Music Reviews

Ice Choir Afar

(Underwater Peoples) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10
It’s one thing for a band to pilfer bits and pieces of other artists to fill out their own sound—that’s what music is, more or less—but it’s an entirely different matter to co-opt an entire decade’s musical history.  Ice Choir, the 80's synth think tank from The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s drummer Kurt Feldman, is so indicative of the 80’s dream-pop and new wave ideals that it seems to have jumped right off the pages of Smash Hits.  This year we’ve heard albums from bands such as Twin Shadow and Frankie Rose who’ve used the 80's synth pop model as a skeleton to build their albums upon, but Feldman uses it for his entire record.  There is no cribbing piecemeal from his influences on Afar.  He is taking whole years and condensing them into three and four minute songs.  What’s more impressive is his level of success given how many other artists have effectively shown us that this is the year we all remembered that we loved 80's music.  These artists have to use these influences carefully though as so many other bands are attempting the same thing.  This type of musical imitation hinges on the bands ability to create and carry melodies strong enough to support these saccharine synth confections, and while Afar does falter a bit in execution, the level of attention to detail across these nine tracks is astonishing.

Far from being just another 80’s sounding record in a year full of 80’s sounding records, Afar manages to dive headlong into its influences and come up for air with its identity mostly intact.  But make no mistake, it does sound like an 80’s synth-pop record, just a more passionately justifiable one.  Most bands who casually dip their toes into these waters only take a particular synth sound or a canned drumbeat, but Ice Choir reach for the whole genre. Nowhere is it more obvious to the listener that Feldman has no intention of going anywhere near 2012 than on opening track I Want You Now and Always, which glides along with a shimmering guitar line that beautifully highlights the echo-laden vocals.  The Church should be so lucky.  But whether we enjoy this record as he might hope relies entirely on the listener’s ability to see the album free of its current 80’s revisionist history association and solely as Feldman’s love of this kind of music.  If you pull at the seams too deliberately, the façade begins to break apart and what’s left sounds a little too much like he’s relying on the goodwill of our nostalgia in order for these songs to have the kind of impact he’s hoping for.  But as a casual listen, his love and execution of this period in music are more than enough the carry the album. 

Authenticity is not one of the albums shortcomings.  In fact, songs like Teletrips and Peacock in the Tall Grass sound so much like mid-decade 80’s pop that I had to check my iPod to make sure that I was still listening to the same album and that it hadn’t switched over to some album by The Psychedelic Furs or Spandau Ballet.  We’re well beyond homage here; we’ve run headlong into complete musical assimilation.  Thankfully though, for the most part, the melodies that Feldman coaxes from these layers of synths and iridescent vocals are strong enough to support the sizable bulk of the album. It’s only when the melodies get buried in the mix that the album loses some of its focus.  The most noticeable transgressions are Two Rings, whose initially interesting structure gets obscured as Feldman buries it under superfluous layers of squealing high pitched synths and a drumbeat that lacks the characteristic punch of many of the other songs, and The Ice Choir, a song which by all accounts should be his mission statement with its chorus of “I will sing the ice choir/oh transient defeat/lifeless world, my heart aches like/the wind through empty streets”, though it comes across as a mostly practiced detour through his influences.  Not that these tracks are unlistenable, far from it, but they represent a subtle shift down in terms of overall quality and form.  

The album closer Everything Is Spoilt By Use does leave the listener with hope that Feldman knows enough about his influences that at some point in the future they won’t be as all encompassing.  Caroline Polacheck of indie pop group Chairlift lends her vocals to this track, and her Kate Bush-like presence adds a new and welcome dimension to the song and the album.  And though the same sounds and structures are used here as on the previous songs, there is an understated change in attitude that subtly works its way throughout the song.  This track seems more mature in a way that sets it apart from the rest of the album.  The layers of instrumentation are carefully pieced together, though not to the point where they become lackluster or uninteresting.  It’s a conscious display of restraint from Feldman which the album was definitely missing and that it sorely needed.

Ice Choir may seem leagues away from Feldman’s full-time band, but Afar is spurred on by the same kind of devotion to detail that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart display in regards to their early 90’s indie rock influences, and in that regard, the two bands are not so different.   With Ice Choir, however, the intent isn’t so much to guide the influences as to be enveloped by them.  Let’s just hope that the maturity hinted at on the last track is an indication of things to come and not merely a stray thread in Feldman’s continuing musical evolution.  Who would have thought that 80's music was so much better than we all remembered?