Siberia is an album-length experiment in transferring mood and environment to tape.
Vanbot is the musical vehicle of Ester Ideskog, a songstress out of Sweden who lives in the world of electronic pop occupied by alterna-pop acts like CHVRCHES and Grimes, with a healthy dollop of country-mate Robyn thrown in for good measure. To date, her music has been a collection of singles and a couple of albums that have painted her as a capable-if-workmanlike singer/songwriter, good at constructing pop songs but with some difficulty connecting with an audience.
Siberia may succeed at connecting with an audience, but in a very different way than one would typically expect from a pop artist. Rather than go for a visceral, emotional connection, Ideskog goes in the opposite direction, with a pop album so ethereal as to border on ambient.
The story of Siberia is that it was written and performed entirely over the course of a 17-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, an album-length experiment in transferring mood and environment to tape. Nowhere is the feel of such a journey more evident than on opener "Not That Kind (Moscow)", where a mid-tempo beat takes hold early, and then synths, washes of noise, and even vocals fade in and out of view. There's no verse, no chorus, no particular singalong melody. All we have here are a collection of quiet, pleasant motifs, thrown into a heavy reverb wash that gives the impression of clouds passing overhead. It's beautiful, it's abstract, and it's six minutes long, a perfect introduction to an album built around a tremendous journey by train.
What follows is a collection of meditative pop, some fast-paced, some dirges, but all of it covered in cold washes of delay and reverb. There are few pure, untouched sounds to hear on Siberia; everything is manipulated and broken down and touched up. It is a remarkable consistency of vision, even as the distance all that reverb evokes has the unfortunate side effect of keeping us from getting too close. First single "Collide (Krasnoyarsk)" is as close to out-and-out pop as the album has to offer, and even its immediate pleasures -- including an identifiable, soaring chorus -- are hidden in echo effects and rushes of sound that evoke airplanes flying overhead.
An unexpected treat of the album is that a few of Siberia's slower moments do register on an emotional level, through sheer will of instrumentation. "On the Fly (Omsk)" is a beautiful song that uses its ample running time (just over six and a half minutes) to build into something textured, dense, and immediate. There's no climax, per se, but it offers a lush, overwhelming atmosphere that can completely fill a room. "Wasted" starts quiet and stays quiet, but its off-the-beat plucked guitar line and some lovely high vocals from Ideskog add up to a memorable song regardless.
Some of the quicker tunes aren't too shabby either; "Stay With Me (Perm)" actually wouldn't have sounded out of place as a quieter moment on Aphex Twin's I Care Because You Do, at least until Ideskog's vocals enter the mix, and the four-on-the-floor of "Close Enough (Ulan Bator)" lends it an urgency beyond that of much of the album. Siberia is very pretty beyond the highlights as well, but much of the rest of it does start to fall into the trap of sounding like so much aural wallpaper. Ideskog's words are buried beneath the sounds and effects, so there's little hope of finding something there to grab onto as the music flies by.
That said, that's probably as intentional as anything on Siberia. The overarching feeling here is of melodies, sounds, and feelings drifting by, interesting enough to notice, though never holding still enough to hold on to. It is absolutely a success in creating a mood, but it is ephemeral, forgettable. Ideskog would do well to take what she learned on Siberia and apply it to an album where she gets to hold still for a minute.