Eric Estornel has worn many masks over the course of his near two-decade career. After spending most of the '00s making gritty electro as Mariel Ito and mechanised techno as Maetrik, he eventually found fame at the end of the decade as Maceo Plex, a housier, more summery alias that dovetailed with the boom of labels like Hot Creations and Crosstown Rebels. In 2011, the latter released Estornel's debut album, Life Index, whose most famous track is a Stevie Wonder cover.
But despite the success of Life Index, Estornel wasn't entirely comfortable with its sound. "I felt like an artisan and not an artist, you know, someone who makes something to order," he told me in 2015. Nevertheless, he continued with the Maceo Plex project, steering it in a tougher big-room direction via fist-pumping anthems like "Conjure Balearia" and "Conjure Dreams." This felt like Estornel trying to find a sweet spot between Maceo Plex and Maetrik, which he'd set to one side in 2012. The formula worked, and somewhere along the way he became one of dance music's biggest stars.
When the time came, then, to start thinking about that difficult second album, you might have expected Estornel to play it safe and write an LP stacked with tech house weapons. But instead, as he told me during that same interview, it would "incorporate more of that [techno and experimental side] without scaring people too much." These were the words of an artist with a point to prove. He also became a father around this time, an experience he says heavily influenced the record. The album is named after his son.
Solar certainly shows a new side to Maceo Plex, but there's little to get excited about here. More than anything it's the vocals, which appear on more than half of the 11 tracks, that let it down. They've been a constant feature of Estornel's productions over the years, often deployed expertly (this cut—a favourite of Ricardo Villalobos's—is a prime example). But on Solar, they're mawkish in tone and lyrically corny, transforming otherwise solid tracks into songs that are hard to stomach. The twanging synths on "Solar Wind" have a nice thing going until a cloying vocal breaks through: "I feel my heartbeat heavy / When gravity takes hold of me." There's no need for the vocoder vocal on "Wash Away My Tears," either—the tidy framework of post-punk kicks, fuzzy earworm melody and trance-y pads more than stands up on its own.
Things improve on the instrumental tracks. "Kepler's Journey" is a glitchy breakbeat bomb, full of left turns and the kind of dreamy pad work that DJ Metatron built his name on. "Lucid Dreamer," by some way the album's most understated track, pairs light drums, gossamer pads and a fleshy synth line to stirring effect. Estornel exercises similar restraint on closing cut "Swan Dive," constructing a moody, dub-inspired workout that ambles gracefully at 110 BPM. These tracks show what he's capable of when the brushstrokes aren't so thick.
Solar is a flawed attempt to reconcile Estornel's two musical worlds: before and after Maceo Plex. In other areas of his career, this approach has proven more successful. His residency at Pacha, Ibiza's famously glitzy super club, merges the usual heavyweights with headsier acts like Pearson Sound, Avalon Emerson and Derek Plaslaiko, introducing the largely uninitiated Ibiza crowds to cutting-edge music. But a club night and an album are two very different beasts. In 2015, Estornel told me he wanted Solar to be a statement, a record that would show his audience that there's more to him than just 4/4 bangers. Its syrupy tone undermines the point he's trying to make.
Tracklist01. Sparks Of Life
02. Polygon Pulse
04. The Separation
05. Eternal 808
06. Kepler's Journey
07. Solar Wind
08. Wash Away My Tears
09. The Tesseract
10. Lucid Dreamer
11. Swan Dive