Terminal Velocity

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Icebreaker's Terminal Velocity, the ensemble's opening salvo originally released by Argo/Decca in 1994, reveals a 15-member group steeped in the language of minimalism but already pushing past the typical parameters of the style. The proceedings begin with the densely packed layered repetitions of Michael Gordon's "Yo Shakespeare." James Poke's arrangement of Louis Andriessen's "De Snelheid" shows how a great composer can find new and compelling directions in pattern music; the sense of relentless acceleration, driven by clip-clopping percussion and hocketing across the stereo sound field, can lead into realms of aural trickery if you allow it. Three instrumental groupings ultimately converge in a dramatic and even ponderous climax, yet despite its rising tension, the music leading to this denouement possesses an engaging spaciousness that draws the listener in rather than overwhelming the senses. It somehow seems a logical progression from Gordon through Andriessen and into Gavin Bryars' "The Archangel Trip," a moody and evocative melding of minimalism with a European chamber folk sensibility -- soundtrack music for the art house crowd. With long melodic soprano sax lines over shifting chords and a subdued pulse, "Archangel" is somber, lovely, and understated without fully abandoning the compositional rigor one would expect on this disc, and yet in its cloudy pastoralism somehow stands apart from nearly everything else Icebreaker have recorded. Arguably pointing the way toward the group's future is keyboardist Damian Le Gassick's eight-minute "Evol," an abrupt wake-up call after Bryars' dreaminess. Here forward momentum is interrupted by unison scalar runs, sax and tuned percussion interludes, and even fusion-tinged synth solos. Episodic music of this nature would come to dominate later releases like Extraction on Between the Lines and Cranial Pavement on Canteloupe. Terminal Velocity ends with 23 and a half minutes of mutating gradualism in the form of David Lang's "Slow Movement," a piece that actually engendered a tiny smattering of audible hostility from a lunkheaded segment of the July 2005 Lincoln Center Festival audience, who must have been ready for revisionist jazz in the Allen Room venue overlooking Columbus Circle. What they got, and what you get here, is a richly textured dronescape that evolves through cycles of harmonic variance before finally reaching resolution, and is filled with the type of sonic detail -- particularly from the strings -- that rewards the patient and attentive listener. Ambient music for watching cement harden, perhaps, "Slow Movement" finishes the journey from Terminal Velocity's start in a tightly coiled mechanistic whirlwind to its conclusion in a sea of entropy and dissolution. Or a sea of molasses if you were expecting something jazzier.