The Oregonian NOVEMBER 30, 2004 - by Marty Hughley


Three decades later, Brian Eno has left ambient music firmly in the background.

One evening in January 1975, Brian Eno, a founding member of Roxy Music and a minor rock star in his own right, walked into the path of a taxi. The taxi hit him, knocking his head back against a parked car.

During his convalescence, a friend left him an album of 18th-century harp music. Alone, Eno struggled out of bed, put on the record, then laid down again. But there were problems. The amplifier was set to a very low volume. And only one channel of the stereo was in working order - the signal in the speaker farthest from him. He was too weak to get up and fix things.

So what he heard was something he has likened to icebergs: little clusters of notes - the loudest points of the music, now rendered soft - rising faintly above the sound of rain through his windows, then drifting away.

And I started hearing this record as if I'd never heard music before, he later told the New Musical Express. The music seemed not a performance so much as an element of the environment, an atmosphere. An ambience.

A couple of months later, a recovered Eno, newly inspired, set up a recording system: a synthesizer, graphic equalizer, echo unit and two reel tape machines configured so the signals would loop around, repeating and layering themselves. The music he was making - gentle, languid, soothing - was meant to suit both listening and ignoring, to serve as either foreground or background music.

The result of this was Eno's 1975 album Discreet Music, and the seed of ambient music as a pop genre had been planted. Next came 1978's Music For Airports, which gave the genre its name and on which the music began to sound less process-derived and more organic.

Four of Eno's pioneering ambient albums - Discreet Music, Music For Airports, 1980's Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (with minimalist pianist Harold Budd) and 1982's Ambient 4: On Land - were re-issued last month in carefully remastered versions on the Astralwerks label.

The ambient music concept recalled Erik Satie's idea of furniture music and the work of experimental composers such as La Monte Young. But Eno's albums were the crystallizing of a new direction for his - and popular - music.

Eventually Eno's approach, adopted and adapted in innumerable ways by other artists, would become one of popular music's transformative aesthetics - the thrill of the nonlinear, the valuing of background and texture, the elevation of mood music into art.

Eno's ambient ideas would in time seep out in the better corners of New Age music, in electronic sub-genres from trip-hop to chill out, in the classic David Bowie albums Low and "Heroes" (on which Eno collaborated) and in the subtle washes of background sound that added depth to some of the classic work of U2 (which has enlisted Eno periodically as producer).

Unlike so many reissues, there's been no attempt to gild the lily with extra tracks or outtakes or the like - these four albums are so perfectly conceived and formed that alteration would be apostasy.

But having fresh editions on the shelves is a reminder of just how important a figure Eno, now 56, has been in the past 30 years of popular music, an influence far out of proportion to his modest record sales and profile. When the magazine Prospect made a list of Britain's top 100 public intellectuals, Eno was the only figure from the pop music realm to be included.

Pre-Ambient Experiments

While the long view of music history likely will judge his ambient albums his most significant innovation, it's not his only legacy. There's a strong case to be made for another side of Eno's creativity. Also recently reissued by Astralwerks, his mid-'70s, post-Roxy rock records - Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World and Before And After Science - are a treasure trove of delightfully audacious experimentation.

Eno already had shown his originality during his brief stint with Roxy: At a time when everyone else treated the synthesizer as merely a souped-up organ, his wildly swooping, diving solo in Editions Of You was just one clear sign of how effectively he could dispense with tired orthodoxy.

At this point in his career, he referred to himself as a non-musician, to make a point of his objection to virtuosity as an end in itself, and his own albums made a boon of his technical limitations. His melodies are simple but memorable, and they are juxtaposed in ingenious ways. His open-ended harmonies, unusual foreground-to-background relationships and overall fascination with sound texture provide endless points of interest.

Though Warm Jets is halting and abrasive, the other albums still sound as fresh as anything being made today. There's a combination of arch wit and veiled menace to such tunes as The Fat Lady Of Limbourg and Backwater that creates a durable, pleasurable tension. Eno has commented that the problem with much New Age music is a lack of menace; the uneasy undercurrents of his On Land show just how much interest that subtle element can add, even in quiet soundscapes.

And there's great variety here: airy abstractions (Energy Fools The Magician), twisted lullabies (Put A Straw Under Baby), torrents of phonetically playful non sequiturs and nonsense (Third Uncle, Kurt's Rejoinder) and brittle funk (No One Receiving) that presages his work with Talking Heads.

You can also hear Eno moving toward his ambient breakthrough and adapting its becalmed air and avant-garde rigor to pop form - particularly in the latter half of Science, in which the songs become like tone poems frozen in a sort of quizzical detachment.

Thanks to Brian Eno, we can all have these lovely epiphanies without getting hit by a taxi.