Recording a live album of ambient Brian Eno compositions is a potential minefield. First and foremost is the issue of audience noise – never mind how to arrange or orchestrate the music. Yet at the 2010 Brighton International Festival in the UK, James Poke’s ensemble Icebreaker bravely tackled the 1983 Brian Eno/Roger Eno/Daniel Lanois collaboration Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, and pulled it off, quietly but mightily. A lush, mesmerizing piece of music, this newly released concert album - just out on Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe Music label – doesn’t have the spontaneous vibrancy of a live recording. While it sounds like a studio effort, Icebreaker’s new arrangement enhances the hypnotic, enveloping, raptly warm ambience of the original, giving it a more organic feel. Here, the young pedal steel player on the studio recording, Lanois, is absent – in his place, the brilliant BJ Cole, who cites Eno and Apollo in particular as major influences on his own paradigm-shifting work.
To the twelve-piece ensemble’s credit, it’s impossible to keep track of who’s playing what, as the minimalist melody gently shifts from one voice, or combination of voices, to another. The group’s lineup is acoustic-electric, with Dominic Saunders and Andrew Zolinsky on keyboards, Pete Wilson on bass, and James Woodrow doing a chillingly accurate David Gilmour impersonation on guitar over the hypnotic sweep of woodwinds, strings and accordion. The piece’s slow tectonic shifts drift between instruments, practically imperceptibly as subtle shifts in the melody float in and then out of the mix, the ringing, bell-like tones of the electric piano evoking Angelo Badalementi at his dreamiest. As the variations go on, the music takes on a more ominous, Lynchian atmosphere: what becomes obvious is how many artists, from 17 Pygmies to Bill Frisell, have felt the influence of this work (and how much Eno was influenced by Pink Floyd). Woodrow’s jarring, apprehensive, Gilmour-esque riffs juxtapose against quietly anxious, shifting voices, highs slowly ceding centerstage to lows as the clouds loom in with a distant menace.
The album then takes a turn away from minimalism and horizontality. Cole’s purist country phrasing lights up what’s essentially a swaying folk anthem, stripped to the bone, followed by what could be Another Brick in the Wall, Part 4, then a soul guitar theme, and an imaginatively spiced countrypolitan steel guitar ballad. The album ends with a gorgeous, hazily bittersweet series of circular motifs, and a lullaby of sorts. Who is the audience for this? For one, the next generation of kids who’re just now discovering Floyd and the rest of the art-rock pantheon, along with anybody who was there for that stuff the first time around and who might have missed this – and for that matter, anyone looking for hypnotic, gently atmospheric music to get completely and absolutely lost in.