The Night Agent - Stars Above Us (Album Review)

Swedish guitar virtuoso Janne Schaffer has been a fixture of the Swedish music scene since the '60s. Having worked with luminaries such as ABBA and Bob Marley, he has contributed to various projects, including the Electric Banana Band and, most recently, The Night Agent. The Night Agent are a synth-pop project that places progressively uplifting moods and technical clarity as paramount. Featuring vocalist Christopher Wollter and the electronic production wizardry of Jacob Hirdwall, their debut album, Stars Above Us, is a searching examination of dreams, hope, and the joy of movement. 

On the intro "Prelude", Hirdwall creates a mystical musical palette which features ambient synth sounds, hi-hat heavy electronic percussion, and arpeggiated melodies that sound like they've been lifted from the dream of a video game character. However, the music is not artificial. Instead, it shows how Hirdwall injects fun and adventure into his compositions. Schaffer shreds an impossibly complicated solo that harks back to the '80s synth-pop of OMD and effortlessly appeases fans of lead guitar work. Likewise, the tantalizing "When You Dream" echoes the textured pop sensibilities of The Human League. "Every time you dream, magic happens", offers lead vocalist Christopher Wollter. Unfortunately, Wollter's vocals, as up-close-and-personal as they are, don't always blend in with the atmospheric music and often resemble an unseasoned potato in a stew of flavour. Perhaps a few more effects on the vocals, and fewer decibels, would've covered up the ambiguously European accent that doesn't always find the right notes. Wollter is not at fault here, as the guest vocalists also suffer from being undercooked in the mix, most notably on the otherwise epic closing "Prelude". Yet there are vocal pleasures in this collection, most notably on "A Voice In The Void", which is philosophical yet sticks to the group's highly characterized sound. When the vocals are given effects in the chorus, they blend in much better with the steadfast amalgam of electronic sounds. 

The collaborative female vocals throughout the album (provided by Emilia Larsson, Linnea Schederin, and Siham Shurafa) imbue the album with a sense of community and celebration, especially on the beguiling "Dream in Technicolor", or the sole cover on the album, "Fade To Grey". This cover version is a note-for-note, albeit more subdued, likeness of Visage's '80s hit. Lyrically, "Forget About Me" is a ridiculous song about being unapologetically reckless with a lover's emotions ("Why do you think I care at all? What was your name again? I can't recall.") 

The Night Agent's most potent weapon, Schaffer's formidable guitar playing, seems buried under these emotionally confused songs. This makes it often difficult to lose yourself in his impassioned playing. Had the mix accentuated the fantastic guitar solos, and leaned less on the vocal aspects of the songs, this album would have mirrored late-career Pink Floyd as opposed to early-career Pet Shop Boys. Nevertheless, Stars Above Us is an ambitious record that places the listener into an eventide of neon landscapes and strobe-lit dance floors. Its moody and atmospheric instrumentation doesn't always match the dry and salient vocals, yet the album's nine songs and 35 minutes cruise by in a hazy, dream-like rush.