Planetarium LP review: Their take on our solar system from Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister




Colliding the brilliant minds of Sufjan Stevens, The National’s Bryce Dessner, the amazing classical composing skills of Nico Muhly and the drum work of touring and session musician James McAlister, this ambitious record by Planetarium, seeks to paint a sonic portrait of our universe in as interesting a way as the group can. Ambitious and thought-provoking it’s a piece of art to be sure, but is it one that also holds memorable ground?

Taking the first steps on the emotional “Neptune” and its poppy piano ballad the track carries a powerful and heavenly quality in its touches of strings and almost operatic vocals. Switching to more electric and epic tones on “Jupiter” there’s an inherent digital tinge along the pounding drums. Big diving sections and a constant push to up the last section, along with a twisted horn instrumental make the long runtime more than worth it.

Strangely enough the intermission track of “Halley’s Comet” has a fun swell but runs into “Venus” completely wrong. As the later track moves through a rippling beat, the echo-distorted push creates a hazy and demented crawl for a very trippy track. Switching to some lo-fi instrumentals and a trickling synth line, “Uranus” goes for another long sonic journey, making out only slightly less consistent because of its slower paced finale. “Mars” takes a more stirring beat and forces some heavy and distorted sounds through it, opening up later for a very cinematic and worrying barrage of horns and electronics that sounds a Kubrick film score crashing into modern hip hop production.

On a similarly cinematic note is “Black Energy” and its very Spielberg-ian sci-fi sounds that cause tension in the air, on this frightening instrumental track. Moving along more pensively “Sun” drifts between awe-inspiring ethereal notes and crooked undertones to make something both beautiful and biting. “Tides” goes even more spacey on its intense reverb and buzz creating a much more solid and natural transition forward, only hampered by a more cutting edit between tracks.

With African rhythms and a weird spritely melody, “Moon” has a fun communal feeling along with its glitch-filled backing, making for a track as cute as it is unnerving. While a little slow and simple to start, the middle swell of “Pluto” feels like the album’s masterpiece moment, going from a tinge of electronics and shrieks to a burning string climax full of passion and intensity that creates a goose bump-inducing moment so satisfying you’ll be grinning by the second run through. On a dance-bop “Kuiper Belt” blips along with rippling percussion and a wavy synth for a fun little instrumental break seemingly more suited for a live setting.

Despite a fade to darkness, the track seemingly continues down the rabbit hole on “Black Hole” where it bursts open for a handful of seconds before transitioning harshly onward again. “Saturn” brings one of the strongest pop drives of the record without even using a beat until halfway through, thanks to forceful vocal line and moving synth lines. Rounding out this section is the final instrumental interlude, the lo-fi shimmer of “In The Beginning” that lands one of the album’s more complete transitions.

There’s a lot that can be said about the 15-minute-long “Earth,” as its endless ambition, inspiringly beautiful composition and constantly shifting sections craft a well-rounded narrative that works from start to finish well and carries you through its instrumental and pop moments well. If anything the tracks main fall-back is being a track this long at the tail-end of a 17 track album, itself being so much more disconnected song to song than this one track does in its length making for both a track that feels like it will be lost in here and shows the album’s weaknesses because of its strengths.

“Mercury” closes the album on a glowing guitar finale with bright and joyous vocals. The notable pop overtones of the track almost feel out of place on such a weird and diving record but nevertheless it ends the album on a heartwarming moment that closes it all tightly.

While a tad long, this is a great ambitious record to say the least. The jaw-dropping moments really warrant its release and overall it proves cool ambitious projects this weird should still exist. The lack of cohesion is the one issue this record faces however as the clear connections lie out there and are never put together, and interlude songs feel so forced in, as virtually everyone is cut so jaggedly off or left unconnected at either end of its movement. All together however this is a cool project but maybe one that will be best saved for solemn listens on the right rainy afternoon as it feels more like a piece of art than constantly listenable pop.

Words by Owen Maxwell


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