Skyscraper MARCH 29, 2011 - by Doug Simpson


Brian Eno's newest musical venture, the forty-eight-minute, fifteen-track instrumental outing Small Craft On A Milk Sea, is more than it appears. On the album's gossamer surface it seems like another in a long line of ambient/electronic forays that Eno's released over many influential decades. But like any Eno excursion, there is more than meets the ear.

First, there are the philosophical ideas permeating this and preceding Eno enterprises. In other words, this is music that acts like a soundtrack for unrealised cinema: evocative tunes lending themselves to an unresolved conversation with listeners in a two-way creative fold that envelope not only what's heard, but what might be visually, organically and intrinsically imagined. Secondly, Small Craft On A Milk Sea is not altogether a standalone selection of digital pieces. Like other Eno works, such as the 77 Million Paintings multimedia platform or the Bloom, Trope and Air iPhone applications, this is music tied to other performances, other media, and other types of art. Thirdly, the music - which ranges from luminescent ambient to defiant post-rock to percussive techno - was not formed in a vacuum just for this release. The pieces originate from disparate sources over a span of time and edited into a flowing whole.

This time around, Eno's aural sphere revolves around a trio. He shares composition, performance, and inspiration with collaborators Jon Hopkins (piano, keyboards, and electronics) and Leo Abrahams (guitar, laptop, and the unique guitaret, a rare thumb piano-like electronic instrument given to him by Eno). Jez Wiles also adds percussion to four cuts. Five tracks resulted from studio sessions in spring 2010 for Peter Jackson's film The Lovely Bones, but were later rejected by the filmmaker. Some sections were taped in 2009/2010 when Abrahams worked on a solo project and played with Eno and David Byrne on stage. But as with most of Eno's multi-level undertakings, everything was copiously edited and sequenced into the end product.

Small Craft On A Milk Sea can be split into two categories: the untroubled atmospheric moments and the distressed, challenging segments - ambient and provocative for want of a better description. Opener Emerald And Lime makes an optimistic impression akin to what Eno accomplished with his 1983 experiment Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. Placid keyboards generate an otherworldly melody while a melodica (or the digital equivalent) provides higher-register harmonies. Another similar creation is Complex Heaven, which features a deliberately repetitive chord development partially performed on Abrahams' reverb-steeped electric guitar. A synth drone and a few frictional echoes ride beneath, which support a dim shade of unpleasant portent. The sensation of subtle tension slowly uncoiling is mirrored on the brief title track, masked by a muffled and melancholy melody.

With his quieter pieces, Eno appears intent on relaxing his audience, but that proves to be a subterfuge, as several notable songs illustrate Eno's desire to provoke and possibly perturb listeners who may foolishly drift along with ambient currents. The first upheaval arrives with Flint March, which is filled with foreboding, accentuated by a thumping rhythm and air raid-styled synth. It's followed by two more violent excursions. Horse is an agitated blend of scratching, snarling guitar, quivering percussive effects, and an epicentre of quaking electro-beats. Those two tunes are just a wake-up call, though, prior to the hammering 2 Forms Of Anger, which builds from a low tempo to an inexorable ending saturated by driving guitar feedback and pummelling percussion that resembles the kind of noise-drone perpetrated by Steel Pole Bath Tub and like-minded 1990s groups.

The competing elements of active and ambient may be too much for Eno fans. One cadre probably yearns for a complete return to the detached beauty or underlying romanticism of panoramic endeavours such as Ambient 4: On Land (EG, 1982), while others may feel abandoned by the lack of the conventional song-craft pervading Eno's last record, Another Day On Earth (Hannibal, 2005) or his early efforts such as Here Come The Warm Jets (Island, 1974). But, to repeat the evident, there's more here than meets the ear. Eno specifically arranged and ordered Small Craft On A Milk Sea as an exploratory macro-composition which contains themes and other parts that run throughout the entire proceeding.

The Warp label and Eno make a good pairing. For two decades, the pioneering English label has discovered or nurtured many significant electronic artists, from Nightmares On Wax to Aphex Twin. With this relationship struck, Eno's future activity will hopefully receive the same sort of advertising and marketing given to Small Craft On A Milk Sea, which comes in a lavish, fold-out digi-pak and was also offered in deluxe editions that sold out quickly.