Following a string of EP releases, Ice Level is the claustrophobically elaborate, full-length debut from Brooklyn-based indie cold funk collective Ava Luna. Taking inspiration from the late-'70s Ze Records hybridization of funk and No Wave, or the like-minded freak-disco of 99 Records acts like ESG, the eight songs on Ice Level are all slick, slinky, and wiry numbers. The nervy R&B compositions are fronted by brainchild/N.Y.C. producer Carlos Hernandez and augmented by stunning vocal arrangements from Felicia Douglass, Rebecca Kauffman, and Anna Sian. The album is an in-depth study in tension and release, sometimes on a micro level. With a hyper-focused lens on composition and another on cultivating a sensually intricate vibe, Ice Level looks a little too closely at smaller details and fails to develop a core for the sounds to emanate from. The sheer density of the tunes becomes an issue right away. Aiming for the skeletal instrumentation and directness of something like Lizzy Mercier Descloux's disconnected grooves, all too often the arrangements feel crowded with too many elements competing for space. While the complex vocal harmonies bracket almost every verse beautifully à la Dirty Projectors, washes of distortion and other noisy distractions clutter the songs. The compositions themselves are winding and busy. Their lack of any type of hooks or pop sensibilities isn't a problem, as they get by on the power of the vocal interplay and liquid nature of the playing, but sometimes there are too many ideas to keep track of. Much like Of Montreal's change-a-minute indie R&B experiments, no single part sticks around long enough to make a fully formed impression. Even in its more spartan moments, Ice Level somehow feels too big for itself. Stand-out track "Sequential Holdings" begins with some a cappella harmonies before colliding with blown-out bass and clacking drums high in the mix, burying Hernandez's lead vocals with even more distorted percussion by the chorus. There's not a lot going on, but there's way too much going on. The song is stellar, with backing vocals reminiscent of late-'90s Destiny's Child-style bounding syncopation. Under the lens of different production it could even be catchy, but as it stands, the positives get lost in the layers of unnecessary sounds. By the end of the album, it's hard not to feel either a little spun out or exhausted by the amount of twists and turns Ava Luna throws. While there are some strong moments of danceable avant-funk, and the vocal arrangements shine, the record by and large feels convoluted and blurry. Stripped down to just drums, bass, and vocals, Ice Level would be the weirdest lost Prince album imaginable, or a dream world collaboration between Alan Vega and a gospel choir. Without the extra space, however, we're left with a less dynamic album of impenetrable designs.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas