Album Review: Fly Pan Am – Frontera

[Constellation; 2021]

Canadian post-rockers Fly Pan Am have long been among the favorites on Constellation Records (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Silver Mt. Zion, Set Fire To Flames) and have released multiple critically acclaimed albums, stretching back to their self-titled debut in 1999. In 2005 they went on a long hiatus and worked on multiple projects as separate artists, before reuniting and releasing their widely applauded comeback album C’est ça in 2019. They then went on to collaborate with the Canadian dance troupe Animals Of Distinction, for whose performance they composed the soundtrack. Their new album, Frontera, is that soundtrack, which sadly comes after the performances of the dance-and-music show were put on hold as the world descended into the COVID pandemic in 2020.

The album greets the listener with the ambient techno introduction on “Grid /Wall”, where the band already sounds much more amped up than they were on C’est ça, instantly grasping attention. As the album progresses, the very recognisable Fly Pan Am guitar tones and passages appear, both adding to to the electronic soundscapes and coming into conflict with them at the same time. The overall mood of Frontera shifts between wide anxiety-inducing textures and claustrophobic tension with elements of horror.

Now, it is extremely important to be reminded that this is not a regular studio album — this is a soundtrack album. As that, Frontera sounds a bit fragmented and hard to keep up with. Without the visual aid of a dance performance it comes across as quite directionless, simply because a lot is going on on the album and there seems to be no justification for it. The vast majority of listeners will not see the dance performance, so even the knowledge that it exists doesn’t enhance the experience on its own — clearly it must be experienced sonically and visually at the same time.

Overall, Frontera retains the qualities that fans of Fly Pan Am always appreciated about the collective, but this time around they feel disconnected. That is not to say the album is bad, it simply appears that it cannot be properly appreciated without the aid of the dance performance by Animals Of Distinction. Perhaps it’s to the album’s detriment that it doesn’t come across as complete without the visuals; the purely sonic experience of it feels hard to keep up with and a bit chaotic. The dance performance of Frontera lasts around 75 minutes, which is longer than the runtime of the album, perhaps suggesting that the piece is more interconnected and has subtler transitions when viewed in combination with the visual element. Hopefully performances of the show will resume and some lucky people will get to find out.