"Above As Below" (Album, 2012)
Another year, another great Cult With No Name album. Jon Boux and Erik Stein's project has hitherto essentially been a two-man operation. Only for this, their fifth album, the two Englishmen chose to call in the services of an eclectic roster of guest musicians. Kelli Ali of Sneaker Pimps fame, contributed extensively, co-writing Shake Hands With The Devil and lends her voice to several songs. Ex-Stranglers guitarist and Peter Gabriel collaborator John Ellis lends his fret work to Idi's Admin. Tuxedomoon's Bruce Geduldig and Luc van Lieshout and Meg Maryatt of 17 Pygmies also contributed. So, whilst Cult With No Name technically remain a two-piece, Above As Below should be viewed by taking these collaborations into consideration. The album's sumptuous artwork comes courtesy of David Bowie and Damien Hirst collaborator Jonathan Barnbrook.
Much of the album comes across like songs chosen to highlight incidents from an American indie rites of passage movie. Which doesn't come as a surprise (given what CWNN have released before, including a score for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) but it perhaps does firmly suggest where they should be focusing their marketing efforts in order to widen their exposure and reap more substantial financial rewards for their hard work. A tour of California in April (their first outside the UK) can only have been grist to the mill on that front.
One Kiss, Then Home opens this fifth CWNN long player in fine fashion. The band's typical compositional characteristics (vocal, piano and ambient synths) coming together in an achingly poignant but simple poem to blossoming romance. Erik Stein's trademark smart, playful lyrics have always set Cult With No Name apart and throughout this album he is at the top of his game. He creates the kind of poetic combinations that appear to be incredibly simple but are actually extremely difficult to pull off convincingly. The way he frequently sets up expectations of rarefied seriousness, only to dash them in a flurry of pithy side swipes is a constant delight. Whether he is able to do this in his sleep or whether he frets for weeks on end carefully constructing the combinations, I'm not sure, but the results certainly appear effortless.
Still shamefully under recognised, Cult With No Name have, thanks in no small part to those external contributors, delivered probably their most eclectic album so far. From the beautifully mournful instrumental As Below (which conjures up mental images of dark and empty urban streets at night time), through the Kerouacesque monologue of Losing My Elan (written and delivered by Bruce Geduldig of Tuxedomoon), and to the arresting combination of musical construction and Stein's sublime vocal delivery of his distinctive observational word play on Idi's Admin. Stein's understated voice (seemingly at odds with the often quirky diction) throughout the album is his most accomplished to date. Above As Below continues a remarkable track record, the standard of which many of there peers are probably quite envious. Subversive sophistication combined with subtle quality - it's a potent blend. 8/10
Rob Dyer (June 2012)
"Adrenalin" (Album, 2010) !DSO Recommended!
Over the last five years English two-piece Cult With No Name have been steadily honing their talent, refining their sound and improving their writing at every turn. Adrenalin is their third regular studio album and is unquestionably the pinnacle of their achievements so far.
Simplicity lies at the heart of CWNN’s minimalist approach to writing; and in its most rudimentary form comprises Jon Boux’s remarkable piano playing and Erik Stein’s characterful voice. They’ve gotten better at building up a track and then carefully stripping back elements so that what remains stands on its own as a distinctive composition, one free of unnecessary clutter. The resulting suite of moving folksy ambient electronica is something Boux and Stein can be very proud of indeed.
Right from the off this is remarkable. Opener This Time (or any other), heavy with memories and nostalgia, instantly sounds like an ambient classic. The faint choir voices shadowing Jon B’s lilting piano work make for one of their best songs yet, and The Way You’re Looking At Me envelopes you in its sumptuous emotion. Travelling on a quiet train, looking out the windows across a snow covered Norfolk, Adrenalin proved to be the perfect soundtrack. The mist-shrouded winter trees providing a rolling melancholic backdrop merging seamlessly with the fluid (often dream-like) soundtrack. The lovely cadences of both voice and music on Breathing create a particularly lasting impression. There's a couple of welcome instrumentals too and on -7 the duo excel in the incidential film music realm. In fact, depending on what mood you're in, almost all twelve tracks here could be favourites from time to time.
