sat 20/07/2024

Icebreaker and BJ Cole, Milton Court | reviews, news & interviews

Icebreaker and BJ Cole, Milton Court

Icebreaker and BJ Cole, Milton Court

The post-minimalists reclaim studio electronica for the stage

Icebreaker with film by Sophie Clements and Toby CornishSophie Clements and Toby Cornish

Call it re-analogification, de-digitisation or perhaps just plain reverse-engineering, Icebreaker’s set at Milton Court was all about reclaiming the electronic for hoary-handed instrumentalists. Their skills are well-honed: from Anna Meredith to Steve Martland to Kraftwerk, with an inspired side-order of Scott Walker, they conjured propulsive rhythmic lines and saturated layers of harmony from inauspicious sources – pan-pipes, soprano sax, a single cello, bass drum.

Of course, there were electric guitars, keyboards and a stage groaning with amplifiers, but it was a damn sight more interesting than watching a lap-top.

I first encountered Icebreaker in an Amsterdam warehouse c.1990, the last word in Euro-post-Minimalistic cool, pounding out works by Louis Andriessen and his heirs. They’re now, like Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars, approaching 40, but their continuing creative engagement with recent and contemporary music keeps their output fresh – and drew a full house. Bang up-to-date were two works from Anna Meredith: Nautilus (from the award-winning studio album Varmints) finds her in bombastic mood, revelling in the possibilities of a penetrating bass loop against a flickeringly mobile high-line. Meredith is unafraid of getting down and dirty with samples and a computer, so it seemed somewhat perverse to re-transcribe it all back to analogue (she’s a formidable instrumental composer, after all).

Still, you couldn’t argue with the energy and swagger powering this performance. Orlok gave us flashes of filigree instrumental activity as if through a window of a hurtling train; the vulnerabilites of violin or human breath certainly humanise, and her mordant studio jam can apparently withstand score inflation. Icebreaker concertThe late Steve Martland’s Beat the Retreat needs no instrumental rescue: inspired by Purcell’s 300th anniversary, it toys in cheerfully obstreperous style with Baroque tropes of dance and canon, before settling on a ground upon which instruments grandstand in ever-more frenzied circles. Icebreaker’s James Poke’s new scoring simply reclaims it for his line-up, but one missed the clean, gilded punch of the original trumpet and trombone; flaring flutes and vibes produced a more torrid haze. Icebreaker supplied virtuosity and speed, but the latin dance episodes were Doc Marten-heavy; a better sound balance might have done justice to a rich scoring.

After an assault of beats, this slow, poly-rhythmic unravelling came as a welcome relief Scott Walker long ago stopped singing live, but his inimitable Elvis-goes-to-Darmstadt baritone graces Epizootics (2012) in full poetry-slam mode. Audrey Riley’s arrangement, including BJ Coles’s evocative pedal steel guitar on the wander, renders the original, more synthetic version, flimsy. Here Icebreaker could really deliver: from visceral winds alarms to lyrical cello, they built a sweeping momentum over its ten-minute span. Olivier Groulx’s witty video provided an apt third dimension, subverting exotic clichés.

The audience thinned for Kraftwerk Uncovered, already widely toured in 2014. The result of a Science Museum project with electronic composer-producer J Peter Schwalm, it reimagines the band’s long-deleted early album tracks "hand-made". As Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish’s film (pictured above) plunges us into the industrial landscapes of the Ruhr circa 1970, the tracks conjure aggressive mechanisation and stifling apprehension. Shifting tissues of winds (Glitzerstrahlen) and flute-generated twittering machine connect Kraftwerk's experiments with their contemporaries Ligeti, Stockhausen and Glass. After an assault of beats, the slow polyrhythmic unravelling of Spiegelsaal came as a welcome relief, heralding the long-haul, high-speed Autobahn. It was quite a ride, but Autobahn loses a lot, ironically, without its human voices…


You couldn’t argue with the energy and swagger powering this performance


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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