Saturday, 26 May 2012
Review: Solar Fields - Random Friday
Random Friday is one of those albums. Not because it's particularly complex or esoteric, but because it's such a vibrant and cohesive listening experience it doesn't feel entirely fair to play it simply on your laptop while surfing the web or reading. This is an album you want to take places and imprint with distinctive moments. Really, this is a summertime album, one that will be on repeat for warmest parts of 2012 and one that I can already tell is going to be a personal classic, one to reach for on those all-too-infrequent British days when the skies are blue and the sun is hot.
There's just something about summer that is richer than any other season. That's not to say I don't love the other seasons - autumn and winter have their own powerful atmospheres and accompanying playlists of albums that should only be played on a frosty morning or in an orange-brown tinted autumnal forest. But the unseasonable seasonableness of the last few days have reminded me that summer is a sensory assault the other seasons just can't match. In winter the numbing cold tends to drown out everything else, whereas in summer there is a symphony of blooms and smells, sounds and wildlife, vivid colours and an intense, life-affirming warmth about everything. Winter music benefits from being more minimal and stripped back, summery music should pile on the auditory explosives.
Solar Fields, less-better-known as Swedish music man Magnus Birgersson, is an artist who is clearly in touch with seasons and nature. He is the centrepiece of Ultimae Records, a label that specialise in a particular brand of ambient, which is often linked to psy-chill but is better defined as "panoramic ambient". They frequently release season-themed mix compilations and all their album artwork is dominated by images of nature and the outdoors. Solar Fields is a specialist in just that breed of ambient, but he's a versatile artist, dipping into shoegaze on his last album, but also occasionally making album forays into trance. Not just any trance either, but some of the best and most distinctive trance being made by anyone in the last ten years. As you'd expect from an ambient producer, it's trance music with almost unparalleled atmospherics and expansive sound design to complement the driving beats.
His last album to do this, 2007's Earth Shine, is regarded as something of a treasure amongst the serious-thinking trance community, so news that he was returning to "upbeat" material was greeted with some clamour. The result is Random Friday, an album that deserves to stand alone from Earth Shine, and is in many ways even better.
First, some necessarily genre quibbling. While Magnus makes music that can't neatly be pigeonholed, in general terms Earth Shine was closest to being morning trance: the kind of melodic, mellow material generally played at the end of all-night psy parties as the sun is coming up and everyone is feeling blissed out. The tracks were very fast, mostly hovering around the psy-standard tempo of 145bpm, and unusually for a Solar Fields album didn't segue into each other, standing alone as eight DJ-friendly cuts. Random Friday is perhaps more of a progressive psy-trance album. It's slower, chunkier and throbbing with low-end warmth. While comparisons are inevitably made between this album and Earth Shine, in terms of style it's perhaps more instructive to think back to previous up-tempo Solar Fields tracks such as Infection 268-7 (although that kind of referencing is probably utterly pointless in a review like this, because anyone that intimate with the man's discography has almost certainly already bought and repeatedly played this album, and is impatiently waiting for the part where I reconfirm their own impressions).
It's also more of a traditional Solar Fields album as it's a continuous journey, the danceable tracks seguing elegantly into one smooth journey, all of which is book-ended by mood-setting ambient pieces at the start and finish. As individually brilliant as the tracks on Earth Shine were, the second half of the album disintegrates into a succession of ultra-long tracks that don't really flow together. Here it's the opposite: there is perhaps no track on Random Friday quite as stand-out brilliant as Summer, Black Arrow or Brainbow, but the album as a unit works far better. This is not to say any of these tracks are bad - indeed most of them are quite magnificent, particularly the sprawling mid-album epic Daydream and the propulsive Cobalt 2.5, which updates the HUVA Network track from 2009 in fine style. The first three tracks unfold in grand style, leading into high-altitude cruise of the album's mid-section. The appropriately named Landing Party slows things down into with an expansive intro that cleverly samples elements from Summer, before unfolding into a polyrhythmic layering of triplets and 4/4 pulses that leads into the high-tempo finale of the album. It all reaches a climax with Perception, a ten minute opus with shades of Underworld's Rez, a suitably draining festival-closer where you can almost feel the first rays of morning sun dancing across sweat-slicked skin.
After listening to Random Friday a few times and letting the thoughts rattle around my head, I've had a realisation: this might actually be my favourite Solar Fields album yet. It contains the widescreen structure and vivid detail of his best ambient works, but also the irrepressible sparkle of his uptempo works. I just wish Summer cropped up somewhere on this tracklisting, because it would work so well on this album, and remains the finest Solar Fields track by a nose. If that wish were granted, this might be an all-time favourite, and if I mint some memories to go with it, it might still be. For now, it will have to settle for being the best album I've heard in 2012 thus far. Although there are so many crackers in the pipeline, it faces a fight for the title.
Genre: Panoramic trance.
Stupid Arbitrary Rating: 10/10