Solo projects are an interesting beast. While rarely as successful as their originating bands, done well they can tread new and interesting ground. Done poorly, though, they can end up a pale imitation of the bands they came from. Mitochondrial Sun is the side project of Niklas Sundin, Dark Tranquillity‘s long-time guitarist.1 Fortunately, it falls into the former category. Mitochondrial Sun is primarily dark instrumental electronic music, largely in the vein of 65daysofstatic, but also forays into modern classical. Though stylistically varied, the album hangs together through a bleak aesthetic and strong sense of melody.
Loosely speaking, Mitochondrial Sun can be divided into three movements. The opening tracks feature mournful acoustic cello and grand piano with gentle electronic accompaniment. This is exemplified by “Chronotopes,” with its soaring cello lead trading off against piano and keys. The effect is something like Nils Frahm collaborating on the Westworld soundtrack. On the middle section, it transitions to dancier, though still ominous, synth riffs, and here it definitely resembles the dystopian club music of 65daysofstatic. This section culminates in the excellent “Celestial Animal,” which merges the piano and cello back in to produce the single track most representative of the overall album. After it ends with a lonely cello fading away, the remaining movement is much more about bleak atmospherics. These songs could easily be outtakes from a Blade Runner soundtrack, and at times also remind me of everything from Pink Floyd‘s “Echoes” to BT.
One of the great things about Mitochondrial Sun is how well all of this flows together. The transitions—both within and between songs—never feel forced. Though by the end you’re listening to some very different music than the start, it retains its sense of identity. There’s also a pleasing sense of symmetry between the more introspective first and third movements, versus the more immediate middle movement. The only real criticism I have, however, is that the final movement loses out to the other two on memorability. The music here is no less pretty, nor individually less interesting, but there are three similar tracks in a row without a memorable melody to distinguish them. Fortunately, final track “The Great Filter” rescues the ending with heavy, threatening, distorted synths. Options for improvements could have included rearranging the album to set “Celestial Animal” as the finale, trimming this section down, or just making the atmospheric tracks more distinct.
Grumbles about the final section aside, though, this is an album stuffed full of great melodies on great tracks. There’s the solitary, understated piano theme of opening track “Ur Tehom,” or the nearly-upbeat bell-like synth riff on “Braying Cells,” both explored like a harsher Mike Oldfield. “Nyaga” features dense powerhouse synths and an admirably restrained brief spoken word Robert Frost quotation, the only voice on the album. And did I mention how good “Celestial Animal” is? Fortunately, the production is vibrant and less brickwalled than the industry-standard DR6 figure might suggest, so it all sounds really good too. Producer Anders Lagerfors also contributed the grand piano work, and a shout-out is definitely due to guest cellist Annika Blomfeldt.
Mitochondrial Sun is one of those albums I loved from the very beginning. It’s a pity the final movement doesn’t quite meet the stellar standard set by the record. But don’t let that put you off. As I’ve mentioned before, cello, soundtrack music, and this sort of cyberpunk music are some of my favorite things. Mitochondrial Sun applies all of them to great effect. It evolves track by track, but never stops feeling like a cohesive piece of music, dark, bleak and beautiful.