Echoes And Dust DECEMBER 17, 2014 - by Chris McGarel


Brian Eno famously dubbed himself a 'non-musician' to distance himself from the virtuosic excesses of rock performers. His huge body of recorded work has been a more cerebral endeavour, he admits, "None of my skills are manual, they're not to do with manipulation in that sense, they're more to do with ingenuity". It is that ingenuity, not being in thrall to the muscle memory of an instrumentalist but having to freedom to record directly from his imagination that gives his output such broad scope and variety.

To illustrate this, three of these four reissues were originally released in the narrow 1992-93 time frame and yet have virtually nothing in common from a stylistic viewpoint, or indeed from a functional viewpoint; they require very different listening environments and place different demands (or in one case absolutely no demand) on the listener.

Nerve Net can superficially be summed up as one of the earliest examples of 'Intelligent Dance Music'. Its percussion loops and funky basslines would seem to put it in that camp but there is a sophistication and avant-garde sensibility that could not have come from the clubbing scene alone. Tracks like Wire Shock and What Actually Happened? groove along like Miles Davis's electric bands, featuring the wonderfully named 'squirt drum' and 'kit squelch', interjected with sporadic splashes of colour from Eno's palette. Erstwhile collaborator Robert Fripp guests on several tracks including a corrosive and coruscating burst of activity on Distributed Being which rivals his legendary lead on 1973's Baby's On Fire.

If you don't already own Nerve Net then this reissue is the perfect opportunity to remedy that. If you do already own it then buy it anyway as the bonus disc is the 'lost' album My Squelchy Life - only available in bootleg form before now, although a handful of tracks were included in the long-deleted Vocal box collection. These are no studio outtakes or cutting-room floor detritus; they spotlight Brian's distinctive vocals, recalling the songwriting style of his classic albums Another Green World and Before And After Science. Again Fripp aids and abets - his atonal chords on I Fall Up hark back to Bowie's Scary Monsters sessions. Tutti Forgetti is almost prophetic: its tribal beats and non-sensical stream-of-consciousness lyrics foretell the commercial breakthrough of Underworld and Eno's own future collaborations with Karl Hyde. Nerve Net/My Squelchy Life is the jewel in the crown of these reissues and is essential for those even remotely interested in esoteric electronica.

The Shutov Assembly is a collection of ambient pieces recorded between 1985 and 1990 and assembled for the Russian artist Sergei Shutov who used Eno's music as backdrop to his creative process but had difficulty obtaining the recordings under communism. Each track was a previously unreleased piece from audio-visual installations around the globe and is named according to those locations. The collection is similar in style to the seminal Ambient series; sparse piano recalls Music For Airports while synth washes are redolent of On Land. The bonus disc is the soundtrack to the experimental multimedia project 77 Million Paintings. It is less ambient in nature than its host album. Ethnic percussion on Storm and Rendition will please fans of the David Byrne collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Although Robert Fripp does not appear his ghost certainly haunts the intervals used in Storm.

1993's Neroli is an hour-long ambient piece subtitled Thinking Music, Part IV. This is ambient music in the original sense Eno intended, discreet music that can energise a space without demanding attention. There is no narrative thread to the composition, it simply is, something the musicologist Eric Tamm dubbed 'the vertical color of sound': "Much of Eno's music is constructed on a vertical basis: to a great extent, it is music concerned with the sheer colour of sound, rather than with the linear (horizontal) growth of melodies". This reissue is accompanied by an hour-long drone piece, New Space Music, which is fuller in sound, an organically shifting mass; to use Tamm's analogy it is purple to the first disc's orange.

When The Drop was first released in 1997 it was to little fanfare. The CD packaging was minimal, almost self-effacing, which may have contributed to the music going largely unnoticed. This is a real shame and the reissue calls for its reappraisal. Take the album's jazzy beats, synth bass and its manufactured lo-fi lack of sheen, slap an Aphex Twin sticker on the case and hipsters the world over would be hailing this as a masterpiece. I mean no disrespect to Mr. James but The Drop certainly sits comfortably within his soundworld. Once again the bonus material is far from extraneous. The propensity towards more prominent bass on the extras means you can play the slap-a-Squarepusher-sticker-on-the-case game and nobody would bat a eyelid. To get an idea what this music sounds like, the slightly unsettling, alien feel of The Drop would make any of these pieces the perfect accompaniment to Chris Morris's Blue Jam radio series (indeed Morris used Pierre In Mist from Nerve Net for Channel 4's Brass Eye).

Rarely do reissues contain such a vast treasure trove of bonus material that is not just a collection of curios to be played once and never thought of again - these extras effectively double the length of the original releases and are every bit as essential. If you're curious to dip your toe into the world of Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno then there are few better starting points than Nerve Net/My Squelchy Life. Add to this the extensive interviews and revamped packaging and all reissues should aspire to the quality of these sets.