Niklas Sundin is one of the most prominent names in the Swedish Melodic Death Metal scene. A forefather and pioneer of the genre, most noted for being a member of the widely recognised and highly acclaimed Dark Tranquillity, he has a vast experience with over 30 years in the game and plenty of releases to his name. Like all musicians, he has a hoard of ideas confined to paper, tape, CD-R and digital files, some of which were just passing whims, others were ideas which just didn’t seem to fit with any of the projects which he was working on at the time. After deciding to unearth some of these ideas and breathe new life into them, he came up with Mitochondrial Sun, an instrumental endeavour which focuses more on the aesthetics and expressiveness of music. With support from the Swedish Arts Council and some great studio masterminding, these ideas, some dating back to 1992 have been overhauled with different instrumentation, adding strings, cellos, synths and grand pianos and stripping back a lot of the traditional MDM elements to create something which is a collection of different tracks which are all linked by their atmosphere rather than their style, similar to that of a movie soundtrack (side note: there are plans to release digital visualizations to accompany the tracks!). So, with the groundwork set, let’s see what happens when these once pushed aside ideas do when new light is shone upon them.
As stated, this whole release is a thematic concept album of sorts. The tracks, all being different in their delivery and style all have a common ground with their atmospheric impact and general feel. Initially, I tried to approach this album like I would any; on a track to track basis, breaking each track down, seeing how the components of the track link together to give the finished product, noting down moments of interest and seeing how it all fit together as a finished product. If I kept that approach with this release then it would have boxed me into a corner fairly quickly as the foundation of these tracks – expanded ideas which never quite clicked, didn’t exactly flesh themselves out into full, stand alone musical entities like a ‘normal’ instrumental album would. There are some tracks which would work well as short transition tracks on an album and there are some moments in tracks where you could see them as a refrain or an extended ending sequence. Whilst these might be solid moments of musical identity in these terms, for the most part, they don’t ‘feel’ like ‘full’ tracks.
Given the emphasis on ‘normal’,’feel’ and what you would commonly consider a ‘full’ track (i.e a complete track which you believe is fully realised from start to finish and is either a stand alone entity or a part of a greater musical piece), it is easy to see that a different approach is needed when looking at this album and conveying it. If you approach this like a film soundtrack, the idea which Niklas had when he assembled and reworked these ideas, it makes a lot more sense and fits together better.
From the sombre sounding piano melodies of opening track “Ur Tehom” which gradually rises in atmospheric presence, the album has a very surrounding feel. It isn’t quite claustrophobic or smothering, but more of an encompassing feel. “Chronotopes” has a slightly brighter edge to it despite the haunting edge to the main melodic lines and the string sections which surge through during it really add a kick whilst “Braying Cells” is more oppressive in its nature as it slowly shifts towards dark electronica territory with low drones and strategically delivered piano and cello moments which add a haunting edge to it. In this track you can see some of the ideas which Niklas had in mind for the more conventional melodic death metal we normally associate with him and it is easy to imagine where the roaring guitar riffs and cutting lead harmonies would blaze through.
“Stars Beneath The Sea” is one of the standout musical moments of the release which could easily serve as an instrumental opening track for an album. Subtle hypnotic effects in the delivery help deliver that ‘submerged’ sensation and the bursts of piano and synth melodies help create moments of brightness before it surges to life round the 2:30 mark, the perfect jumping off point for a wall of death metal to come riding in on its momentum! “Nyaga” messes about with tremolo and reverb laden sequences giving it a slightly futuristic feel and later on in the release, “The Void Begets” has some impressive sequences which are reminiscent of slide guitar sections, lazily drifting in and out of focus whilst the closing track “The Great Filter” is a raw beast which is loaded with harsh synth attacks and a very imposing feel and nature. All across the release, there are plenty of diverse sounds but all seem to carry that same ominous and haunting edge to them and this is reflected on the showpiece track of the album, the 7+ minute “Celestial Animal” which is a fine display of musical arrangement and compositional ability. Intricate sequences of piano and strings grow in prominence and are accompanied by sequences of synths which rise and fall with the mood of the track and halfway through, the shift to a more electronica focused approach is timed perfectly, giving off a vibe which is reminiscent of underground nightclubs loaded with hazy smoke and neon lights, a real darkwave/synthwave feel which has a great rhythmic pulse and helps the track stand out as an example of what Niklas was intending to achieve with the Mitochondrial Sun project.
In closing, Mitochondrial Sun’s debut effort shows a side of Sundin which you would not expect. It shows the composer who is versatile enough to revisit musical ideas and repurpose them so they get new life and can see the light of day, albeit in a murkier way. This isn’t a release you can casually listen to, it requires attention and focus and it expects you to throw away any preconceived notions about this as a release. It would be helped if the proposed visual components were present to augment the release, allowing us a real glimpse into the mindset of Niklas on each track, but without them, it still stands as a solid instrumental release, just a more unconventional one.