August 30, 2004

Icecake "an ambient extraction"

Robert J. Kaminek Jr. (better known as Icecake) is looking for soundtrack work. I believe that that’s the only reason why this Icecake record exists. I know that it seems harsh for me to criticize a record called An Ambient Extraction for being not much more than background music. After all, ambient music is supposed to prioritize establishing an atmosphere above all else. However, even for an ambient record there’s a disturbing lack of urgency here. It’s as if Kaminek pulled out eight of the tracks he’d been working on over the last eight years (the copyright dates in the liner notes range from 1995 to 2003) and slapped them on a CD just to say that he did it. I’m sure that he’s proud of his accomplishment, but there isn’t much on this CD that would be of interest to people outside of his social circle.

The best ambient music occupies a dual role. When you’re not paying attention to it, it establishes atmosphere but doesn’t intrude your thoughts. When you ARE paying attention, though, the atmosphere envelops you and dictates your thoughts FOR you. Recent examples of this include the latest albums by Trapist and Charalambides. At low volumes, I have managed to fall asleep to both records. At high volumes, though, Trapist’s Ballroom makes me feel as if time is slowing down, and Charalambides’ Joy Shapes simply terrifies me. On the other hand, Icecake’s music can only exist as pleasant background music and nothing more. If I pay too much attention to it, its flaws begin to annoy me.

Icecake’s biggest hindrance is Kaminek’s employment of the human voice. The album’s first track, “A Last Supper,” consists of an array of disembodied voices, atop which the eponymous Biblical event is narrated from the point of view of Judas Iscariot. It’s supposed to be blasphemous and scary, but whenever Kaminek runs the narrator’s voice through effects to make him sound like he’s growling, my reaction is akin to that of watching an extremely old horror movie with poor special effects. I already know that the chainsaw is made of plastic and the blood is simply water spiked with red food coloring, and it’s difficult for me to fathom how even people back then could get scared of something so unrealistic and transparent. “Pepper Clouds” begins with some stoner rambling about “bright colored lights outside of my home,” and album closer “My Normal State” is marred halfway through by what sounds like a bored flight attendant saying cheesy things like “You have now entered dream state one...this dream state is never-ending!” Good ambient composers don’t need voice-overs to tell the listener how they’re supposed to feel while the music is playing.

When Kaminek does away with the voice-overs, he intermittently proves himself capable of great things. On “Version” he runs his programmed drums and electric guitars through canyons of reverb and chorus to produce a gothic dissonance that sounds like EVOL-era Sonic Youth recording a demo for 4AD. “Pierce Point Stop, South Side Line” boasts subtle digital cut-ups and flurries of white noise that would fit well on a Morr Music release. “Pour Vous Deux” and “Mellows” are guitar-only spaghetti western downers that would be a perfect soundtrack to a slow and solemn walk through the desert. Even on these songs, though, Kaminek suffers from lo-fi production (this CD has a bewildering lack of real treble) and a lack of melodic or thematic development. These songs just begin, go on for anywhere from two to six minutes, and end. Ambient music isn’t supposed to grab me by the throat, but neither is it supposed to leave me indifferent.

--Sean Padilla

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