I first heard this song on campus radio late one night in 1979 at Rochester Institute of Technology, where I was studying photography and living the Art House residence hall. In the next room — good buddy Steve “The Rockin’ Guru” Guy. It was my first year in school, my first year away from home, and a year of musical expansion and discovery like no other, thanks in no small part to the Guru next door. After taping the radio broadcast, I brought it over to Steve. One of the very few great pieces of music I got to before my musical guru all that first year.
Ice remains one of my favourite pieces of music and it’s seen me through a number of life transitions. As a result, it’s come to be associated with some of the more significant, often heart-wrenching moments of my life. There’s even an idea for a musical interlude in a film, a film which has never gotten much bigger than the interlude itself. But I sometimes play that out as I listen. Someday, there will be a film.
As for the music, it’s an instrumental piece highlighting the virtuosity of Andrew Latimer and Kit Watkins. Latimer is a founding member of the band, Camel, its lead guitarist and the song’s composer. He has a special talent for making a guitar “cry or sing”, as Mark Knoppfler would put it, but in my books he’s more noteworthy as an unsung hero of progressive rock, having composed perhaps the most completely realised and beautifully executed “concept” album of the genre, The Snow Goose. (I’ll get to that in another post.) Four years later, in 1979, the album I Can See Your House From Here would be released. It’s not a concept album — that era ended the same year with Pink Floyd’s release of The Wall, the last concept album worthy of note. House is an eclectic collection of songs, erratically uneven in quality, but Ice stands out as the exceptional piece.
Watkins came to Camel following the demise of Happy the Man, the fabled American prog quintet which has grown in status over the years (and just one of many bands Steve introduced). He was a central figure of HTM, both for his exquisite talent on the keyboards and his contributions to the group’s song catalog. He brought both these assets to Camel for just this one album, I Can See Your House From Here, and contributed only one song to it: Eye of the Storm, a beautiful instrumental piece he’d written for Happy the Man, but which had not yet appeared on an album. Interestingly, Eye is predominantly an interplay between Watkin’s keyboard and the bass of Colin Bass.
It’s interesting because Ice is, primarily, an interplay between the keys and acoustic guitar, and also an instrumental. It’s also long, over 10 minutes long, beginning and ending softly with weeping guitar while piano circles ’round it melodically. The piano builds from notes to intervals to chords and notes, weaving through the guitar until…a moment of silence. Then a crash introduces the main theme as guitar, keys, bass and percussion all hit the ground running at 1:38. What follows is a rhythm that follows and punctuates a meandering but purposeful melodic line rendered by keys and guitar in alternating foreground. When occupying that foreground, Watkins’ keys mirror Latimer’s guitar phrasing, bending notes and drawing them out into a fade, so they too cry and sing. In the end, it’s all Latimer as acoustic and electric guitars delicately resolve the pas de deux that had once been keys and electric.
Just plain divine.