This glorious album is also the most natural blend of their talents yet. Stein’s voice in particular seems to have found an impressive equilibrium. Hitherto, its effect has, on occasion, been undermined by tricksy delivery. Now, without sacrificing any of its qualities, Stein has instead dug deeper into his reserves and emerged with not only a stronger voice as a result but one that through its clever subtleties is even more expressive. In the infrequent moments, where a lighter touch reflects a more playful approach, such as on The All Dead Burlesque Show the outcome is equally engaging. Adrenalin is a profoundly beautiful work and a serious contender for album of the year. 8/10
Rob Dyer (December 2010)
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (DVD, 2010)
They're not the first and they even more certainly won't be the last to write and perform a score to this silent classic. Even in the rarefied thin air of genuinely classic, genuinely iconic, genuinely influential films, few can match the unparalleled masterpiece status of Robert Weine's 1920 expressionist landmark The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It has been one of my most admired films ever since I first saw it. Its impact hardly diminished in the best part of a century that has passed since its first release. No suggestion then that such a work needs a 'little helping hand', a 'bit of a spruce up' if you like to improve it some. But what you do have is a work of art that millions love and wish to pay homage to and what better tribute than attempting to provide a score deemed fit and worthy by a paying audience to listen to.
Because it is working from an out of copyright source print, this Trakwerx's DVD release means we only get the slightly cut 51 minute version of the film. The missing elements (restored in recent years in re-issue prints/DVDs) merely add detail and extend existing scenes, so the viewing pleasure isn't noticably affected by the shorter running time. But, for the purposes of this review, the focus is obviously the new score by Cult With No Name, and their approach brings out a humanity missing from all previous scores I've heard. More earthy and organic than the (personal favourite) In The Nursery soundtrack that garnered wide coverage (and a BFI DVD release) almost fifteen years ago.
Unlike ITN's score this is less literal, appearing to take its inspiration from the general mood of the film rather than what is actually happening at any given moment. A nice example is when Cesare (the murderer in the film) is first revealed. The accompanying music is like a pulsing heartbeat rather than the alarmist, melodramatic cue you might expect. Indeed, despite the subject matter, it's generally quite an 'optimistic' score. What CWNN's approach demonstrates is how open to interpretation silent film in general is.
Whether intential or not, most of the compositions follow a more familiar song structure rather than a purist 'soundtrack' approach, which actually works well with the visual style of the film. However, I'm less convinced by the four vocal tracks as I find a voice (good though it is) intrudes too much on the narrative of the otherwise silent film, and winds up close to turning a soundtrack into a series of pop promos - but on that level it's a success. Nevertheless, the suite of compositions as a whole are certainly strong enough to warrant a standalone album release for those not turned on by the prospect of watching Weine's film (presently its only available as the soundtrack on this DVD release). 7/10
Rob Dyer (May 2010)
"Careful What You Wish For" (Album, 2008) !DSO Recommended!
Clever, subtle, sophisticated and yet simple at the same time, London-based duo Cult With No Name create thoughtful ballads and minimalist pop. Erik Stein and Jon Boux operate in an under-exploited field that was more bustling in the 80s and 90s than of late, when the likes of Scritti Politti, Talk Talk, David Sylvian and others carved out and filled a niche with an impressive cluster of albums. Although clearly drawing inspiration from such sources, CWNN's style has a timeless quality and is contemporary rather than dated.
Thankfully, and slightly unexpectedly, the vocals are never too angst-ridden; if anything they're too reserved. Stein does utilise plenty of variety of delivery and maybe tries a tad too much at times with the vocal inflection, his voice has enough distinctive qualities that he doesn't need to resort to such tactics. Besides, the 'twang' it introduces can occasionally be intrusive. Stein's welcome diversions notwithstanding, some of the style of songs are just crying out for something a bit more emotionally bare like David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees - sometimes draining but never melodramatic. I think this is within Stein and Boux's reach - I'd just like to see them developing that side further.
The attention to detail on the production side is a crucial element in ensuring that the often spare styling not only stands up to scrutiny but is a key factor in the overall success of the album. Instrumentally, a deftness of touch shows Boux and Stein understand that less is often so much more. There are some beautiful pieces of piano composition and performance such as with Feels So Good. When it's just a voice and piano (as it essentially often is) there's nowhere to hide either, and neither the composition nor delivery are ever left exposed as wanting. It's lyrically playful too, with the song titles in particular reflecting a very personal approach that's engaging rather than alienating.
Tuxedomoon's Blaine L. Reininger guests on You Know Me Better Than I Know Myself, his glorious violin work adding a serious touch of quality to the only instrumental on the album (and taking them closer to the emotional honesty I referred to above). Then there's the striking arrangement of The Stranglers' Golden Brown, a distinctive piano and vocal only interpretation. A bold statement that they pull off in remarkable style. The tone and mood captured on Careful What You Wish For really is something special and one this British act can be proud of. Now, where did I put that first album…? 7/10
Rob Dyer (August 2009)
In The Nursery