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Listening Party

Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason: Sólaris

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Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason


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The field of music in which something as potentially corny or cliché as a sample of wolves howling could be dropped unironically is limited to pretty much Ben Frost’s 2009 freak crossover LP By the Throat. An unexpected pastiche of repurposed industrial beats/sounds, chamber strings, guitar, and, yes, wolves, the record feels so much like things trying to escape, wild things, demons in the drum machines. It’s cathartic, tense, and strangely beautiful—perfect even. And so a proper Ben Frost followup is among the more anticipated things in this general category of music.

Late last year, Frost released a soundtrack to “The Invisibles,” an Amnesty International short film about the harsh world of Central American men and women traveling across Mexico to the United States. It’s a lovely collection of new-chamber piano and strings you could probably keep on repeat until your battery’s drained, but not so much a place for Frost to flex. At first brush, maybe Sólaris sounds, er, unflexed as well, not the white-knuckle grip and release (and repeat, each iteration tighter) of the above doted-on By the Throat. It’s instead another new-chamber work, a collaboration with the young Icelandic modern classical freethinker/composer Daníel Bjarnason, whose also worked with such notables as Sigur Rós and Amina. Add to that the fact that Sólaris is indeed meant as a reimagined soundtrack to the film of same name (the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky version) and maybe we should just take Sólaris on its own terms.

As chamber music, though, the record is about as tense and almost malevolent as it comes. Like, there’s something dark and quite dangerous lurking in Sólaris’ frequent wide-open sonic spaces. It’s the sort of minimalism whose voids feel as tense as the coldest minor-key viola note ever bowed, like an Arvo Pärt string piece not so much shorn down to an even more exquisite, yawning spareness, but pried open and ready to collapse into itself like a star core about to become a black hole. Mostly strings—the frosty, crystalline sort that seem to only come out of Scandinavia—piano (deployed like its notes are diamonds), and only the slightest electronic textures, you’ll feel just as well the undefined but real threat of Sólaris’ mystery planet, however much you know the actual film. It’s not as tactile as wolves in the night, but the effect on a listener’s spine is no less.

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