by Ziggy Merritt
When I was still in college all of one year ago, I left behind a town that had one street full of activity and not much else apart from the university itself. By some stroke of mad fortune there were two record stores that managed to survive long enough for me to deplete their entire, if very limited, stock of post-punk vinyl. The best of these, as I would discover, was an enticing if overpriced vinyl that I purchased after being lured in by the new wave/post punk sticker that was proudly displayed on the dust sleeve. Enter The Icicle Works, a little known UK group who debuted their self-titled album on Beggars Banquet back in 1984 before fading into relative obscurity, minus a few sporadic live appearances, decades later.
Those unfamiliar might know them only for the two singles produced from this album. Both “Whisper to a Scream/Birds Fly” and “Love is a Wonderful Colour” broke into the UK top 40, but otherwise you’d be forgiven if any of the five albums the group produced flew under your radar. Though at times derivative of other similarly styled alternative acts such as Echo and the Bunnymen or The Chameleons, there is a charm unique to The Icicle Works’ debut that sets it apart from all the others they may have unconsciously imitated after having worked with Bunnymen producer Hugh Jones.
Originally comprised of lead vocalist and guitarist Ian McNabb, bassist Chris Layhe, and drummer Chris Sharrock, there’s more than enough talent present on their debut to make you wonder why they never had the breakout moment some of their contemporaries enjoyed. Opening up the US edition of the album, “Whisper to a Scream” is bursting with bass hooks, lively and diverse percussion, and the fresh new wave jangle provided by McNabb himself. It’s enough on its own to justify an album that takes turns at striving for something special but, as could be forgiven for any debut, falls short of that mark.
“In the Cauldron of Love” and “Nirvana” lend themselves more to the post-punk appeal that was promised on the album sleeve but fail to propel themselves past the laid-out template of the genre. “Lover’s Day” begins in a baffling fashion, with vague nods of faded and fuzzy psychedelic rock not at all helped by equally perplexing lyrics: “Tigers paw the velvet suite, Witness intellect and playfulness/Now they’re filed and obsolete.” Not to be outdone, “I’ll love you as a factory in the desert” from the aptly titled track “A Factory in the Desert” commits a somewhat worse offense than it’s immediate forebear.
All this taken in, the second half of the album pitches in a helping hand to the otherwise strong start that “Whisper to a Scream” promised. “Waterline” breaks into more of the feel-good jangle pop and sprightly bass while McNabb’s vocals find unstrained freedom on “Out of Season” and “Love is Another Colour.” The songwriting as well is noticeably tighter and far less prone to some of the more interesting liberties taken in the album’s first half.
Part of The Icicle Works diminished returns after their initial few albums could have come down to the rotating lineup that saw the exist of both Chris Layhe and Chris Sharrock who were nothing less than crucial to their debut’s understated promise. If anything the band’s very existence signifies the breadth of undiscovered gems hidden among the deep roots of new wave era post-punk.