"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno

Pitchfork AUGUST 6, 2004 - by Dominique Leone


Ambient is a spacious, electronic music that is concerned with sonic texture, not songwriting or composing, says The All-Music Guide. That seems reasonable, although I suspect Brian Eno might take issue with the notion that his music is somehow unconcerned with composition. As with most musical definitions (and music itself), perception is key; if it seems as if the composer was unconcerned with traditional methods of writing music, it becomes helpful to think of the music being similarly unconcerned.

Of course, that definition isn't helpful. Is ambient spacious? Not if you're in the way of one of Toshi Nakamura's hyper-compact sine waves. Is it electronic? Not if you listen to one of those old Ligeti micro-polyphonal pieces - or if you stick your head out of a window and listen to the wind and people and cars. Is it concerned with sonic texture? Absolutely, just as Britney Spears' producers are on Toxic. Is it unconcerned with songwriting? I suppose that depends on whether or not the composers are writing songs - and still more on whether or not you hear them as songs, or care one way or the other. Eno helped invent something, but it wasn't a form of music. At best, it was a form of music journalism, and a shortsighted one at that.

The Equatorial Stars is the third collaboration between Eno and Fripp, and the first in almost thirty years. Both men made their names not as experimental music technicians and academics, but as well-mannered revolutionaries in two of the most important bands of the 1970s. Eno's Roxy Music and Fripp's King Crimson - however far apart their eventual fanbases grew - were, at one time, two sides of the same coin. They offered art (with a small a) music to people who'd grown up believing Art (with a big one) had no place in rock 'n' roll. They offered art to a culture shown the finer things in life by The Beatles, Andy Warhol and J.D. Salinger, one that would fall in love with the notion that the only way to move on was to destroy the past and its idols. Fripp and Eno were not punks in usual sense, but they understood the best way to generate interest at the time was to ignore the past - especially the immediate past.

That said, their actual, physical innovations were few. Frippertronics, the recording method invented on 1973's No Pussyfooting, involved a tape-loop system wherein a single reel of tape is physically joined together at the ends and then run continuously between the outermost reels of two adjacent decks, the first of which records incoming sound and the second of which plays it back. Eno demonstrated this to Fripp, and the first recorded result was The Heavenly Music Corporation from No Pussyfooting - it is indeed the spacious, electronic music described in The All-Music Guide. Fripp took some pride in the unorthodox nature of this piece, and to his and Eno's credit, it didn't really sound like anything that had come before it. Whether or not that constitutes a new genre is debatable - especially because few (if any) other musicians have done much else with Frippertronics. Even Eno's ambient records, sharing much with earlier efforts by Germany's Cluster and Tangerine Dream, don't sound like his collaborations with Fripp.

Nor does The Equatorial Stars sound like No Pussyfooting or the pair's 1975 follow-up Evening Star. On the surface, it does nearly equal their effuse beauty, with airy synthesizer textures and hints of melody. However, its use of Frippertronics is subtler, and I don't hear the Zen-like simplicity of, say, Eno's Music For Airports, or the classical deconstruction of his Discreet Music. Instead, I hear cloudy, vague music, as if the pair invested too much in their own reviews over the years, believing ambience required a lack of planning or composition. Yet, I also hear an alien beauty, and real grace, the kind that only comes after years of succeeding, failing and succeeding again. And these pieces reveal themselves not when you are preoccupied - allowing the unobtrusive to fill in spaces where you need them, ignoring them elsewhere - but when you let them actively pilot daydreams. If ambient is supposed to be passive music, Fripp and Eno make something different. Perhaps passive/aggressive ambience, where we're given the impression that our minds could wander, but in reality we're being directed into varying degrees of mysticism.

The faintly glitchy Meissa (each song is named for a star) is melancholy and wet. Fripp's guitar outlines fragmented melodies, strung together only by the reverb that bathes the arrangement. He wanders into the lowest register of his instrument, only to wind his way upward again with the lackadaisical trajectory of a raindrop on glass, following the path of least resistance. He also sounds more straightforwardly pretty than I've heard from him in decades; recent bouts of metal fetishism with King Crimson haven't affected his ability to craft delicate, assured lines.

Eno's job is to provide the transparently lush backdrop, as he does better than practically anyone in the world. Here (and on the erotic impressionism of Lyra), he uses dim rhythmic elements, such as a loop of Fripp playing arpeggios, or a stuttering harmonic pinch, to simulate movement while major-chord synth drone hardens like skin on a dead pond, too far in the distance to suggest stasis. Yet when Eno provides straight beats, as on Altair, he threatens to turn the music into New Age. Fripp's atonal chord clusters that rise like breaking surf aren't enough to obscure the tentative, colorless funk beat and his own chicken scratch strum (a first?).

Several pieces are entirely devoid of rhythm, and are similar to the post-Eno/Cluster sound design of The Hafler Trio and Richard Chartier. Ankaa mixes sparse solo lines from Fripp with blurred, spacey synth textures and the occasional ebb of deep, bassy pull. Terebellum is less lush, but more engaging if only because it favors higher tones and more overt dissonance - compare with The Hafler Trio's Normally from this year for a study in extended tension. Eno's production is warmer than that of his younger, digitally trained descendents, and surprisingly consistent with his '70s efforts. I'd argue it is also less imaginatively detailed, but with this music, that isn't so much a crime as artistic license. Ultimately, The Equatorial Stars is direct, engaging and modestly unsettling. No context required.