INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Pitchfork JANUARY 4, 2017 - by Andy Beta
BRIAN ENO: REFLECTION
Eno's new ambient piece readily slots along works like the dreamlike Thursday Afternoon and 2012's stately Lux. It feels the most pensive of his ambient works, flowing across fifty-four unbroken minutes.
Ambient music is a funny thing. As innocuous as it may seem on the surface, it can often be seen as an intrusion, an irritant. Muzak annoyed as many people as it mellowed, to the point where Ted Nugent tried to buy the company just to shutter it. When Brian Eno teamed with guitarist Robert Fripp (planting the seeds that would lead to his epochal Ambient series), the duo played a concert in Paris in May of 1975 that eschewed their Roxy Music and King Crimson fame and was subsequently met with catcalls, whistles, walkouts and a near-riot.
Forty years later, Eno's ambient works have drifted from misunderstood bane to canonical works. Eno's long career has taken him from glam-rock demiurge to the upper stratospheres of stadium rock, from the gutters of no wave to the unclassifiable terrains of Another Green World, but every few years he gets pulled back into ambient's creative orbit. And while last year's entry The Ship suggested a new wrinkle, wherein Eno's art songs inhabited and wandered the space of his ambient work like a viewer in an art gallery, Reflection retreats from that hybrid and more readily slots along works like the dreamlike Thursday Afternoon and 2012's stately Lux.
Like those aforementioned albums, Reflection is a generative piece. Eno approaches it less like an capital-A Artist, exerting his will and ego on the music, and more like a scientist conducting an experiment. He establishes a set of rules, puts a few variables into motion and then logs the results. Reflection opens with a brief melodic figure and slowly evolves from there over the course of one fifty-four-minute piece. It's not unlike the opening notes of Music For Airports' 1/1, with Robert Wyatt's piano replaced by what might be a xylophone resonating from underwater. Each note acts like a pebble dropped into a pond, sending out ever widening ripples that slowly decay, but not before certain tones linger and swell until they more closely resemble drones. Listen closer and certain small frequencies emerge and flutter higher like down feathers in a draft.
Around the eighteen-minute mark, one of those wafting frequencies increases in mass and the piece turns shrill for an instant before re-settling. Another brief blip occurs a half-hour in, like a siren on a distant horizon. Between these moments, the interplay of tones is sublime, reminiscent at times of famous jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson's weightless solos, time-stretched until they seem to be emanating from the moon rather than the earth. As smooth and unperturbed as Eno's ambient pieces tend to be, these small events feel seismic in scale, even if they are short-lived.
Scale becomes the operative word for Reflection. While the physical editions of the album last just under an hour, Eno conceived of the piece to be the most realized version of his ambient music yet, one without parameters or end. Around fifty-one minutes in, the music starts to slowly recede from our ears, gradually returning to silence. But there's a version of the piece for Apple TV and iOS that presents a visual component as well as a sonic version of Reflection that's ever-changing and endless. As the lengthy press release the accompanied the album noted: "This music would unfold differently all the time - 'like sitting by a river': it's always the same river, but it's always changing." In this instance, reviewing the actual album feels like taking measure of that river from a ship window; you can sense more changes occurring just beyond its borders.
Eno's ambient albums have never seemed utilitarian in the way of many other ambient and new age works, but naming the album Reflection indicates that he sees this as a functional release, in some manner. Eno himself calls it an album that "seems to create a psychological space that encourages internal conversation." It feels the most pensive of his ambient works, darker than Thursday Afternoon. Playing it back while on holiday, it seemed to add a bit more gray clouds to otherwise sunny days. Maybe that's just an aftereffect of looking back on the previous calendar year and perceiving a great amount of darkness, or else looking forward to 2017 and feeling full of dread at what's still to come.