Icebreaker with B.J. Cole - Apollo

[12 August 2012]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

Who wouldn’t be more than a little dubious about this project? A full-album cover of Brian Eno’s 1983 minimalist masterpiece Apollo? I mean, why would anyone want to listen to that? The resulting CD would seem to be the very definition of inessential, if one already owned the original (and revered it, as most surely do).

Indeed, for fans of Eno (and Daniel Lanois, whose pedal steel played such a prominent role on the original record), Apollo is like a Pet Sounds or a Kind of Blue: a benchmark recording, an indisputable classic, and a touchstone for any subsequent album in the genre. Would you buy a cover recording of Sgt. Pepper by another band? Exactly.

So, as you can probably tell, I went into this thing with my mind basically made up. This is, of course, a pretty crappy way to run a music criticism office, but I’ll cop to a certain pigheadedness on such issues. However, I’ll also happily report that, when given cause, this pig head of mine is capable of changing its POV.

Apollo may not need to have been covered by anyone, and this new album may not need to exist (whatever I mean by this), but it does offer a fascinating, sublime, and deeply reverent take on the seminal LP.

The main thing that Icebreaker – a British orchestral group comprised of twelve members – brings to the table is their size. The original Apollo relied heavily on synthesizers for its atmospherics, while most of what we hear on this version is played through acoustic instruments. The result is a much warmer feel to the piece than on the stark, icy original. This is both good and bad. It is good because there is a deeper resonance to the new album, and it feels fuller, more enveloping, than Eno’s 1983 recording. But, it’s also bad in that this is a piece of music that is meant to evoke the infinite emptiness of a frozen, weightless space – the music was written to accompany a film about astronauts (For All Mankind). Warmth was likely very deliberately pulled out of the original recording in order to access those glacial sonics.

The greatest difference, apart from this, is the alteration of the track order from the original. For instance, “Stars”, the ultimate track on Eno’s LP, is here slotted second, and “Ascent” (arguably the prettiest piece of music Eno ever wrote) is given a reprise to close out the album. The result of the shakeup is not too jarring, though it seems at least a little unnecessary, and will likely further annoy purists who don’t much see the point in this thing to begin with.

Still, there is something unavoidably beautiful about this new imagining of the classic record. Non-Icebreaker B.J. Cole joins on pedal steel and, apeing Daniel Lanois’ unmistakable playing on the original, he offers new flourishes that are undeniably his own. There are some real merits to the new arrangements (by Woojun Lee), including a cute little quote from Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation to kick off the reprise of “Ascent”, which closes the album.

By then, I am here to report, I was won over, despite all of my prejudicial prevarications. Although if you had to choose between them there wouldn’t even be a discussion about which version of this piece of music you should own, if there’s room on your shelf for a new take on one of the best records of the 1980s, you won’t be disappointed.

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