Faster Louder NOVEMBER 17, 2010 - by Dominic Amerena


The cover for Brian Eno's new album Small Craft On A Milk Sea shows a sepia tinged landscape, a swirl of space that recedes into the horizon like an alien sea and the sky. It is a perfect encapsulation of the music inside.

In one way or another Brian Eno's music has always been about exploration. During a career spanning four decades Brian Eno has invented and reinvented himself from glam rocker to ambient pioneer to pop producer to self-described "non-musician". Though the sound may have changed, his body of work has consistently challenged the rules of genre, of form, of the relationship between musician and listener.

Small Craft On A Milk Sea is Eno's first album for Warp (a label known for distribution of similarly cerebral electronic artists like Aphex Twin and Flying Lotus), and it's probably his best record in twenty years.

Compiled from a number of sessions with guitarist Leo Abrahams and keyboardist Jon Hopkins, as well as material recorded by Eno for Peter Jackson's film The Lovely Bones, Small Craft is a wordless, shimmering, beautiful thing.

It's always hard to try to objectively describe the qualities of ambient music (a genre that is by definition shapeless and subjective) but the spaces that Eno creates over the relatively brief (in comparison to his previous work) fifteen tracks are wonderfully realised, chock full of the aural detail and subtle emotion that we have come to expect from the man who pretty much invented the genre back in 1978.

The album is superbly sequenced, presenting soundscapes that teeter from soothing to seething, from the somnolent to the dramatic. It begins with the ghostly Emerald And Lime, with plangent piano figure and glacial builds that recall 1/1, the seventeen-minute centrepiece from Eno's seminal Ambient 1: Music For Airports, and amazingly, its sparse instrumentation and haunting chord change are just as affecting.

Elsewhere, tracks like Complex Heaven and Calcium Needles with their swirling atmospherics, teardrop piano lines and poised, vaguely threatening guitars are more reminiscent of the dense, unresolved compositions of Eno's 1982 masterpiece Ambient 4: On Land.

And in amongst the ambience lie the more dynamic tracks like 2 Forms Of Anger. Built around a cacophony of industrial noise and pummelling drums it is an aural assault, a cathartic release of unbridled energy, and is nothing quite like Eno has ever attempted before.

Of course there are a few missteps, particularly in the middle of the album. Palesonic and Dust Shuffle are aimless, repetitive assemblies of grating loops and squalling guitars, while the sticky bass lines and keyboard arpeggios of Bone Jump are just downright cheesy. Small quibbles though as all is forgotten by the time the frigid bliss of Slow Ice, Old Moon appears, and from there the album is pretty well flawless.

For any listener familiar with Eno's best ambient work, the textures and compositions of Small Craft On A Milk Sea are nothing new. But that is precisely the album's greatest strength; it's familiarity. Despite the obvious nods to his past work, This is not a retread, it's a crystallisation, of the style and form of a genre that Brian Eno created, and it is a worthy addition to his enviable catalogue.