Monday, April 25, 2011

No Need for a New Wheel

I’m always excited when a long lasting and long time favorite artist comes out with something new. With some artists (no names here) there’s the inevitable worry that said release is just another late career attempt at staying relevant or simply cashing in or whatever. But really, I try to keep faith in older artists, with the thought that a creative mind once can be so again.

A stigma on many artists once they’ve hit the 10 year mark (or less) is that their new work is invariably compared to their “classic” output. That’s fair enough and only natural, but at the same time it’s often not fair. An artist must mature and grow or they simply stagnate. Sometimes the directions taken aren’t obvious or favorable, but the listener should try and appreciate the integrity of those decisions. (And even as I say this, I can think of loads of bad reasons to change a sound, but I’m pretending like it’s a perfect world where all musicians choose art over money, etc.)

With Brian Eno I never have that worry. And while I may not readily enjoy (and certainly don’t own) everything he comes out with, I can always appreciate whatever it is he’s doing (and with whomever) at the time.

Eno gets the “older stuff” bone thrown at him a lot, with critics (and fans?) expecting the second coming of Another Green World, Discreet Music or Apollo (to name but a few of his earlier classics). There’s a lot of “pressure” on him because, for all intents and purposes, Brian Eno (aka Brain One) is the godfather of ambient music and has broken much of the once fallow ground in the fields of experimental and electronic music, especially in regards to instrument manipulation and the creation of broad sound palates. (I think I know what I’m talking about here.)

Basically, he’s expected to reinvent the wheel with each new outing.

This is ridiculous, of course, and while many of his early albums have separate sounds and voices of their own, they also carry a unique personality that is distinctly Eno, with many of the same traits, tricks and mysterious studio magic he is so infamous for. And this can be said about many worthwhile artists from Bob Dylan to the Cure. (I’ll bet you that pairing will never happen again.) Just because an artist further explores already treaded (but not necessarily charted) territories, doesn’t make that release any less meaningful, significant or, where it really matters, enjoyable.

Eno got a bit of this lash from critics with his last proper solo release, his first foray in years into “pop” music, 2005’s Another Day on Earth. The basic idea seemed to be that it was adequate but uninspiring. Rubbish. It was fantastic, and while it may not have blown down any genre walls, it certainly proved that the creative juices were still flowing and quite potent, and I’ll honestly take it over Here Come the Warm Jets or Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). So take that, classic Eno.

Not that Eno pays attention to such things. He is a true artist focused on what he’s doing at the time and then moving to the next project. He certainly doesn’t care that I thought his latest collaboration with David Byrne was “nice but boring,” and likely (as with so many things out there) I will find the moment when that album hits me in the head like a hammer and then wonder why I didn’t “get it” the first time. (And no, I did not compare it to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, because frankly, how could you?)

With that said, enter his latest release, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, a collaboration with producer/composer Leo Abrahams and electronic musician Jon Hopkins (whose soundtrack for the 2010 indie flick Monsters, fyi, is awesome).

As with most Eno releases of the past 25 or so years, Small Craft on a Milk Sea has received mixed and often muddled reviews. Depending on the source will depend on how seriously I take either, and I’m not here to dissect them. I’m not even sure why I even mention it, maybe I was making a point. Or missing one.

Anyway, this album is basically broken down into three categories:

• Quiet, melodic vignettes
• Loud, atonal rhythm workouts
• Lush, atmospheric soundscapes

Of these, the second area is where he’s dabbled the least, and most notably during his 70s krautrock stints with Cluster, et al, so provides a bit more of a “new roll” if you will. 2 Forms of Anger is especially effective, punching out of the speakers like a race horse through the gate and building up layered intensity until everything ends with a rush of silence. The immediate follow up, Bone Jump, is a retro post-funk workout that would play nicely during the bizarre dream sequence of say a Dario Argento flick. And while there are the known elements of house and acid thrown in (Flint March, Horse), they are indelibly passed through the Brian Eno filter, with arcs of noise and planes of sheer sound uncovering near-melodic nuances your typical club DJ would never notice.

Meanwhile, the first and last bits will be the most familiar to fans of Eno’s work, and are excellent examples in both categories. This is simply pleasant and well-executed sound sculpting as only Eno and friends can provide it, touching back to albums like Music for Films, some of the Ambient series or his outings with Robert Fripp. There are moments of touching beauty and great, open distance, always harnessed and coalesced by the gentle, guiding hand of the master. Opening track Emerald and Lime creates the perfect platform launch with the floating sense of leaving on a voyage, encountering adventures both pleasurable and tremulous along the way and arriving at last in the twinkling star ether of Late Anthropocene, safe but mindfully stirred.

Basically, where you’re being taken, they don’t need wheels.

All metaphors aside, there’s nothing really earth shattering going on here – unless you just like to be blown away by good music. I’m not saying you’ve “heard all of this before,” I’m just saying that these things have been done before, possibly better, definitely worse, but the end result is a meaningful, adventurous and highly enjoyable offering from one of contemporary music’s foremost (non) musicians.

But of course all of you Eno fans already know this.

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