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  • Filed under: Review
  • 04/16/2013

Solar Bears Supermigration

Back in 2009, Dubliners John Kowalski and Rian Trench united over a love of film and formed Solar Bears, a musical endeavor titled after a science-fiction film by Andrei Tarkovsky. It's fitting, then, that the pair's productions betray a taste for glossy, dramatic sci-fi soundtracks. For example, take "Stasis," the opening track from Solar Bears' sophomore LP for Planet Mu, Supermigration; drifting piano keys set a melancholy tone, but the twinkling notes are soon swept away by tides of synth pads and wisps of escalating orchestral strings. It's a brief introduction, but it's suffused with emotion and grandeur.

As it turns out, there are several other short pieces on Supermigration; it's as if the album was a theatrical drama with transitional interludes. "You and Me (Subterranean Cycles)" starts with a woebegone, introspective guitar melody that gathers layers of synth sounds, building emotive energy. "Rising High" is an amorphous, twinkling piece that eventually coalesces around extended synth tones, laser-like pads, and a clip-clopping hand-drum beat. Like "Stasis," both tracks are short-lived efforts that clock in at less than two-and-a-half minutes. Still, the songs serve their purpose, and the duo's penchant for enrapturing soundtrack compositions speaks to its refusal to bend or change with the tides of various trends. Solar Bears lives in its own bubble of sci-fi music, Krautrock, and post-punk, its output largely untouched by prevailing fashions. As a result, Supermigration isn't exactly cutting-edge, but it does display the pair's ability to compose solid tracks that ooze enveloping moods.

"Love is All" is a standout effort, as its deep bass tones, choir-like vocal sighs, and sparkling keys create an almost tangible sense of nostalgia and calm. The song presents just one of many genres that Solar Bears stabs at over the course of the album, but to the pair's credit, the music's vibes are often potent enough to ensnare listeners, no matter what form they come in. "The Girl That Played with Light" finds Kowalski and Trent trying on Pixies-like post-punk, with twanging guitars and a grinding grittiness that's thick with anthemic angst. "Our Future Is Underground," which features a wavering vocal performance by Beth Hirsch, revels in an overpowering sentimental energy that seeps from both the lyrics and the steadily building instrumental. By the end of the track, Hirsch's vocals are lost in a din of crashing drums, clanging pianos, and twisted electronic sounds, and the duo's ability to create such pervasive atmospheres belies its penchant for drama and speaks to its tight song construction.

That being said, Solar Bears' dense atmospherics don't always work in the group's favor. While the duo proves to have an able hand at constructing reflective, chilled-out, or pleasant vibes, the record's darker and more brooding auras come up a little short. "Cosmic Runner" features a big, swaggering broken beat and a jagged arpeggiated guitar that waggles loudly in the forefront of the mix. The song doesn't feel sloppy, but the collision of skyscraping guitar solos with a hip-hop rhythm and futuristic lazer-beam sounds feels awkward. "Komplex" toys with similar elements—a chunky beat, wailing guitars, prickly arpeggios—and also manages to make the foreboding energy feel overblown. On the whole, these are small missteps, but they do highlight why Kowalski and Trench are at their best when they pack blithe, marvelous energy into brief, glittering moments.

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