The distressed young lady depicted in Carla Leighton’s cover art, recalling the comic book-derived imagery of early-’60s Lichtenstein, might suggest that listeners to this CD would be in for a severe sonic bludgeoning. The truth is, though, that nothing here approaches the extreme pounding administered by Icebreaker in their rendition of Louis Andriessen’s “Hoketus” on the Rogue’s Gallery CD (or the same piece performed by members of Icebreaker and Bang on a Can on the latter’s Gigantic Dancing Human Machine). So who might listen to Cranial Pavement and respond by yowling “AAARRRR” with tears running from squeezed-shut eyes? For one, those who believe classical, jazz, and rock music should never be thrown together in the same mixing bowl. Of course, there’s plenty of evidence to support that stance; one need look no further than prog rockers like ELP tackling Mussorgsky or Kronos Quartet grinding out Hendrix to realize that a rock band seeking classical legitimacy or a classical string quartet prowling the alleys for street cred can produce mixed results. In the case of Icebreaker, however, these are not rockers subverted by empty exhibitions of technique or classical musicians performing bowdlerized versions of pop hits. For one thing, they choose their material wisely, in this case one of Conlon Nancarrow’s “Studies” for player piano arranged by Icebreaker co-founder James Poke and three lengthier pieces by modern contemporary composers John Godfrey (the other Icebreaker co-founder), Yannis Kyriakides, and Richard Craig. And that contemporary sensibility is key, as is the fact that these compositions are ideally suited to Icebreaker’s 13-piece configuration of electric and acoustic instruments, not to mention the ensemble’s “contemporary music with balls” sensibility.
While Icebreaker falls toward the “classical” side of the Venn diagram area where classical, rock, and jazz genres intersect, the group’s seamless integration of forms and single-minded sense of modernist purpose also place it near the same sonic territory as artists from the “rock” side who have garnered a fair measure of critical acclaim and sometimes cultish fan devotion. So rather than the much-maligned excesses of ELP and Yes, one hears echoes of Frank Zappa, Henry Cow, Art Zoyd, and Doctor Nerve. Nancarrow’s “Study #2B” is based on the final movement of the composer’s Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra, originally written in the mid-’40s and actually predating the player piano music for which Nancarrow became most famous (and which was deemed beyond the technical capability of human beings to perform until subsequently transcribed for chamber ensembles). As arranged by Poke, the brief “Study #2B” may suggest to certain ears a sudden burst of complex and energetic Zappa, while the sustained electronic keyboard tones and mournful violin of Godfrey’s “Gallows Hill” recall the ominous drama and desolation of Art Zoyd or Univers Zero — not surprising when considering that the composition’s title, as noted on the Cantaloupe label website, “refers to the place in Salem where the women who were found guilty of witchcraft were executed.” “Blindspot” (an overall highlight) is performed with minimalist precision and extended-form thematic cohesiveness, yet the saxophone harmonies could be right out of ’70s Henry Cow or a likeminded Rock in Opposition band. Meanwhile, the four-part “Chook” offers some unusual thrills and chills of its own, such as the “Tango to the Death” portion that seems to mix Piazzolla into the middle of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho soundtrack. They might have done their time in the conservatory and emerged with technique to spare, but the members of Icebreaker have the vision to use their skills intelligently, along with a keen grasp of avant rock and jazz’s street-level power. The result should have open-eared listeners yowling “AAARRRR” all right — because they like it. – Dave Lynch