Ever since the expat American composer Conlon Nancarrow started writing his wonderfully weird, complex constructions for player piano in the 1940s, musicians have apparently bristled at the idea of music being written that they couldn’t play. And so successive generations of musicians have risen to these challenges — first, ensembles playing arrangements of Nancarrow’s works, then the Bang On A Can All-Stars performing Brian Eno’s ambient music classic Music For Airports, which was created as a purely tape-loop-based experience. Add to that the chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound’s album Acoustica, which took the club-based electronica of Aphex Twin and dragged it kicking and screaming back into the world of “real” instruments. That will give you some context for this latest effort by Icebreaker, the veteran new music band from England. Joining forces with B.J. Cole, the English pedal steel guitarist (whose credits include early Elton John, Cat Stevens, Bjork and Elvis Costello), they have recreated another of Eno’s early ambient albums.
Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was originally credited, 30 years ago, to Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno. Lanois, who would go on to great acclaim producing U2 (with Eno) as well as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Peter Gabriel, played pedal steel lines over Eno’s sweeping, almost orchestral electronics. Icebreaker, with its usual complement of saxes and electric instruments as well as more conventional “classical” forces, creates a performable version of the entire album, with a convincing and organic palette of acoustic sounds. Cole’s pedal steel often sticks closely to Lanois’s original melodies while slightly softening the instrument’s rough-hewn edges. The result is a kind of big-band chamber music — true to the spacey sound of the original (which was inspired by the Apollo moon missions), but subtly and quietly energized. Highlights include “Silver Morning,” “An Ending (Ascent),” and of course, “Deep Blue Day,” the song made famous by the, um, plumbing-based scene in the film Trainspotting.