The perfect collaboration of two masters of tension through minimalist, epiphanies through noise and chaos, and beauty through disconnection and isolation. Ben Frost, one of the co-founders of Bedroom Community along with Nico Muhly and current label head Valgeir Sigurðsson, practices a certain world-ending, earth-shredding sound that conjures images of a frozen tundra after the apocalypse (see his brilliant By The Throat for a taste), while Daníel Bjarnason tends toward an airy, fragile space with instrumentation similar to Frost’s. The duo improvised sketches intended to accompany Andrei Tarkovsky sci-fi thriller classic of the same name, and created an album that’s emotionally fragile and bold all at once. Serving as a reimagining of and working with a palette of dissonance and askew melodies, this collaborative work plays off of the original film’s vacillation between forlorn heartbreak to alien otherness/terror. Unnatural events and subtle inconsistencies alter your sense of reality and cloud your judgement without concrete proof or evidence. Anxiety mounts, but it’s impossible to know exactly why.
“We Don’t Need Other Worlds, We Need Mirrors” opens the album with an unsettling suite of foiled melodies and juxtaposing color. Icy, elegant notes prod with urgency as the tiny symphony urges along the beginning action with quick musicianship and enthusiastic hurry. Much like the opening credits of a Stanley Kubrik, Lars von Trier, or Gaspar Noé film, the listener experiences a period of shock from stark imagery contrasted by an alarming aural episode, only to be consumed with fierce attention for the coming chain of events. The tension is impossible to escape, whether it lies in dense, grim air as in The Shining or in grotesque decay of the body as in Antichrist or Irréversible. The track collapses in on itself and makes way for the album’s proper beginning, “Simulcra I,” a distant being of fuzzy drone. Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, there’s a sense of warmth and comfort in an alien place. Something unnatural is present and dangerous, but you can’t keep yourself from loving what is known and coaxing you closer. Dense, glossy textures steadily flow in a glacial pace as low rumbles barely hint at propulsion. The overall effect inserts you back into Tarkovsky’s film, aboard a floating tomb drifting in space. The piece eventually begins to blur and unravel into “Simulcra II,” a tune that continues the theme of the previous tune with an added ton of emotional tension that has a sense of physical weight in its presence. A prepared-piano solemnly plays out a somber tune as low-end rumbling and epic strings worthy of Jóhann Jóhannsson swell.
Initially suggested by the brief interlude “Snow,” a minute-long piano melody resembling a dented music box played backward, the story’s nefarious undertones begin to reveal themselves. Frost & Bjarnason craft a demented and unsettling scene with simple arrangement and instrumentation, setting the stage perfectly for “Reyja” and “Cruel Miracles,” the two most restless and unnerving works contained here. Both songs highlight Frost’s ample expertise of ear-shredding volumes and symphonic dynamics. Each piece completely consumes space with visceral chords and action that rises uncannily past expected limits. “Cruel Miracles” in particular amplifies the brooding sensibilities Frost’s recordings normally instill. Fragile with more than a hint of weight-of-the-world anger and immensity, the piece blurs the line between pent-up rage and consuming sadness/weakness.
Parallel to the piece’s title, the icy tones of “Hydrogen Sulfide” perpetuate a frost-bitten haze of gaseous drift and intangible danger. The song is faintly dangerous and deceptively harmless, barely presenting itself as a part of the album’s whole. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the previous tracks’ outright aggressiveness and threat.
In more ways than one, Sólaris was destined to not meet its expectations. Given Frost’s past (more than a) year of overwhelming reception and his artistic development under close guidance of Brian Eno, you’d expect nothing short of perfection and pure genius. However, the collaboration’s final result here is a suitably bold and unique homage to an revered work that excels in its own right.