The Scotsman JULY 5, 2011 - by David Pollock


To assess your likely reaction to this latest odyssey from seminal production mastermind Brian Eno, ask yourself what your reaction to visiting a contemporary art gallery might be. Would you open their mind to the possible intention and perceived meaning of the work? Or would you be more likely to mutter bitterly about pretension and five-year-olds who could do better? If it's the latter, perhaps you might want to give this record a miss. It's not pretentious - it really is as intelligent as it thinks it is - but Lady Gaga it ain't.

Drums Between The Bells is Eno's second album on seminal contemporary electronica label Warp after last year's Small Craft On A Milk Sea, made with Jon Hopkins and Leo Abrahams. This record is also a collaboration, this time with poet Rick Holland, whom Eno met at the Royal College of Art in the late 1990s and started working with in 2003. It's the first work of theirs to be made public, all brand new pieces recorded in the aftermath of Small Craft On A Milk Sea.

The album is a conflation of Eno's music, Holland's words and, on occasion, both men's voices, yet so much more besides. It's a meditation on what lyricism and vocal performance actually is, with guests hand-chosen by Eno for their "distinctive vocal personalities".

These include his book-keeper, a woman who works at the health club he attends, a woman he met on the street and the assistant in his local shop. Although they all perform in English, the majority are not of British origin, with Eno drawn in each case to their unique delivery and intonation.

Eno's is the first voice we hear, however, on the opening Bless This Space (perhaps the uncapitalised titles are an affectation too far).

Over a tremulous, repetitive bed of electronics and the chopped-up, jazz-timed drums of Seb Rochford, he invokes and accentuates each word as if it has a punctuation mark of its own. "Bless. This. Space. In. Sound. And. Rhyme," he begins, sounding almost as if he's praying for the safe arrival of his ideas in fifteen tracks' time.

It's a somewhat tentative opener, rather self-consciously drawing our attention to the words and away from the music, and then undermining that message with a wailing, exaggerated guitar solo from Abrahams.

More immediate both as a song and as a fusion of voice and instrumentation is the following Glitch, a rattle of digital data set against a warm, utterly synthetic keyboard backing. "Cells out on the great grid / numbers growing numbers / working ants, quantum fires," intones Grazyna Goworek, humanity almost processed from the voice but with Polish accent still crisply audible. It's like Kraftwerk with the primitivism stripped out, the new globalist machine they pre-dated working with perfect efficiency.

Eno's press statement emphasises his interest in "speech-song" regarding the album, describing research which touched upon the Shangri-La's Leader Of The Pack, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and hip-hop itself. This is gorgeously realised throughout, and the voices chosen by Eno are rich in aural beauty and recorded with an almost transcendent clarity. Caroline Wildi, who appears early on the album in Dreambirds and Seedpods, has the alluring and actorly intonation of Zoe Wanamaker. Laura Spagnuolo speaks the words of Pour It Out with a wonderfully unhurried Mediterranean lilt over a tender, repeating piano figure.

The Real features one of Holland's most effective lyrical arrangements, as Elisha Mudly - soft and neutral of voice - describes "seeing the real in things / really seeing the real / describing the exact actuality / of what it is you see" over an ambient background.

Her voice will become more robotic, more artificial, her words jumbled: "The things you see / is the real in things / what you see is what seems." The humanity of these words and this music is, we are reminded, just raw material on its creators' production line.

This sense of futurist foreboding is emphasised by the rich, doom-laden sci-fi of The Airman and the menacing steam train hiss of Fierce Aisles Of Light, its three-vocal evocation of the dull global transfer of freight ("commercial / grey / suit / freight", "capital to docks / docks to capital") given the fearsome resonance of the concentration camp voyage. War, dehumanisation and the grind of social machinery are never far from the surface here, although hope builds in the album's second half.

"Life doesn't start with a title," asserts Wildi at the beginning of the upbeat A Title, and Eno's agreeably retro-futurist pillaging of electronic music's history is best evidenced in Sounds Alien and Multimedia, both ringers for the Prodigy and Tricky respectively, but with these references subsumed by both the purpose of the album and Eno's formidable compositional ability.

When Eno's voice finally returns for the closing diptych of Cloud 4 and Breath Of Crows it's with an almost spiritual tone to his words, as if this extended meditation on sound has led him to see the god at the heart of the machine. Yet what's placed between these two tracks is just as important - a programmed period of silence, as if to emphasise that we should strive to keep listening when we're exposed to sound, or when we're exposed to the absence of it.