The Silent Ballet DECEMBER 19, 2010 - by Jeremy Bye


Expectations were high when Warp Records announced they were releasing a new Brian Eno album. Excited emails and texts were sent amongst fans - the basic premise being 'this is a marriage made in heaven'. Warp have quite the reputation when it comes to experimental and electronic releases. They have Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards Of Canada on the books, for starters - and even if there is a school of thought which suggests that they've lost a little of what made them special (bands with guitars, no less! and in the charts!), the soul of the label is still close to where it was back in the Artificial Intelligence days. When Steve Beckett was offered a hypothetical unlimited budget for Warp in the Labels Unlimited book, he picked Eno as one of the artists he would like to release - although on closer inspection it is the back catalogue, not new material that he was after. (For the record, that would be alongside the works of Can, Neu!, Fela Kuti and Steve Reich.) Given Eno's influence on a sizeable chunk of Warp's roster, and the likelihood that it isn't just the boss at the label who is well disposed to releasing a Brian Eno album, getting the two parties together for Small Craft On A Milk Sea makes perfect sense.

It is easy to get carried away at this stage, what with Warp's high standard of releases and Eno's reputation, with the thought that the anticipated album would somehow be the key text in the future of music. After all, if the Godfather of Ambient (who also had a hand in defining post-punk, creating the sampling culture and reinventing stadium rock) didn't have a groundbreaking masterpiece in the wings, why would Warp bother with it? And why make a £250 limited edition box if it wasn't Art? This train of thought can only lead in one direction - and the greater the hope, the more brutal the let down.

Saner heads should prevail at this point. It has been a long time since Eno made anything like a great album, and for many years his work has bobbed either side of 'average'. His collaboration with David Byrne, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, was described on this very site as 'potentially disappointing music' - take away the vocals and there's nothing of interest underneath. Before that was the vocal album Another Day On Earth, which was an unmemorable set of tunes, and before that was the lightweight, insipid The Drop, which is arguably the weakest album of Eno's long career. The biggest let down with The Drop was that it was full of half-finished sketches whilst around that time Eno was producing some interesting (and limited) CD-Rs of his installation work. These were extracts of random music created by playing twelve CD players on continual repeat in a room and picking out a representative forty-five minutes. Given that this method of working could result in an effectively infinite piece, this was a continuation of Eno's search for generative music, which had occupied him occasionally over the years.

The idea of creating random works and infinite pieces has been a passion of Eno's since Discreet Music. The installations of the mid-'90s turned his head to an alarming degree, finding logical fruition in the Long Now project. Sure, you can buy 77 Million Paintings, or visit it as an installation, and you can install Bloom on your iPhone and happily create your own infinite ambient work - but does this democracy of art actually work in effect? Rather than mess around with the plinks and plonks of Bloom, why not download the Buddha Machine software and let the phone lull its owner with some thoughtfully selected loops. And would you prefer to have seventy-seven million fairly dull abstract paintings or one really good piece of art to hang on your wall? Having talked about these ideas for years, technology caught up with Eno, allowing him to put his ideas into (affordable, accessible) practice, and it has - perhaps - resulted in him resting on his laurels, his goals achieved. But no matter how many possibilities of painting or music can be created in this form, by working from a limited palette in the first place the results are all going to look, sound and feel a bit samey.

If one thinks of Eno, it's of a sonic adventurer, playing with comparatively rudimentary technology to produce some truly outstanding moments. It's the opening of Sky Saw with John Cale and Phil Collins teaming up for an attention grabbing assault. Or it's the ghostly choral organ of An Ending (Ascent). Or it's the inventive internal rhymes and word play of King's Lead Hat or The Roil, The Choke. It might be taking a rock band and treating them like an instrument - from Roxy Music to Talking Heads, from U2 to James - all collaborations that lead to interesting sideprojects. Nowadays, however, to think of Brian Eno is to think of him as the Youth Affairs advisor to the Liberal Democrats and a Dido and Coldplay producer - and as catchy as Viva La Vida is, that's not a pretty mental image. Without wishing to go on a political rant the LibDems, for all their laudable rhetoric, turned out to be little more than a collection of politicians who, as it happened, were quite happy to sell out their principles if it would get them within sniffing distance of power. They were the party who in theory held the middle ground in British politics but when push came to shove became little more than spineless followers of the Tory right. As most readers will be aware, Coldplay is a deeply average band that caught the popular imagination thanks to a few piano hooks and some vague aspirational lyrics that crowds could sing along to without worrying about what it actually meant. An Eno apologist could make noises about him changing the system from within but frankly that doesn't wash. He used to be provocative and challenging as a (non-)musician and producer, but whilst he can still talk a good game, Eno has, like his political party and his recent studio charges, settled for the easy options.

It is the easy option that he's gone for on Small Craft On A Milk Sea, a collaboration with keyboard player and ambient artist Jon Hopkins and guitarist Leo Abrahams. Eno himself is created with 'computer', from which one can guess that a track like Complex Heaven is virtually all Hopkins and Abrahams. It is a pretty little vignette in the style of the Eno / Harold Budd albums, all delicate piano and restrained atmospherics, but the impression is that on this track (and several like it) the two younger musicians paying tribute to Eno's earlier work, and being indulged. There are effectively three styles on Small Craft On A Milk Sea - the aforementioned The Plateaux Of Mirror-style tracks sit alongside Music For Films-esque miniatures (atmosphere, percussive beats and Frippy guitar on Paleosonic). The third approach is the heavier, almost industrial sound of 2 Forms Of Anger, featuring the percussion of Jez Wiles. At first the sound is a surprise, but as there is little development, what was a shock soon becomes mundane even within its three minute playing time. This is a problem that Eno, Hopkins and Abrahams don't seem willing or able to overcome - as short as the pieces are, the first fifteen seconds are much the same as the final fifteen. Even the closing Late Anthropocene, which at eight minutes is by some way the longest track here, putters around, and the variations and incidentals that are being played over the basic atmospheric drone fail to make any impression.

It is unfair to compare this decade's Eno with the 1970/80s version - artists change and evolve and at some point, even the most innovative tend to settle into an area of comfort. Small Craft On A Milk Sea suffers in comparison to records Eno released back then but, to be fair, most other albums (across the history of recorded music) do, and it can't be easy having the likes of Another Green World and Music For Airports lurking in the back catalogue, always ready to be judged against. However, even in comparison with '90s Eno, the output of the past ten years has seen a decline, aided only by the unique selling points attached to them - Eno sings! Eno is back with Byrne! Eno's on Warp! - to raise their profile. This album was launched with a series of seven new tracks improvised for the cameras, which use the same techniques on the album proper and are no better or worse than the included tracks, which is too depressing a situation to consider for long. Had this been an album by anyone else, it's unlikely Warp would have given them the time of day, and if this was billed as Hopkins and Abrahams collaboration - even with Eno as producer - it would have probably slipped past in the slew of ambient albums that are released every week. Lacking any real imagination, creativity or spark, Small Craft On A Milk Sea deserves to sink without trace.