The Observer JANUARY 1, 2017 - by Kitty Empire


The ambient overlord returns with a magnificently peaceful album - which is also released in an edition that endlessly rewrites itself.

"All is quiet on New Year's Day," U2 once sang. That was in 1983, before they became clients of Brian Eno - and, arguably, the last time anyone had any peace on the first day of the year. New Year's Eve raves routinely spill over into the next evening. The ceaseless chirrup of social media precludes silence.

Into this clamour lands Reflection, the latest ambient work by Eno, the Roxy Music maverick who named this new genre in 1978 with Music For Airports, and whose cultural reach now spans the avant garde, Coldplay albums and generative apps. If your idea of an album is twelve or so tunes, Eno routinely bucks that set of strictures, even if his last album, The Ship - released last April - cleaved closer than most to tradition.

Here, the one track unfurls very gradually over fifty-four minutes (and one second), its thrums and oscillations reverberating at a pace you might call glacial if the glaciers weren't all melting in such a hurry. At seven minutes in, the tones gather momentum. At twenty-one minutes, there's something like the twitter of an electronic bird. It gets going again at the forty-seven-minute mark, when the bell-like nuances once again turn up a notch.

The overall effect is deeply, magnificently peaceful, meditative, even; ambient certainly monopolises certain sections of the thesaurus. Naysayers may liken ambient music to watching paint dry, but this is paint drying on a Mark Rothko canvas. The harder you tune in, the more there is to notice, the more you let it wash over you, the more it sucks you in to reveal internal structures.

Throughout his long career, Eno has tinkered with gear and software that allows for the autonomous generation of sounds. As well as the standard version, Reflection also comes in "premium generative" editions. Core elements and sets of parameters fed in by Eno can be randomly recombined ad infinitum by a set of algorithms - a considerably gussied-up version of a Buddha machine, if you like.

Reflection also - inevitably - throws up a set of reflections. The idea of authorship is a vexed question at the best of times, what with the death of the author, and the collaborative nature of vast amounts of art and cultural products. Pop routinely comes under fire for being written "by committee". But if an algorithm composed this music, is Brian Eno the author of it?

Geeks have long thrilled to the idea of computer-generated music; in Japan, they already have a virtual pop star called Hatsune Miku. Music analysis software exists that can predict hits with increasing accuracy, and Google Labs have an ersatz neural network up and running that can make convincing music. Along with all the other careers currently being destroyed by automation, it looks like that most notionally human of all - music - is under threat. If you're feeling paranoid as 2017 begins, the vast rippling peace of this album can suddenly take on a slightly sinister bent.