Ireland may generally be better known for its folk musicians and cheesy boy bands than experimental electronica, but the emergence of Solar Bears over the past few years has given the Emerald Isle its own answer to the likes of England’s Fuck Buttons and Scotland’s Boards of Canada. A duo hailing from Dublin and Wicklow respectively, John Kowalski and Rian Trench met at sound engineering college and to date have released two albums of cinematic, Krautrock-influenced compositions on the Planet Mu label. Advancement, their first record for the Sunday Best imprint that also has David Lynch (one of the band’s heroes) on its roster, is another solid demonstration of their qualities.
Made over the course of a year, with fragments recorded in many different locations and on specific set ups in specific spaces, the pieces were brought back together for the band to merge into a cohesive whole, working closely with American film director Michael Robinson, who has created two videos to accompany the album release (available on the Vimeo platform, and well worth checking out).
Like the aforementioned Boards Of Canada, Kowalski and Trench use subtly atmospheric samples in their work, incorporating elements of wildlife cries and indigenous instruments. However, their sound generally lacks the crepuscular creepiness of the mysterious Scots. The synths are mostly epic and sweeping here, great crests and whooshes of shimmering noise that grandly soar from the speakers like vast space craft cruising past distant planets. Rather like Fuck Buttons side project Blanck Mass, it feels like a vintage science fiction movie soundtrack in need of a full length film to accompany it.
Advancement is best enjoyed as a whole immersive experience from start to finish, as few individual tracks really leap out at the listener as particularly outstanding. At their most dramatic, there are shades of Vangelis present (on the aptly named Scale, for example) while at other times they can be more understated and ambient (Persona).
The Irishmen also succeed in altering the mood of their music effectively over the twelve compositions here. Wild Flowers has a languid fluidity that radiates positive energy, while the thumping, slow beats on Vanishing Downstream have real menace, creating a palpable sense of tension before a glittering synth crescendo suddenly breaks free and brings the track to a peak. Everything Set Ablaze is similarly urgent and portentous and Solar Bears are arguably at their best when their music is both melodic and a little unsettling.
There are a few occasions on Advancement where its creators slip into shapeless meandering mode and that, at the moment, is what keeps them a level below the elite division of electronic acts. It must also be acknowledged that there is nothing particularly ground breaking or original about Solar Bears, and their music can feel a little samey at times. Despite these shortcomings, Advancement is still a thoroughly enjoyable, lushly textured record that rarely fails to absorb. In a darkened room with headphones on and imagination in gear, it will definitely take you to some very interesting places indeed.