Cowbell JULY 2011 - by Brian Baker


Only Brian Eno could create music that is simultaneously apart from its time, mind-bendingly new and yet utterly timeless.

Is it mere coincidence that the mysterious Roswell, New Mexico, crash occurred in the summer of 1947 and Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno was born in the spring of 1948? Given his astonishing accomplishments over his nearly forty-year career - including his groundbreaking work as a member of Roxy Music and as a producer/collaborator with david Bowie, Devo, U2, Talking Heads, Genesis and dozens of others, his singular solo efforts, his development of an entirely new genre of music, his uncanny ability to foresee new musical directions years ahead of prevailing trends - it often seems as though Eno is precisely described by the title of his recently released biography DVD: The Man Who Fell To Earth

Based on his earliest works as well as his most recent output - last year's gorgeous Small Craft On A Milk Sea and his just released collaboration with wordsmith Rick Holland, Drums Between The Bells - it's not difficult to imagine Eno being teleported from some parallel reality like a hyper-creative avant garde Mr. Bean, a man out of his time, advanced just enough beyond mere mortals to be frustratingly misunderstood and disdainfully bored with trying to entertain our primitive sensibilities.

Eno established his pattern early in his post-Roxy career. His first four brilliant albums - Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World, Before And After Science - were wildly original extrapolations of contemporary pop/rock conventions, and he could very easily have spent the next three-and-a-half decades reinventing that four-spoked wheel without an iota of artistic evolution and still have maintained a loyal, healthy fan-base.

The problem with that scenario is Eno isn't wired for repetition, at least not in the work-ethic sense. His creative ADD is fuelled by an antsy restlessness as constant as the tides, and he has an almost survivalist need to move on musically. Starting with his radical art school education and continuing with his short but influential stint with Roxy Music, his otherworldly experimentation with Robert Fripp on No Pussyfooting, his solo excursions, his free-ranging work with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, the Ayers/Cale/Nico/Eno performance and many others, Eno's modus operandi has been relatively the same; create and adopt a shockingly new paradigm, abandon it almost immediately in favour of some other exquisitely original direction, blowing a good many minds in the process, then repeat. And even as his methodology has remained consistent, Eno's results have always been uniquely different, from his musical peer group and even from himself.

Eno's tools are as sharp as the contents of a surgeon's tray; an engineer's understanding of technology, an artist's empathy for the ghost's role in the machine, and a literal and figurative vocabulary that is erudite and surreal and nonsensical and poetic. Beyond the Rube Goldbergian electronics that actualise his conceptual visions, perhaps Eno's most fascinating studio device is his Oblique Strategies cards, a tarot-esque deck containing nin-linear and random advice designed to advance a stalled project or enliven one that has gone moribund; example include "Abandon normal instruments", "Disconnect from desire", "Turn it upside down" and the first in the series, inspired by co-creator/painter Peter Schmidt, "Honour thy error as a hidden intention".

Eno's longest-lasting sonic obsession may well stand as his greatest and most influential contribution to the musical landscape; identifying and shaping a new genre of music he dubbed "ambient". Ambient music was born in Eno's mind after a run-in with a cab sent him to the hospital, and an old girlfriend Judy Nylon stopped by with an album of harp music to occupy him during his convalescence. Eno accidentally set his record player's volume below a conscious listening level and, perhaps further enlightened by his own Oblique Strategies ("Listen to the quiet voice", "Remember those quiet evenings") and the competing sound of rain against his window, he envisioned a style of music designed to operate at both subliminal and conscious levels.

In its most elemental definition, ambient music was Eno's attempt to craft sound that would enhance one's environment without necessarily drawing attention to itself as a sonic focal point. Some quiet instrumental music, like Windham Hill's output, was deemed "aural wallpaper" by some critics but it was often more forceful, actively meditative and overly pretty. Eno's intention was for ambient music to draw on the melancholy melodicism that had always informed his work, while drifting in and out of focus as attentions within the given atmosphere waxed and waned.

Of course, Eno didn't invent the idea. At the turn of the twentieth century, Erik Satie had conceived an environmental approach that he christened "furniture music", and Eno drew plenty of inspiration from the like-minded minimalists like John cage (whose use of the I Ching informed Eno's development of Oblique Strategies), Steve Reich, the German electronic movement that came to be known as Krautrock, and Terry Riley, particularly his groundbreaking album A Rainbow In Curved Air. But like everything Eno has absorbed and reiterated over the course of his astonishing career, even though he was standing on the shoulders of giants, he was calculating new and breathtakingly singular formulas and paths with old inspirations - his ten-album series on his own Obscure label highlighting avant composers like Michael Nyman, Harold Budd and Gavin Bryars remains an impressive and courageous example of using one's fame to open doors for like-minded artists - and marking them with the indelible stamp of his own incomprehensible capabilities.

Certainly all of this would have easily cemented Eno's reputation as an avant garde provocateur with a relatively cultish profile but his work behind the console for the creative collaborations with Devo, Talking Heads and U2 thrust him into the rarefied air of superstardom. And although he has increasingly shied away from publicity and the trappings of fame that have been inflicted upon him, Eno has exploited that fame by making music precisely the way he wants it to be, with no fear of label interference or disdain because his reputation transcends the need to move units or impress suits.

Amazingly but not surprisingly, Eno's relevance continues to compound in the new millennium. he's earned production gigs with Coldplay and, once again, U2, returned to team up once more with david Byrne (the ecstatic Everything That Happens Will Happen Today), scored Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones and, with Small Craft On A Milk Sea and Drums Between The Bells, proved beyond a doubt that he is still perfectly adept at assembling fantastic pop albums in his own image, while concocting exquisitely experimental works without compromising the artistic integrity of either endeavour. It is no idle wish to hope that Brian Eno sticks around to influence and educate the next generation; it is nothing less than music's best possible chance for a bright, engaging and inventive future.