INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Boston Phoenix JULY 8, 2005 - by Ted Drozdowski
ROCK'S MINIMALIST MASTER
The expansive influence of Brian Eno.
Remember rock-and-roll family trees - the ones that appeared in programs for arena concerts or inside jackets of greatest-hits LPs or, sometimes, in glossy music magazines? They'd trace an artist's history or a band's from birth (the roots) to various groups (the trunk) to spin-off outfits, side projects, and related bands (the branches). Eric Clapton's, for example, might start with his upbringing in Ripley, Surrey, and go on to The Yardbirds, The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and his solo work, with branches for Fleetwood Mac stemming from The Bluesbreakers, The Baker-Gurvitz Army from Cream, and so on.
Mapping Brian Eno's career and sphere of influence would require an entire forest. From his first conceptual recording in 1965 - the slowed-down sound of a metal lamp stand being struck overdubbed with a friend reading a poem - to his new Another Day On Earth, he's had an amazing run as a composer, musician, producer, and sonic artist. Eno's résumé includes charter membership in 1970s art-rock outfits Roxy Music and its spin-off group 801. But after an artistic dispute with Roxy co-founder Bryan Ferry, he went solo and recorded his first minimalist pop gems, Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), both of which have just been reissued by Astralwerks/Virgin.
These oddball experimental-pop albums, with their defiance of conventional musical technique and appreciation of jolting energy, influenced a school of arty post-punk outfits who fell under the no wave umbrella - Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, DNA, The Contortions. The one-fingered keyboard line and barked vocal of Warm Jets' Baby's On Fire foreshadowed Eno's production of Devo's bare-boned 1978 debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!. But Eno's gift for surrounding his lyrics with woven layers of keyboard, guitar, and percussion stretched to odd tonalities by his affinity for electronic effects also torched creative bonfires for more-sophisticated pop outfits, from Japan in the late '70s to James in the late '90s.
Then came the tape-and-guitar duets No Pussyfooting and Evening Star with Robert Fripp, which laid the groundwork for the looping techniques that are such a large part of the current sound of techno, hip-hop, and pop. After a thirty-year break, Eno and Fripp reunited to release The Equatorial Stars earlier this year.
Along the way, Eno invented and codified a sound we've come to know as ambient, beginning with 1978's gently hypnotic Music For Films and continuing with Music For Airports (both also just reissued by Astralwerks/Virgin) and other microtonally evolving jewels. These albums played a role in defining the low-key aesthetic of new-age music and eventually influenced mainstream studio recordings.
As a producer, Eno has shaken the dust off major artists who've painted themselves into a creative corner, starting with David Bowie in 1977 with "Heroes" and continuing into the '80s with the Talking Heads' Remain In Light and U2's The Unforgettable Fire. He also launched a school of studio hit-making - marked by lush, reverbed, and experimental sounds - by taking on Daniel Lanois as his apprentice. Lanois absorbed the soft attenuation of Eno's ambient sonic techniques - careful recording with judicious use of electronic effects - while toiling on albums like Harold Budd's The Pearl under Eno's direction. Then he went on alone to apply what he'd learned to a stack of albums from Robbie Robertson's solo debut to Bob Dylan's daring Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind and Peter Gabriel's So. And he in turn took on the engineer Flood, who later brought the swirl of ambiance to PJ Harvey's masterpiece To Bring You My Love and has worked with Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode. Today when artists say they're looking for a sound like Lanois' or Flood's, they're really looking for Eno's. You could argue that since Sgt. Pepper nobody has had as challenging or complete a vision of rock's many possibilities.
Sixteen of Eno's earlier titles have just been reissued by Astralwerks/Virgin and Rykodisc. In light of that stack of CDs, which range from the hush of Music For Films to the primal charge of Warm Jets to the quirky post-industrial pop of Nerve Net, Another Day On Earth is Eno's great unifier. It's his first solo album that weds the warm sonics of his ambient recordings with his pop tunes. Whereas time and shifting passions have smoothed the rough edges that made Taking Tiger Mountain, Warm Jets, and even Nerve Net such throbbing attention getters, there's a mastery to Another Day On Earth that's equally appealing.
Although he tends to sing in little riddles (How many worlds will we ever see / How many people can we ever be / If we wake up, he asks in How Many Worlds), it's no mystery that Eno is aiming for pure beauty. In How Many Worlds, his voice is just another instrument, overdubbed and layered to a warm, musical sheen that slips into its place beside the keyboards and strings. And the title track, with its fascination for medium-size industrial beats and its shifting colors and rhythm patterns, is rhapsodic. Bottom Liners is a superb fusion of Eno's ambient and pop interests. He sings its fairy-tale lyric high and sweet and renders his voice into one more strand of the tune's melodic fabric by using electronics to make it inhuman, like a high-tech keyboard playing a sample. On Bone Bomb, he uses vocalist Aylie Cooke like a drum machine. Syllables get digitized and used as snare hits. She halts her way through an anti-war message, stopping at odd points to draw us farther into the music's dreamy swirl.
With its words and vocal lines employed as melodic and rhythmic tools, its guitars adding colorful Fripp-like melodies, and its keyboards painting sonic glue over everything, Another Day On Earth might seem a bit of a science project, but it's also gentle, often lulling pop. Eno's newest hooks aren't barbed the way they were back in the braying Baby's On Fire days - they're velvet-coated and slowly set. But once they sink in, they're as memorable as the best of his earlier work.
ROXY MUSIC: For Your Pleasure - Eno and Ferry perfected a sound that teetered between sophistication and protean punk on the second Roxy album in 1973. Along with their trash 'n' glam image, it paved the way for keyboard-based new romantics like Ultravox and perky goths like Siouxsie & The Banshees.
FRIPP & ENO: (No Pussyfooting) - The mystique of the loop begins with this obscure, influential album - the first collaboration between guitarist Fripp and Eno, who loops Fripp's playing with a pair of Revox tape recorders.
BRIAN ENO: Here Come The Warm Jets / Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) - Eno's early pop masterpieces, released in 1973 and 1974 respectively, sent tremors through rock's most creative quarters. Minimalism and texturalism suddenly became important concepts for songwriters.
Talking Heads: Remain In Light - On this 1980 masterpiece, Eno encouraged David Byrne's interest in funk and African music, applied his own textural approach, and pushed for a level of tangible excitement that only arrangements developed through rehearsals and improvisation could create.