At The Speed Of Life
Slipdisc / Mercury Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/28/1998
Back in November, when I reviewed Chicago-based Icos's debut release Incurable Contact, I predicted that they were destined for greatness if the right powers only gave them a chance.
With their second release At The Speed Of Life, Danny McGuinness and crew come that much closer to making my prophesy for them a reality - but in a sense, I wish they hadn't tried to create their own Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band this early in their career.
Their first disc with bassist Gordon Patriarca, Icos shows how much they need his style and technique in the band. (No slam meant against former bassist Jon Adler.) Gone are the few remnants of funk that could be found on Incurable Contact, and in their place are songs with solid development, both in rhythm and in riff. The title track lays out a groove that will give you a solid kick in the ass. Lead guitarist Scott Bond and drummer Kyle Woodring play a major role in creating this, as do McGuinness and Patriarca. McGuinness's vocals sound more relaxed than they did on the first album; he seems to have settled into his role as Icos's front man comfortably.
The whole first half of At The Speed Of Life could be seen as one album in and of itself. From the all-out rock of "Machine" to the groove-based "Down," Icos shows in these six songs they learned their lessons on Incurable Contact, and know what pitfalls to avoid. (I was fortunate enough to be sent a rough mix of two of the songs; I called Dave Trandell, who sent me the disc, and said, "Tell me that 'Down' is the leadoff single!" Well, Dave, I don't know if I could make up my mind as to which one it should be; these six songs are all so good!)
The second half of At The Speed Of Life is where many more chances are taken. Some work, some don't. Maybe it was the spirit of being in the legendary Abbey Road Studios that inspired them, maybe Icos wanted to knock down barriers between rock and pop that people had set up. Whatever the case, this is the most challenging part of the album to listen to, and is, all in all, rewarding.
The rich instrumentation, complete with orchestral strings on "On The Way" adds a special texture that Icos itself could not have created, and it does make the song special. However, following it up with another slower number like "Backwards" doesn't carry the one-two punch like the band would have hoped. Likewise, "Rhythm Song" is ambitious and should be commended for being so, but the balloon just doesn't get off the ground.
However, keeping in the slower, more powerful song vein like "Cities" off Incurable Contact, Icos uses slower, richer numbers to their benefit on cuts like "Jealous Prayer" and "Enough Words". While they might be hard-pressed to find a home on the radio, fans of the band should enjoy this musical growth that Icos has experienced in less than one year.
The album's closer, "I Am," is akin to the Beatles working sitar into their songs, only this time it's Patriarca playing a mandocello as the main instrumentation. It's a definite experiment that's meant to be taken at face value, and is intriguing to listen to.
Some people may see some of the richer instrumentation as pompous; I prefer to look at it as serious musical growth for Icos. It takes guts to move away from a standard formula that you know works and try to better yourself as a musician and a songwriter. In this case, it was a gamble worth taking.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Icos is a band that, given the right breaks, will be a huge name in the field of rock and roll. On At The Speed Of Life, Icos demonstrates that the rock world might not be big enough for them.