Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was a lovely and easily overlooked oddity in the run of ambient music recordings Brian Eno released during the 1970s and '80s. Coming eight years after his first full album of ethereal, instrumental music, 1975's Discreet Music (he also experimented with the form in individual tracks on his pop album Another Green World that year), and featuring the same alien landscape cover art as the previous ambient releases, it was easy to assume Apollo was more of the dreamily beautiful same. And in fact, it was more or less more of the same. It's only with hindsight that we get to see the arcs and contexts into which albums fall.
Eno wasn't, of course, entirely divorced from pop music at the time. He'd been producing Devo and Talking Heads, among others, and was about to embark on a career changing job behind the board for U2. So despite all the atmospherics, he had still been hanging out around guitars. And the guitar was what made Apollo stand out in the ambient catalog. When he was asked to supply music for a film compiling NASA Apollo footage (which must have been a bit of a vindication, having already released an album of hypothetical film soundtracks), Eno made the kind of abstract association that is the root of his work's psychic character: He related space missions to the sounds of country music that he would hear through the static from distant radio stations as a youth in England. Like the Apollo rocket, those steel guitars floated through the air, defying gravity. In the end Eno's score wasn't used, but the slide guitar of Daniel Lanois figured prominently on the album.
The British new music chamber ensemble Icebreaker has revisited the album, taking something of the same approach the Bang on a Can All-Stars did with Eno's Music for Airports, that is to say taking music that was largely produced by electronic instruments and looped magnetic tape and arranging it for traditional instruments. But the similarities stop there. Bang on a Can's effort sho wed the muscle of their work. The four sections were arranged (each by a different composer from the collective) as if to exhibit the unplugged nature of the proceedings – there was no missing the point. With 12 members and amplified guitars, strings and keyboards in the lineup, they can come closer to the original. And without meaning to cast Eno as a Pinnochio they – like Bang on a Can's Airports – they have the warmth of a real band. Guest BJ Cole (who has played with T. Rex, Elton John, REM and the Moody Blues, among many others) takes the pedal steel parts on five of the thirteen tracks and plays them with a soft delicacy.
It's a fine record on its own accord, but it's also interesting to see Bang on a Can furthering their efforts to position Eno as a repertory composer by releasing Icebreaker's album on their own Cantaloupe Music label.
- Kurt Gottschalk
The physical release date is June 26, but you can stream the whole album below.