Pitchfork JULY 5, 2011 - by Brian Howe


Who's your Brian Eno? The art-pop savant of Here Come The Warm Jets? The ambient theorist of Discreet Music? The prog-jazz dabbler of Nerve Net? Or the film music composer of Small Craft On A Milk Sea? Maybe you think of him mainly as a virtuoso technician, an innovative pop producer, a prodigious collaborator, or a visionary mixed-media artist. His broad range of talents and activities makes getting your head around his catalogue about as plausible as giving him a haircut, and it's natural for us to establish our own versions of what his baseline aesthetic is. Whoever the "real" Eno is to you, he's bound to show up at least once on his second LP for Warp Records, a mercilessly erratic collaboration with the poet Rick Holland.

You could say with only slight hyperbole that Eno's signing to Warp last year was like The Beatles joining Elephant 6. The British label's eclectic roster - Broadcast's cerebral electronic pop, Autechre's ascetic IDM, Boards of Canada's synthetic naturalism, Aphex Twin's ambient techno - could reasonably be called the Eno Diaspora. Small Craft On A Milk Sea, a collaboration with Leo Abrahams and Jon Hopkins, was oriented around music composed for (and rejected from) Peter Jackson's film The Lovely Bones, but with its jungle breakbeats, ambient drones, and computer glitches, it sounded like Eno refracting Warp's own history. In other words: Eno making music influenced by Eno.

Drums Between The Bells retains many qualities of Small Craft On A Milk Sea, including propeller-like live percussion and mildly dated whiffs of trip-hop and downtempo. The big difference is that the music is built around Holland's words, read by a number of different speakers. As it doesn't rely on the ironic voice and language games of modern fashion, Holland's richly imagistic poetry is well-suited to the project. The music around it is scattershot, but not random: Each song is designed to complement the poem at its center. Still, the record has a rather unnerving pace, overpowering and retiring in quick alternation. Bless This Space opens things inauspiciously with an electronic jazz fusion setting, which is about the most unsympathetic environment for a poet imaginable. Glitch is musically livelier, with a mightily abrasive climax, but the HAL-like vocal treatment flattens Holland's poem into numbingly literal sci-fi boilerplate.

Then, abruptly, a suite of meltingly lovely tracks arrives and does real service to Holland's poetry. The arctic pianos that encircle a crisp female voice on Dreambirds recall Eno's prior work with Harold Budd, just as the liquid guitar of Pour It Out recalls the lighter side of the Fripp collaborations. Despite its dystopian tendencies, Holland's writing has a plain-hearted tenderness that female voices seem to draw out more subtly than male ones. On these two tracks, as well as Seedpods and The Real, Eno reacts to the female voice with great sensitivity. The result is like a gentler companion to Laurie Anderson's Homeland: no ironclad beats hammering down on the words, but a gossamer web cradling them with all due reverence. The oracular hush fits Holland much better than stentorian force.

Even when Drums Between The Bells dips into sketchy territory - the reggae-styled Dow, for example - it's hard not to be intrigued by Eno's command of sonic texture, weight, and spatial dimensions. Nothing feels vaguely formed. With the ability to realise microscopically precise details and effects, he makes the reconciliation of extremes feel inevitable: A river of industrial slag might flow into saucy jazz horns; funk riffs might level out into a thick krautrock haze. We can count on these kinds of pleasures even from a so-so Eno record, and Drums Between The Bells is better than so-so. The problem with it, beyond a handful of unflattering genre excursions, is a slight but persistent thinness of imagination. The concrete music of Fierce Aisles Of Light conjures the feel of being on a train with impeccable accuracy, but it's a pat setting for lyrics where trains feature prominently. When a minute of silence, called Silence, appears near the end of the record, it's hard not to feel as though you're in the presence of an incredible talent casting about for the next big idea, casually producing minor wonders in the meantime.