INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The 405 NOVEMBER 19, 2018 - by Chase McMullen
WITH ON LAND, BRIAN ENO CHALLENGED AN ARTFORM HE'D PERFECTED
...AND OFFERED PERHAPS HIS GREATEST AMBIENT MASTERPIECE
To celebrate this past Friday's reissue of four ambient classics from Brian Eno's vast discography, The 405 is proud to present a reflection on each album. Read on for words on perhaps the boldest (and eeriest) of them all, On Land.
So you're going to write about On Land.
How does one do that? In 2018, no less. If that little helpful paperclip was still a thing, he'd have sat this one out.
As I (and, surely, thousands of writers and listeners) am fond of saying, if Brian Eno didn't invent ambient, he sure as hell perfected it. His legacy is so cemented that discussing it is nearly a futile exercise. Nonetheless, it's worth fully appreciating this simple fact: as if defining the genre with 1978's Music For Airports wasn't enough, just four short years later, he would turn it on its head.
Where Airports was serene, On Land was almost frightened; where Airports was focused, it was uncertain. For those that immediately connected with, and even defined ambient as "relaxation music", On Land was anything but. With one record, Eno challenged his audience's perceptions of a still fledgling movement, and challenged his own.
In fact, during its recording, he grew frustrated with the synthesizer-based approached so pivotal up until its creation. Above all else, ever a curious mind, Eno simply wanted to do more. For nearly any artist in history, crafting so truly essential an artistic statement as Music For Airports would have been enough to base a career-long obsession upon. For Eno, it was just another step along the way. As he (quietly, of course) shook the foundations of his own creation, it resulted in the single finest ambient statement of his career.
Often inspired by real world locations, as the album's name rather bluntly states, never before had Eno's work dug so deeply into the earth. Where Airports seemed to float, On Land very much trudged. While he'd grow restless again, and ascend even further (more literally speaking, in this case) into space the very next year with Apollo, for a brilliant, fleeting moment, Brian Eno was as deeply connected to the world around him as the afrobeat music he held in such esteem.
Never before, and perhaps never since, had Eno's music so readily evoked a feeling of place. The Lost Day creates a bracing impression of the sea at night, perhaps from a chilly dock, the distant fishing ships chiming in the distance. A world away, Unfamiliar Wind (Leek Hills), with its chirping and cackling wildlife, gives the sense of being eerily, bracingly lost in a dense wilderness, a place seemingly too beautiful for our world.
Naturally, that's what these ears hear, and where this mind goes; as ever, Eno's ambient brilliance derives from a sense that it just might be anything, to anyone, while somehow retaining a deep sense of personal significance. On Land speaks to all of us, yet ever feels like it's directed only at you.
To create such a personal landscape, Eno delved into new techniques, from the electronic to the acoustic, also displaying a ready willingness to seek inspiration and sound from whatever created a more-realized sonic palette, whether links of chain or literally the earth itself, via sticks and stones and recordings of animal life. Moments of the record, such as Tal Coat, genuinely bubble out at you.
Perhaps most essentially, and, for the time, most boldly, Eno began to disassemble his own work, reaching back into his past ambient recordings, gathering outtakes and collected bits from past sessions, and twisting them into something altogether new and even alien. What might have been auditory refuse was repurposed - as Eno would put it, "composted" - into a masterpiece all its own.
With On Land, Eno challenged the growing movement he himself had begun. Temporarily impatient with the "pastoral prettiness" he'd helped define, he layered his trademark soft beauty with an ominous sense of disturbance. Having allowed for a perfectly placid pool, Brian Eno tossed a stone in the middle, and, as the splash settled, arranged the interruption into intriguing ripples on an only recently established sound. For as much of a monolith as Music For Airports was, and will always remain, no album presented a greater challenge to the development of ambient than an album from the man who established its norms to begin with.
As younger minds discovered (and continue to discover) his sonic universe, perhaps no album more than On Land opens the mind up to the nebulous, deceptively ambiguous, possibilities of playing within an ambient landscape. Beneath the beauty, beneath the serenity, an entire, churning, frayed, and nervous world lurks within On Land. Whether just discovering it, or traversing and further exploring its numerous, shadowy nooks and crannies for the hundredth time, the album will never cease to absorb, unsettle, and astound.