Named after the Andrei Tarkovsky film Solaris, Ireland’s Solar bears have always been aiming for the stars. On their 2010 debut album, She Was Coloured In, the duo did channel some of that astrological hope, but for the most part they sounded like they were tinkering away in their own bedrooms, gazing at the stars from their windows as they weaved their nostalgic electronica. Three years later, they finally sound like they’re issuing the countdown and are ready to traverse the beautiful and dark avenues of space.
But Solar Bears’ space is still a cinematic one (every song title from their new album, Supermigration could be a movie one too). It’s full of mystifying sights, deep colours, and expansive landscapes of wonder. On their follow up, John Kowalski and Rian Trench, have upped their game and consequently come off better. Supermigration is much like the title might suggest, largely moving away from the limited capacity of the bedroom and into the wide expanses of a bigger studio. After a dusty brief piano introduction, the proceedings are full Technicolor thereon in: “Cosmic Runner” strides along with an electric guitar riff morphed into sounding like it’s going through the motions of hyperspace and the flashy, if not shiny proceedings continue until near enough the end of the record. “Komplex” marries keyboard choirs to big drums before growing more melodical in manner that evokes Board of Canada while “A Sky Darkly” builds similarly but with darker hues and more tension.
Also new on the agenda is a pair of vocalists. Of the two tracks, “Alpha People” featuring Keep Shelly In Athens’ Sarah P fares that bit better, as the vocal rise above the background and help carry what would otherwise be a weak cut. “Our Future Is Underground” is still good too, but here Beth Hirsch becomes one with the music, an airy substance seeped in between the unobtrusive keyboards and patiently persistent drum track; it’s more ethereal than “Alpha People” (if not the most relaxing track on Supermigration) and placed of the latter half of the album, it feels like the distant memory of a loved one after months travelling through space.
And Supermigration is a journey in itself. It’s a forty minute expedition through the stars: at times it’s exciting (“Happiness is a Warm Spacestation”), deceptively captivating (“The Girl That played With Light”), and edgy (the aforementioned “A Sky Darkly”); other times the pace can lull, such as on the near piano ballad-like “Love Is All” or “You And Me (Subterranean Cycles),” which evokes the idea of star gazing at on a clear night. Inspired by Tarkovsky though, it’s hardly going to be all action, and the duo are right to put these calmer moments in here. Strangely, they bring a sense of realism to their fictitious space tale, if not just helping to frame the experience (the warped piano chords that open and close the album help drive home the idea of it being a singular thing).
But even though Supermigration is constructed as a whole, it doesn’t always work best in one sitting. Picking and choosing moments both help them sound more surprising (the sounds of a crowd of children cheering on the latter of half on “Cosmic Runner” can pass you by so easily; the sonic details embedded in “Happiness is a Warm Spacestation”) but also like they are missing context. On the other hand, I’ve found myself listening though the album multiple times in one sitting, and still not being able to recall many exacts of it; I’ll have sat though something that was lovely, if not dazzling, but not expertly memorable. Some might also argue that the lower key feel from She Was Coloured In is washed over here, and while a touch more nostalgia wouldn’t have gone amiss here, the Irish duo are moving upwards, and they’ve got to be credited for that. Two albums in and they already sound like they’ve made a great leap, but in space with no gravity, it’s much easier to move in about with huge strides. When (or if) they every get back onto solid ground, the effect might not be as impressionable, but until that moment comes around, it’s best t just enjoy the sights through your spaceship window.