Solar Bears is the Irish duo of John Kowalski and Rian Trench. Itís a silly name ó a pun that sounds more like a campy Coil track than a reference to Andrei Tarkovskyís Solaris, which is what the two say itís supposed to be. In interviews, the band drops references to music in film, discussing the influence of soundtrack legends Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter and Alain Goraguerís odd sci-fi funk score for Fantastic Planet. This is the kind of movie music that record collectors love. But the music on this album, Kowalski and Trenchís debut, has little of the synth pomp of Tangerine Dream or Morriconeís disruptive sounds. Instead of music for an imaginary film, She Was Coloured In is an expertly arranged gloss on pastoral machine music. It sounds, in other words, like a more laid-back Black Moth Super Rainbow: a breezy mix of public-television synths, lilting woodwind and guitar bridges, propulsive hip hop-influenced beats, and a vocoder. Itís probably a little too involving to work as actual soundtrack music. This is home-listening electronica with more in common with Boards of Canada than the albums mentioned above ó itís light and pretty where film music would be solemn and grotesque when necessary. With its astrological optimism, Solar Bears is a pretty indicative name after all.
The gap between what the band talks about and what they actually sound like is what makes this album, to indulge a rock-writerly clichť, as difficult to criticize as it is to love. The reasons for this arenít as straightforward as, for example, disappointment that this album doesnít sound like the soundtrack to Michael Mannís The Keep. Itís simpler than that ó the album fails to connect as a whole because itís not doing anything unique enough to make a lasting impression. The movies mentioned above are retro signifiers that put Solar Bearsí music in a vague, communal context where listeners can sort of discern their own memories and associations. But if you strip away the veneer of subjective associations turned into content, you arenít left with a whole lot beyond very competent music.
Kowalski and Trench met at recording college, so everything is arranged and recorded impeccably. Although the music is retro, the sounds are hi-fi. Although none of the tracks here drag or bore, ďTwin StarsĒ is the only track with enough identity to be captivating: its mysterious and unresolved tone draws on the past, but sounds actively engaged with whatís possible -- in-studio and conceptually -- now. The albumís title track is an example of the opposite: itís impossible to criticize on technical or aesthetic grounds, but it feels like itís tracing familiar ideas without the benefit of a perspective or a personality to motivate it.
Solar Bears touch on a certain trend in electronic music toward memory as a subject. With a shuddering mellotron line and coarse guitar picking, ĒCubĒ is a Ghost Box-savvy retelling of Wicker Man music. Although She Was Coloured In explores too many styles to fit within the theoretical boundaries of what critics call hauntology or hypnagogic pop, it wouldnít exist without these ideas and there might be something to be said about what it means for Irish musicians to be exploring the sound-world of the BBCís incidental music. When the album ends, however, the fact remains that we already know how to listen to music like this. Solar Bearsí debut is a totally pleasant listen that ultimately fits too comfortably within this established musical space to require much consideration.