New Musical Express FEBRUARY 14, 1981 - by Angus MacKinnon


As we all know by now, conceptualists like Brian Eno tend over the years to acquire a rather exaggerated idea of the importance of their work and its implications. They're also liable to mask often self-evident methods and first principles in obscure jargon, and would have us believe that their position as thinking persons and arbiters of empiricism in a field that's not exactly renowned for its intellectual aspirations is somehow impregnable.

It isn't of course, as was amply demonstrated by the manifest absurdity of Eno's breathless announcement last year that he had 'discovered' Africa and ethnic music. Good God, anyone would think that both were vast unknowns just patiently waiting for Eno and his impressionable fellow-traveller, chief Talking Head David Byrne, to stumble upon them like intrepid latterday Livingstones.

You really begin to wonder. Is Eno aware of the fact that rock as we know it wouldn't even exist but for Afro-American music? Has he ever troubled to listen closely to Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane or indeed any of the countless black musicians who've been perfectly well aware of the significance of their cultural heritage for generations? Evidently not...

Such condescension defies belief.

The second leg of Eno and Byrne's journey to the heart of the Dark Continent to be released - the first was the Heads' Remain In Light - My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is no exception to the prevailing conceptual rule.

The title, we're told, comes from a novel by Amos Tutuola, and the inscrutable, quite possibly meaningless cover design from an Eno video. Assisted by various players from a pool of two drummers, three bassists and six percussionists, Eno and Byrne add drums, basses and percussion too; also synthesizers, guitars and "found objects" (whatever they are). Someone ekse contributes "click bass" to one track. Yes, it's that sort of album: very enigmatic and terribly pleased with itself and its own erudition.

So what lies behind such enticing titles as Mea Culpa, Regiment, The Jezebel Spirit, Qu'ran, The Carrier and A Secret Life. Not a lot. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts comprises eleven rhythm tracks or tone poems recorded over fourteen months in five American studios. Ten of the total are in some way or another synchronised to 'voices': either fragments of heated chat-show conversation, evangelism and, in one case, on-the-air exorcising culled from US radio or pre-recorded examples of ethnic singing and chanting from as far afield as Egypt, the Lebanon, Algeria and Georgia, USA.

Since most of these voices have obviously religious overtones - they range from those of American fundamentalists to orthodox Muslims - some great Statement, some underlying and unifying Concept is presumably intended. Quite what it might be I've little interest in finding out after hearing the album.

Musically, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is unexceptional. Anyone familiar with the last two Talking Heads albums, Eno's Another Green World, Music For Films and Before And After Science and his work with Cluster will know exactly what to expect.

And what you expect is what you get: long lines of electronic melody suspended with or without the support of mutant 'funk' riffing; clipped or Fripped guitars; a surfeit of abstract 'white' sounds; lots of vari-speed or treated-tape effects; clattering and clanking percussion of all shapes and sizes, etc, etc - in other words, pretty much your standard ethno-industrial workout, although A Certain ratio managed to say a lot more of the same in a lot less space on their recent Blown Away/And Then Again/Light 12".

As for the voices and a good deal of the music, both Can and their ex-bassist Holger Czukay have been here and back several times already; Max Bell wasn't alone in thinking that much of Remain In Light sounds suspiciously like Can's Soon Over Babaluma.

It's not so much what Eno and Byrne are trying to do that galls, but the gloss they put on it all. The album is so earnest. It might as well have been a purely academic exercise. (Perhaps it was.) When Can had a mind to pass the ethnic plate, they did so tongues firmly in cheek, numbering the results as parts of their E.F.S. or Ethnological Forgery Series. Of course the music was contrived - this was openly admitted - but it hardly seemed to matter, especially since it often succeeded in sounding genuinely ethnic and/or exotic.

Similarly, Czukay was filtering tapes of ethnic music into Can live performances back in 1977; the results can be heard on record on Saw Delight. Then he left the band to develop these and other associated techniques to a very sophisticated degree, the proof on which may be explored on his Movies album.

In fact Movies is the test card. On it Czukay used pre-recorded voices and dialogue from such sources as radio, television and vintage film far more interestingly, amusingly and at times disturbingly than Eno and Byrne can manage here. He aslo succeeded in creating a delicate and compellingly beautiful musical framework around the singing of an Iranian pet he'd intercepted one night on short-wave radio - and Czukay's Persian Love makes a nonsense of the four attempts by Eno and Byrne to do something similar on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

How so? Because Czukay's song was genuinely thrilled with itself, whereas its equivalents here lack any air of sudden, surprising, excited or exciting discovery; they sound merely calculated, as if Eno and Byrne just dutifully played through some ethnic records and then chose what to extract from them.

Czukay's work somehow manages to consciously combine intuition and intellect without threatening its own integrity or that of the various outside sources on which it draws. On this evidence, Eno and Byrne seem unable to achieve this balance (which was, after all, what Eno himself was on about with his Oblique Strategies).

If My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts lacks anything in large degree, it's feeling. There's no sense of resonance here, no strangeness, wonderment or mystery, no real consideration for, or understanding of, the subject matter at hand. And the absence of these qualities almost invalidates the whole exercise, reduces it to not much more than just another cautionary example of failed rock conceptualism.

Why not loosen up a bit, you two? Don't think so much for a start - and don't look so long before you leap.