In June of 2011, Ben Frost & Daníel Bjarnason’s SÓLARIS was performed at Alice Tully Hall, as part of the New York edition of the Unsound Festival. As projections inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1971 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel hovered over the stage — their images, courtesy of Brian Eno, mirroring and manipulating stills from the film — the music filtered into the crowd, creating a sense of sustained tension, modes of bliss and a feel of wrongness uneasily coexisting. For me, however, the piece never entirely clicked: the work seemed to climax about two-thirds of the way through, followed by a lengthy section that seemed so subdued as to be extraneous. One was left with the sense of a number of intelligent people wrestling, but never quite making a breakthrough, with a monumental creative work.
The version of SÓLARIS that Bedroom Community has released seems to have sorted out many of these issues. Though Frost and Bjarnson’s music still occasionally ebbs into moments of understated drone so pronounced I was unsure if I was only hearing silence, the momentum here is more substantial, the mood more consistent. At its best, this music evokes both ecstasy and panic. “Reyja,” for instance, balances bliss-inducing strings with a harsher, more nerve-wracking section, its tension eventually boiling over as the piece comes to a close. “Unbreakable Silence” has the reverse effect: despite some Bernard Herrmann-worthy transitions, the sound of ringing bells summons up a sense of calm. And for all of the sonic density on display here, the moments on “Simulacra 2” in which notes are played on an unadorned piano make for some of the piece’s most arresting moments.
Tarkovsky’s film — in which memory dances with metaphysics and the intimate circles around the utterly alien — is fertile ground for numerous intellectual and emotional evocations. For the most part, Frost and Bjarnson are up to the challenge: there’s a richness here, a sense of clashing moods, that calls to mind the music of Johann Johannsson and Tim Hecker (with whom Frost has worked). Even without having seen the film from which this piece takes its inspiration, the rush of sensations and almost tactile quality make this album a worthy entity in its own right.