mesh with a harsh synthesizer patch. It's a bit of a mash-up of film composer styles; Bernard Hermann meeting up with Giorgio Moroder's techno-friendly score for Midnight Express. Luke Cissell is a composer and musician who devours a variety of musical genres with great abandon. Applying them all to one collection of songs can be a tough trick to pull off, but with his particular skill set and meticulous ear for detail, he's hit a home run with Nightside.






Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.