New York Times NOVEMBER 12, 2012 - by Ben Ratliff


Is Brian Eno's ambient music pure bliss or pure tension? You can definitely hear it as tension - not so much music's usual tension of harmonic relationships, of development and resolution, but the listener's tension of taste and judgment, between recognising what is beautiful and what is vapid.

This is my problem, or yours, but probably not his, because Lux, his new album - his first ambient record in seven years - is complete in itself. It is killingly beautiful and doesn't do any more than it sets out to do, which is, in a sense, very little.

Since it doesn't set up traditional expectations, it won't receive traditional judgment. Do what you like with this record. Mr. Eno has been making what he calls ambient works off and on, between other projects, since the mid-'70s; they don't especially demand to be considered as a corpus, because they don't demand much of anything at all.

I first heard Ambient 1: Music For Airports thirty years ago. I liked it a little then, on the outer levels, and have found no reason to listen to it in the meantime. Hearing it again last week, I was surprised how well I remembered the sound of it, and even the melodic flow of the piano and voices, in all its vapidity. I like it more now, and I doubt I'll listen to it again for another thirty years. That's going to be O.K.

Lux was created as a commission to be heard in the Great Gallery at the Palace of Venaria, a reverberant space in Turin, Italy. It has only one seventy-five-minute track, with twelve sections. It consists of a multitracked keyboardist - that's Mr. Eno, though does it matter? - playing a fixed selection of notes around a tonal center, in varying or perhaps improvised orders, on various keyboards, in various long-decay note durations.

There are strings, too: Nell Catchpole, playing multitracked and interwoven long tones on violin, and the guitarist Leo Abrahams, subtly broaching your hearing through Mr. Eno's careful mixing and processing. You're pretty sure you're in a new section when the tonal center shifts. Otherwise, that's it: no development per se.

Lux can be background music, yes, especially for an activity you aren't invested in. It can be foreground music, too, perhaps, until you lose patience with it. Mr. Eno is interested in any means of perceiving music outside of how it is normally consumed: we tend to look for controlled narrative, clear hooks and signposts and signifiers, and some sort of emotional path to learn more about its creator, whereas he likes to suppose that none of this matters. He likes to talk and think about music as atmospheres or ecologies, rather than, oh, police states.

There are moments of tension in each section of Lux - possibly accidental in composition, probably intentional in postproduction. But these sounds are ravishing: piano notes rich in reverb and overtones with hail-drop hammer strikes and deep burgundy finishes, ice-pop synthesizer tones and, at points, a strangely distressed and chipped-up little sound, like air whistling through a keyhole, or a furious and quiet violin pizzicato. It's hard to tell if it's real or digital.

Despite the title, I don't think of light when I hear this music. I think of the motion of water, small and endlessly interlocking chains of wave formations in a bay. Maybe it's short for luxurious.