Album Review: Ice Choir - Designs in Rhythm

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

Through years of hard work and countless projects, producer Kurt Feldman has made a name for himself as one of the greatest auteurs of the 80s who was also born in the 80s. Earlier this year, Feldman brought this knack for timeless synth pop to Kristin Welchez for her debut as Kristin Kontrol. Elsewhere, he channels it to soundtrack the upcoming PS4 game Gunsport, the film score for 2016 movie Cruise, and one-off collaborations with Chairlift and DIIV. But it's been a hot minute since Feldman made something for his own glory. While fans were satiated with an absolutely divine holiday single back in 2014 with "Pure Holiday", it's been four years since Ice Choir debut Afar dropped, and it is high time the world got another, closer look at the man behind the boards. Thankfully, Designs in Rhythm gives us just that. With Ice Choir's second full-length LP, Feldman reigns in some of the more tongue-in-cheek retro aspects of Afar for a delightful pop album, rich in 80s heritage without ever alienating fans without love for time travel. Ice Choir return in 2016 to give us one of the year's best pop outings, a ten track tour deeping into the reaches of Kurt Feldman's weird and whimsical 80s world.

Via self-description, Ice Choir debut Afar "sounds like it was tracked thirty years ago in a $5,000-a day studio". And it really does! While it unfortunately went heavily under the radar, Afar is one of the weirdest, most rewarding pop outings of 2012, mixing bedroom pop and laptop production 80s mimicry with the slightest essence of (the very trendy at the time) vapor-wave sound. Feldman's 80s isn't the one you may have lived through - rather, it's a melting digital vortex with all its contents slowly becoming one jumbled mess. Afar tapped into a similar space as recent M83 outing Junk, a type of sickly wax nostalgia that gives you this sort of Ghost in the Shell moment of questioning whether or not someone has played with your memories. It's warm tribute and haunting, disorienting deja vu all at the same time.

Where the "Pure Holiday" single may have operated in this same space, Kurt makes a conscious effort with Designs in Rhythm to move into more accessible waters. After all, in that 4 years in between, he's worked with quite a few artists, perfecting his production abilities and dialing in his own songwriting in the process. The new Ice Choir album doesn't slack on content - rather, the accessibility comes in the form of a more digestible sonic atmosphere. For example, not every song has fret-less bass (even though the fret-less bass on Afar is so good). On Designs, Feldman sounds less like he is trying to tribute a single snapshot and more like he's making smart 2016 pop with a selective sound palette. The work he's put in to make this happen without sacrificing content is evident - Designs is ever bit the pop record Afar was in terms of effect, without necessitating the imaginative context of the former.

The album kicks off proper (after the intro track) with "Unprepared", hands down the best Ice Choir single to date. Feldman's production here echoes the work he did for Kristin Kontrol, of course, with every emotive knob cranked to 11. Ice Choir's 80s is romanticized in every one of its aspects. It's like Flashdance and the boombox scene from Say Anything and Duckie in the rain from Pretty in Pink all playing at the same time on loop. Feldman's feeling of longing here is the most laborious and effervescent its been since Afar highlight "Teletrips". Side A continues through a glorious tour of 80s majesty, sometimes hinting at Tears for Fears levels of grandiose assembly and execution, and other times, pulling from the likes of the Outrun soundtrack on an open highway. The modern Ice Choir sound is best put on display between "Noosphering" and "Amorous in Your Absence". These two side B tracks put Feldman on display like a Christmas tree. Both tracks operate in totally different playgrounds sonically, the former being a more on-the-nose electro banger, and the latter being a massive Carly Rae Jepsen-worthy 80s pop joyride. Yet on both, it's Feldman's songwriting that guides the push and pull. It's songs like these that modernize the seductive deception of Afar tunes like "Vision of Hell, 1996" with ease.

There's a chance, even with Ice Choir's immense growth from the first record, that the sugary sweet pop glitter of Designs in Rhythm may still put the listener at an opposition. But with every return visit, Feldman's melting 80s world makes more sense. Sweetness isn't the goal, as much as it's the result of such a lush, euphoric love for synth-pop. Feldman sees no synthetic mountain he can't climb, and if he has his way, he'll shout the glories of the genre from the highest heights until his crystalline voice goes out like a light. As he does much work as a producer and collaborator, Feldman lets Ice Choir be his true playground, his place to show off what a truly boundless love for production and sparkling assembly can ascertain. With Designs in Rhythm, Feldman shows off shimmering sonic architecture that will win you over with equally saturated charm and technique. It's vibrant to a fault, and Feldman would have it no other way.

Designs in Rhythm is out now on Shelflife. Grab it on limited edition blue vinyl at your local record store, or online at the Shelflife store here. Kurt doesn't have any shows on the books right now, but check the Ice Choir website for emerging details.

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