INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork JULY 2, 2014 - by Mark Richardson
BRIAN ENO/KARL HYDE: HIGH LIFE
In 2010, the announcement that Brian Eno had signed to Warp Records was an event. His decades-long history of groundbreaking electronic music had a lot to do with Warp even existing at all, so the fact he was going to be working with the imprint known for taking the torch in the 1990s and 2000s brought dreams of great things. Lost in the excitement was the memory that Eno had for a number of years been making low-key records that made little impact outside of his cult. Another Day On Earth from 2005, his first song-based solo album in many years, had some memorable songs, and his 2008 pairing with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, found an audience. But '90s and '00s instrumental releases like Drawn From Life, The Drop, Neroli, and The Shutov Assembly didn't come close to entering his canon. The Warp signing obscured the fact that Eno always had more than his share of uneven records, in part because he's never been the sort of artist interested in perfection. So the fact that four of the records and collaborations released on Warp have ranged from a lovely retread of familiar ground (2012's Lux) to eminently forgettable collaborations (the two records with poet Rick Holland, and the first with Underworld's Karl Hyde) should surprise nobody.
High Life, though, is a genuine surprise. As the second meeting between Eno and Hyde in the last four months, it would have been reasonable to expect outtakes, another set of OK half-songs to accompany the ones released earlier this year. But High Life - recorded in just five days, with much of it played and processed live - is something else altogether. This is Eno's best vocal album in twenty-five years, since his 1990 collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up. It's interesting to go back that far because High Life has a few things in common with that record, most prominently the elements inspired by pop music from the African continent. Yes, this is a recurring obsession of Eno's, dating back at least to his first co-billed collaboration with David Byrne, 1981's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. But on High Life it's again made explicit, from the title (Highlife is a broad genre of jazz-inflected West African pop music that emerged late in the last century) on down.
That said, many of the references are less musical and more textural, and guitars are the first thing you notice. The opening Return is nine minutes of drone-guitar bliss, as Karl Hyde strums two chords furiously with the sort of pinched, trebly, delay-heavy tone that evokes both West African styles and the Edge circa The Unforgettable Fire. The tension of pivoting between those two chords without resolution is softened by Eno's voice, which he layers into sturdy central melody softened by billowing harmonies. It's the kind of blindingly simple thing that nobody does better than Eno, and it points to why this record towers over much of his recent output - it sounds analog, like people in a room playing who could make mistakes. Despite his technological pedigree, Eno has always been most inspired by the place where abstract mathematics meet the messiness of nature. His earlier collaborative efforts on Warp, as well as Small Craft On A Milk Sea, felt like records where meaning was carved from endless possibility; High Life shows how much more he can wring out of just a handful of ideas.
If I'm leaning heavily toward Eno's contributions here, it's because so many of his songwriting and production signatures are in the foreground. Hyde is the guitarist throughout the record, but Eno's fingerprints are all over his approach. DBF is a relatively upbeat track with a chicken scratch-funk feel that makes me think of Talking Heads' Born Under Punches, while the slow and dreamy line in Time To Waste It brings to mind an '80s interpretation of King Sunny Ade. But we're talking about something more than just a collection of global music signifiers here - influences are stripped down, transformed, and often turned into something disorienting and strange through Eno's processing. Time To Waste It has pinched, warped, and ultimately very weird vocals of uncertain origin which seem to be singing lead from different songs with each new line. Lilac's overlapping guitar lines have the frenetic pulse of classical minimalism, with odd bleeps and squawks mixing in with the chords, and they're contrasted with the richly harmonised vocals, which remind us how in tune he is with the pure joy of singing.
That big-hearted spirit is embedded into the record as a whole. I count one dud among the six tracks, the just-OK Moulded Life, which has some nice sounds but feels a bit like processing-for-processing's-sake. But that is more than redeemed by the elegiac closer Cells & Bells, where grinding Fennesz-like electronics are set against a mass of voices singing a dark but faintly hopeful prayer. It's a moving end to a startling and inspiring record. Eno's been involved with quite a few of those in the past, but it's especially nice to experience a new one that reaches us in the present moment.