I certainly hope you have your bags packed before popping this disc into your stereo or loading it onto your mp3 player. If not, that’s fine. I guess. But don’t be surprised if playing Nicolay’s latest, City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, has you craving a trip to the Japanese city of the same name. And it’s not that his soundscapes are oozing with traditional sounds from the country or anything like that. It’s just such an engrossing and gorgeous piece that you will want to experience everything he did for yourself. For you see, the Dutch producer was inspired during his trip to Shibuya a few years ago – you can read about that here. He was so inspired that he wanted to lay down his thoughts for all to hear. And it’s safe to say we’re thankful he did just that, because even with its imperfections, his second volume in the City Lights series is a fantastic example of artistic growth and expression.
In fact, perhaps the most appealing feature of this record is its clear display of artistic growth. Many of the experimental sounds on here should come as no surprised to seasoned fans of Nicolay’s work. Leave It All Behind, his last effort as part of the Foreign Exchange with Phonte, featured plenty of subtle nuances showing off just where Nic was headed. It was not thrust into your eardrums like on here, though, so it’s possible those intricacies were missed by some listeners. Although, one could argue that the dubstep-esque “If This Is Love” was a fine foreshadowing of Nic’s left-field tendencies. But other than that, they were more interwoven into his production.
Not this time. Sure, his eccentricities don’t overshadow every single track on here. But Nic’s out to show he’s not just another producer. The man is a beast, whether he is crafting a hip-hop record or looking to try his hand at a mix of ambient, post-rock, R&B, and other genres. Enter Shibuya‘s most experimental cuts. “Meiji Shine” is a shot right to left-field that listeners will either love or hate. But no one can deny the irresistible essence of its pulsing synthesizers and vibrating bell hits. And how it builds into the Massive Attack-drenched “Shadow Dancing”? Priceless. Nic made sure to throw in a barrel of robotic drums, mournful piano licks, and enough erratic synths to have you wondering where this side of him was hiding. And when those keys come out toward the second-half, I wish you the best of luck in not feeling the emotion expressed by his instruments. Also impressive are cuts like “Shibuya Station” and “Crossing”, both accentuated by their percussion. In particular, “Shibuya Station” gracefully interprets the sounds of the city, which are scattered across other tracks. You can almost feel the train shoot breeze across your jacket as the drums and synths dance across the background. And those synths deserve extra attention as they run the sonic gamut from watery to 8-bit to more traditional.
But Nic’s travels into experimentation aren’t always satisfying. “The Inner Garden”, though not a failure, does not resonate as strongly as its peers, even if it does bleed nicely into “Bullet Train”. It’s mostly just an issue of the fact that some of his left-field material either blends together or sounds samey. But, then again, he was going for a cohesive sound on here, which he achieved, so it makes perfect sense for tracks to have a similar vibe. And for the most part, he is able to keep it cohesive and varied. “Saturday Night”, which features songstress Carlitta Durand, is another example of a near-solid track that just falls a bit short. It’s actually more of the aforementioned love it or hate it syndrome, like on “Meiji Shine”. This time it’s not that Nic gets experimental, but he takes it to the dance floor with Durand. The House-inspired cut is mostly all there, but it meanders too much toward the end.
And, in contrast, some of Nicolay’s more straightforward cuts are what longtime listeners will likely fall in love with. The album’s first track and single, “Lose Your Way”, is beautiful. Durand’s voice complements the music, which is lush and vibrant. She captures you with her vocals that follow the synthesizer melodies and range from breathy to full. While she’s been kicking around the scene for years, this might be the type of song to truly open listeners’ ears to what she can offer. “Lose Your Way” is also a fantastic means of kicking off Shibuya because it is a smooth transition from what Nic was doing on Leave It All Behind to what he does on here. That also goes for the three-peat of killer tracks at the album’s conclusion. They start off with “Wake Up In Another Life”, another chance for Durand to strut her stuff with some help from Phonte. It’s followed by the horns and acoustic guitar-laden “Departure”, a solemn piece of beauty. Nicolay and Durand then bring everything to a halt on “Epilogue”. With bouncy piano, acoustic guitar strumming, and occasional woodwinds behind her, you will no doubt swoon over Durand’s harmonizing.
What Shibuya boils down to is this: Nicolay has taken his skills to another level. But in doing so, he will possibly confuse/lose some listeners. On top of that, this album isn’t perfect. As written earlier, he has a few missteps here in his experimentation. Yet, if you’re prepared for something a little different and mostly solid, this one is for you.