Even if you're a die hard Cloud Cult fan, it's unlikely that you have been able to find hard copies of two of the earliest releases - 2003's They Live on the Sun and 2004's Aurora Borealis - from the experimental indie collective. The band has recently remixed, remastered, and re-imagined these two records and released them as a double album to make them widely available in physical format for the first time. And really, besides the convenience for fans of releasing the albums together (at a generous price, I might add), these two records belong together - having been released only six or so months apart and both being conceived and recorded primarily by frontman Craig Minowa in isolation after the unexpected death of his two year-old son not long before. I can't actually comment on the differences between these new versions and the originals as I haven't heard the latter, but I do know there have been a few additions and deletions, including the previously unreleased "Time" on They Live on the Sun and "And It's Good" from Aurora Borealis. For fans of the band's later recordings or for completists, this reissue is one worth exploring.
They Live on the Sun is the rougher and rawer of the two, eclectic and sprawling in the way that the band's current highpoint, The Meaning of 8, is but somehow even more explosive and fractured. In fact, there are relatively few tracks that are cohesive and structured enough to be classifies as songs, with cuts like the scratchy punk rocker "Turtle Shell," the eerie, spoken-word interlude "Da Dum," and the demented "It's Gay" providing brief and bizarre looks into Minowa's troubled and grief-stricken mind using a variety of digital programming and instruments that never settle into one approach for more than a track or two. Even knowing the album's inspiration, the music doesn't often seem outright depressing, but even in it's most pleasant and accessible ("Radio Fodder," for instance), there's a feeling of sadness that permeates the catchy melodies and earnest lyrics. The more full-formed tunes are the highlights here, like opener "On the Sun" or the electronica epic "Back Again P.ii," and though the entire experience can be overwhelming at first given the amount and variance of the material, there's a remarkable amount of sincerity and honesty that Minowa somehow conveys in the midst of all the chaos. For those willing to take the dive and immerse themselves in the experience, They Live on the Sun can be a very rewarding listen.
Only released a handful of months after its predecessor and inspired by the same isolationist experience, Aurora Borealis somehow manages to feel like a decidedly different record than They Live on the Sun. The instrumental palette is similar - guitars, piano, plenty of synths and programming - but there are fewer odd interludes, more traditional (relatively, anyway) rock tunes, and a more urgent, frenzied approach to the proceedings. It's also easier to enjoy and appreciate, with highlights like opening ballad "Breakfast With My Shadow," the dark, spacey "All Together Alone," and the aforementioned new addition "And It's Good" contributing to a fast-paced and accessible first half that subsides into a more experimental and strange second. There are still obvious references to Minowa's son, like the voice of a child in the outlandish "Northern Lights" or the heartbreaking, haunting closer "Beautiful Boy," but Aurora Borealis has the feeling of a return, in part at least, to sanity for this grieving parent. At nearly 20 minutes and six tracks shorter than the epic collage that preceded it, this more streamlined counterpart will likely appeal to a wider audience and shows some of the artistic growth and stability (again, this is relative to the band) shown on Cloud Cult's more recent releases.
I do have some gripes about these reissues, specifically that there were a handful of tracks cut from each (though I still haven't heard them, perhaps I should trust the band's discretion) and that the final song on each album is proceeded by fifteen minutes of silence, which seems like an unnecessary pain. However, these minor flaws don't detract from the quality and amount of the material here that gives longtime fans the ability to own the physical discs and more casual observers, such as myself, a good opportunity to explore the early career of this talented and enigmatic musician.